Israel's Masorti Movement Waves a New Simhat Torah Flag

Controversial design, featuring dancing women and Herzl in a beit midrash, is selling by the thousands.

Courtesy of Tzvi Graetz

At dozens of Conservative (Masorti) synagogues around Israel, congregants celebrating Simhat Torah will be carrying the flag of egalitarianism and pluralism. Literally, that is to say.

A brand new Simhat Torah flag conceived by the Israeli branch of the world Conservative movement offers a fresh take on the traditional scenes depicted on this popular holiday accessory (particularly when topped with an apple): Rather than bearded men dancing with Torah scrolls - the women standing in the background, if present at all - this flag has men and women dancing together with the Torah scrolls, joined by members of other marginalized groups of society.

And it's selling like hotcakes.

Close to 20,000 flags have been sold in the past few weeks leading up to the holiday, which begins next Sunday evening and marks the conclusion of the annual cycle of Torah portion readings and the start of the new cycle. The vast majority of the flags have been shipped out to Conservative congregations outside of Israel. But even in Israel, says Rabbi Tzvi Graetz, the Jerusalem-based executive director of the World Council of Conservative Synagogues, almost 3,500 flags have been ordered by the 70 congregations affiliated with the Masorti movement.

"We started a little late with our campaign," he says, "just about five weeks ago. Within the next year or so, we hope to double the number to 40,000 flags."

Graetz says he was always bothered, even as a child, by the message of exclusion conveyed in the artwork on Simhat Torah flags. "But what finally prompted me to action," he says, "were all these terrible stories we had this year involving discrimination against women."

The new egalitarian flags (which sell for NIS 2 a piece to member congregations and slightly more for non-members) have drawn interest beyond the confines of the Conservative movement, says Graetz. "We have a few Orthodox congregations that notified us they might be interested in purchasing some," he says. "One in Jerusalem wanted 50 and another Orthodox congregation in the Negev wanted 20. I can't provide their names, though, because as you can imagine, this is a delicate issue."

Reform congregations, adds Graetz, have discussed with him the possibility of reprinting the flags without the logo of the Conservative movement.

In addition to women holding and dancing with the Torah, the new flag has one woman (in a pretty short skirt) holding onto a man as he carries a scroll, another dressed in pants and yet another donning a tallit. Among the dancers representing other sectors of society is a woman in a wheelchair carrying a Torah in her lap and a young Ethiopian boy carrying an Israeli flag. "One of the Torah scrolls being carried is a Sephardi Torah," notes Graetz, "and this was also a very important point we wanted to make."

There are also some famous historical faces in the crowd - Theodor Herzl, Moses, and his sister Miriam. "We feel that Zionism and religion go together, and this was a way for us to get across this message," explains Graetz.

Outlining the top and bottom of the picture are flags from various countries meant to symbolize the idea of Jewish peoplehood and unity.

The flag was illustrated by Kfenia Topaz, an artist from the former Soviet Union, based on ideas that emerged following intense consultations Graetz had with rabbis and other leaders of the world Conservative movement. As might be expected, he acknowledges, consensus could not be reached on all issues.

"There are always those who don't like something. Some didn't like the idea of Herzl standing in a Beit Midrash. Others were upset that we didn't have women wearing kippot. Some thought the images were too old-fashioned."

The largest order in Israel for the flags came from Congregation Eshel Avraham in Be'er Sheva, which purchased 350.

Rabbi Mauricio Balter calls the move long overdue. "For us, this reflects the new reality of our community - a community where there is place for men and women to pray together and to dance together with the Torah."

When Graetz sent out the first batch of flags for production, a woman from the printing company called to make sure he hadn't made a mistake. "'Zvika, honey, you sure these are what you want - the men and women dancing together?' she asked me. 'You sure you don't want the proper ones?' So I told her, 'Ronit, honey, there are several million Jews in the world who don't like that flag.' We sold 5,000 flags the first two days, and when we put in an order for another 10,000, there were no more questions from Ronit."