Chicago synagogue culminates pinnacle Yom Kippur service with singing of Israeli anthem

Israel/Palestine
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Earlier this year, a big Reform synagogue north of Chicago, B’nai Jeshoshua Beth Elohim, sent its annual delegation to the Washington conference of the Israel lobby, AIPAC. It looks like about 30 members of the congregation went– and almost all of them are over 40. 

It turns out the nationalism extends beyond lobbying the Congress to support Israel no matter what.

Last fall BJBE livestreamed its Yom Kippur service. Go to 2:04 or so. The “days of awe,” that most solemn period of the Jewish year, are about to end, and the cantor leads the congregation in a song that will never not melt my heart, Eliahu HaNavi, about the prophet Elijah. Listen to the human voices gathering above the simple piano accompaniment. Lovely.

And then a rabbi or other ordained leader says, “page 533,” and the congregation launches into the Hatikva, the Israeli national anthem. And an amusing scene unfolds as one member of the clergy after another, taking the hint from the first one, turns his/her back on the congregation and faces the Israeli flag, alongside the US flag.

Hatikva is followed by America the Beautiful. The clergy turn back to the congregation (as that is not an anthem?).

I make no claim to be religiously observant, but a friend who directed me to this video reminded me that this is a religious pinnacle, the Ne’ilah liturgy, a dramatic proclamation of faith in one God and the distillation of the entire High Holy days. To tag an ode to nationalism on as a coda subverts religious faith and says Adonai may be our God, but the god we really worship is nationalism. My friend notes that there are some moments on the Jewish calendar where at least there is some context for throwing in Israel– such as the Passover Haggadah, ending with the call “Next year in Jerusalem.” But not this.

The other thing about the clip that struck my educated friend as curious was that the clergy faced the flag. Turning around away from the congregation to the Ark is reserved for a couple of key moments in the service, and is understood as turning towards God. So this feels like the flags (US and Israeli) have equal billing to god.

The ceremony reminds me of two political facts about the national Reform Jewish organization: It supported the Iraq war in 2002 (yes, conditionally) and then supported the Gaza onslaught of 08-09. Those affirmations of militarism show how out of step even liberal Jews are with the human rights agenda. And this Yom Kippur service reminds us that support for Israel is a cherished value inside liberal Jewish organizational life.

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