Synagogue Oligarchies

Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk


The Vanishing American Jew

     In 1964, Look Magazine, then a widely read mass circulation publication, ran a cover story called “The Vanishing American Jew.” The magazine predicted that there would be no more Jews in the U.S. fifty years later. Now the 50th anniversary of that prediction has arrived and it is Look which has vanished.

     Nevertheless, we who want American Judaism to continue have reason to consider what has happened to us these fifty years.

     A recent poll undertaken by the Pew research organization found that only 48% of American Jews believe there is a personal God and that fifty percent consider themselves atheists. It is therefore not surprising that only one half of all American Jews are members of a Jewish congregation and that 30% are Reform Jews, a denomination which requires little adherence to Jewish traditions.

     It is also important to remember that only about 15% of synagogue members attend Sabbath services each week, while the other 85% attend only three times a year, i.e. on New Year (Rosh Hashana) and Atonement (Yom Kippur).

     This lack of participation has been discussed for years in the Jewish community as numerous reasons for this abandonment of our ancient religion have been proposed.

     Some argue that the services are too long. Yet Reform attendance is lower than that of Conservative or Orthodox attendance, although Reform services last only an hour. Others have argued that Hebrew is not well known and that therefore many would be congregants cannot follow the readings. This overlooks that Jewish prayer books and the Hebrew Bible contain English translations for anyone to read. There are many who argue that Jewish education is deficient, and that this leads to apostasy. Yet, graduates of Jewish day schools appear to be as uninterested in Jewish tradition as other Jews.

    All these reasons for poor attendance at weekly synagogue services do not deal with reality. Sociology teaches that things are not what they seem. That is true here as well. To understand the failure of American Jews to support the synagogue it is necessary to seek the answer in the synagogue, not elsewhere.

    That leads us to recognize that just about every Reform and Conservative congregation has become an alternative status system. In almost all of these congregations we find that a small clique of self appointed elitists have usurped the synagogue and developed a self perpetuating oligarchy (rule of the few) which will not allow anyone deemed an outsider to participate or to be treated with at least as much dignity as is normally accorded anyone. Fearing that outsiders might have an interest in assuming power in the congregation, the elitists treat all “ordinary” members with disdain and contempt. This consists mainly of refusing to speak to those so stigmatized. The “silent treatment” is of course a gross insult and is the real reason for lack of attendance and a lack of interest in Jewish religious participation. Who wants to go where he is not wanted? Evidently, then, we can solve the problem of absenteeism by taking our teachings seriously. “We have not come into being to hate and to destroy. We have come into being to praise to labor and to love.”

     Indeed, all voluntary organizations tend to become oligarchies, as the German sociologist Robert Michels showed in his famous 1920s study “The Iron Law of Oligarchy.” Michels dealt with political parties. Of course, our congregations are not, or ought not to be, political entities. Elitism does not belong in a Jewish congregation. Equality and a minimum of respect for the feelings of others belong there. That is why any congregation which succeeds in including everyone will undoubtedly grow and grow. Why not try it? It may even lead to the observance of the Torah’s most important commandment: “And you shall walk humbly with your God and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Leviticus 19:20).

Shalom u’vracha.

Dr. Gerhard Falk is the author of numerous publications, including The German Jews in America (2014).

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