Synagogue Social Structures

Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk



Eight Percent


    The National Opinion Research Center has conducted surveys of American opinion concerning occupational prestige for more than forty years. These surveys reveal that physicians, lawyers, and professors are rated highly by most American respondents, while shoe shiners, laborers, and short order cooks are rated as having the least prestige among the occupations. In the middle of these ratings we find salespeople, clerks, government bureaucrats, small business owners, and numerous others.

     High rated occupations dispense something important to almost everyone. Furthermore, high rated occupations are only available to those with difficult and long formal educations and those who earn more than the average. In addition, autonomy is highly prized, so that high rated occupations include those who are not supervised by some boss but who appear to work at their own discretion.

     All his is true of physicians, who reputedly dispense health and long life, go to medical school and internship for eleven years, and earn at least four times the average American income.

     Lawyers and professors are also rated highly, as lawyers too must attend higher education for many years, while professors, although not believed to earn a great deal of money, dispense college educations considered most important by many Americans.

     Because occupation is the most important means of gaining social prestige in America, there are numerous alternative status systems in this country which give folks who need to improve their self image, an opportunity to improve their standing if, in their judgment, their occupation is not as prestigious as they wish. Therefore, someone with an occupation not generally rated high on the prestige scale can nevertheless be the best bowler in his league, or the most important singer in the congregation's choir, or the most prolific joke teller.

     Many of those who need to boost their self image will run for office among the numerous voluntary organizations which are so common in this country and which include religious organizations. These religious groups, including our congregations, elect boards of directors and officers, such as president, vice president, treasurer, secretary, committee chair, and other honorific positions. Holding such an office satisfies many a low level employee who may not gain much social honor on five working days each week but who can look forward to being “Mr. President” on weekends.

     Among us Jews, the opportunity to enjoy an alternative status is available to congregational politicians who manipulate the congregations of their choice and become chairmen of the board or other important officials. This, then, is the advantage of the alternative status system found in all conservative and reform synagogues.

      There is, however, also a down side to the synagogue status system now in use. This refers to the failure of 92% of the Jewish population to attend weekly Shabbat services. The reason for the poor, eight percent attendance on Shabbat lies precisely in the alternative status system represented by almost all our synagogues. Many a Jew has visited one or more of our congregations only to discover that he was not welcome there. This lack of welcome is the product of the alternative status system any newcomer must endure and recognize. The “bosses” in our congregations are not interested in getting competition from newcomers. Any new member threatens the entrenched elite in each of our congregations. Therefore, no effort is made to recruit new members, while even members of long standing are generally treated like a skunk at a picnic lest they seek an office in the congregational hierarchy.

     This is illustrated by the homosexual congregations which have developed in several American cities. Driven out of “respectable shuls,” homosexuals founded their own congregations, which were however also open to anyone with a heterosexual orientation. Today, a decade after these homosexual congregations were founded, most of them have become heterosexual, because so many Jews have been rejected by the established congregations that the rejects, although not homosexuals, joined where they were accepted.

     Meanwhile, our Jewish congregations have become vehicles for the aggrandizement of those who, every Saturday morning,  need to sit on the platform at the Holy Ark while looking down on the rabble in the pews. Here we have dignitaries who receive recognition from the rabbi and praise from the “machers” in the congregation. Generally ignorant of Judaism or its principles, their only concern is with the office they hold and the prestige this entails. In their haste to “be somebody,” many of these synagogue politicians insult and embarrass other members of the congregation in utter disregard of the teaching that “one ought to jump into a fire rather than to insult another in public” (Talmud, Bava Metziah, 59 a).

     This then explains why 92% of Jews attend religious events only three times a year and why we have shrunk from 3.7% of the American population to only 1.8% today. It is unlikely that this will ever change despite the propaganda in all the web sites of our congregations which claim that we are one family, that the membership is open to all, and that love and kindness reign. No doubt there are such congregations, which I have never found despite my travels throughout this country from Florida to Alaska and from here to California.

Shalom u’vracha.

Dr. Gerhard Falk is the author of numerous publications, including Assassination, Anarchy, & Terrorism (2012).

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