Synagogue Membership

Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk



Synagogues in Decline & the Iron Law of Oligarchy


   Membership in American synagogues has declined to somewhat less than 50% of those who consider themselves Jews. Of these only about 8% attend Saturday morning services on a regular basis; the others come only on High Holy Days, Bat/Mar Mitzvahs, weddings and funerals.

   Therefore, a small clique of self appointed elitists have seized control of our Jewish congregations nationwide. This may be witnessed by anyone who travels regularly across this country and visits our congregations on Saturday morning. With few exceptions, such visitors are not greeted but ordinarily ignored. The reason for this rejection of possible newcomers is that the cliques who boss our congregations are afraid that their status may be threatened by new members or by old members who seek to participate. In short, many of the synagogue bosses who control all aspects of synagogue life have made the “shul” an alternative status system which gives them “power” and influence to the exclusion of other members.

   Seeking to exclude others, boards of trustees and committee “mayvins” insult and humiliate other members. For example, the vice- president of a congregation called another member so revolting a name that it cannot be reproduced here and then told that holocaust survivor that her presence in the synagogue “desecrates my synagogue” as if the vice- president owns the building. This vice-president, born in this country, also told the holocaust survivor that “you desecrate Crystal Night,” i.e. November 9-10, 1938, the night when the Germans burned down every synagogue in that country and murdered thousands of German Jews. The victim of these insults was present at these atrocities and suffered a great deal more thereafter. The synagogue boss who shouted these epithets was not there but may have “heard” about Crystal Night. Suffice it to note that the malicious gossip who insults other members is an officer of the congregation, a favorite of the rabbi, and candidate for the presidency. She is even labeled “very religious” despite her evident failure to adhere to the Talmudic admonition that “a Jew would rather jump into a burning fire than to shame another person in public.” 

       Recently I read a column by a synagogue president in which she complained of the ever increasing difficulty of gathering a quorum, or minyan, of ten Jews at Sabbath services on Friday night or Saturday morning. Evidently, it is even more difficult to attain such an aggregate on weekdays, even for a congregation of more than 600 families.

   Numerous reasons for the failure of the Jewish community to support its synagogues have been advanced over the years. None of these has addressed the principal reason for this situation, namely, oligarchy. That word means “the rule of the few” and refers to a phenomenon sociologists have labeled THE IRON LAW OF OLIGARCHY.

    In all voluntary organizations, a few members generally dominate to the exclusion of the vast majority. This is so because many members cannot or will not participate in the daily activities of the organization so that only a few serve on committees, run fund raising activities, introduce new programs, volunteer their time and their money and maintain the essential services of the organization.

    This arrangement is inevitable and may be positive in that the congregation can continue to exist with the help of the few.

    Unfortunately, these oligarchies generally have a negative effect on the congregations they “serve”. Craving power and influence, the elitists resort to any and all means available to them to keep others out. This has several consequences. The first is financial. Many members, having been ignored, rejected and insulted by the congregation bosses resign or let their contributions lapse. In turn, non-members, having been told by friends and relatives about the rejectionists in our congregations, stay away altogether. This is the main reason for the poor support our congregations get from the Jewish community.

     Additional consequences of this kind of rejectionism is the belief among some Jews, so mistreated in “shul”, that all Jewish life is of this order. This in turn leads to failure to support other Jewish causes such as the United Jewish Appeal.

     There are those who say that the rabbis should intervene and not allow synagogue elitists to insult and humiliate other members. This was possible at one time, when rabbis were held in high esteem for their scholarship and wisdom and their word was a powerful reminder of the duties which one Jew owes another.

     Today, in our secular society, rabbis are no longer scholar/teachers but social directors. Dependent on the most astute synagogue politicians for their own survival, they support even the most malicious congregational bosses for fear of losing their job if they recognize those who are normally kept “at an arm’s length” by the elitists. Fearing “guilt by association”, our rabbis “kow tow” to the elitists and pray for another contract; never mind the majority of the membership.

      These circumstances then explain the lack of support given our religious institutions.

      The solution is simple. Let all members, even holocaust survivors, have access to committees and the so-called “board”. Let it be known that even those who volunteer their time and effort on behalf of the congregation are not therefore entitled to use foul language and insults on other members and above all, do not elect board members and officers. These elections lead to the most abominable politics on the part of those who use the “shul” to enhance their craving for power and social honors. Instead of electing board members, let us follow the dictum of the early Israeli “kibbutzim” who rotated membership in the governing board so that everyone was a board member some time and no one could remain in the government of the “kibbutz” for long.

    Rotation means that once a year anyone whose name comes up in alphabetical order is invited to membership on the board or on committees so that everybody, regardless of income, political acumen or “influence”, gets a chance to participate. Such a rotation insures true democracy, defeats the oligarchy, increases the membership, promotes financial stability and supports the spirit of Judaism so long forgotten among the self-appointed cadre of “padrones” who gradually ruin Judaism in this country.

Shalom u’vracha.

Dr. Gerhard Falk is the author of numerous publications, including The Restoration of Israel (2006).

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