Restructuring the Synagogue

Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk


Kol Yisroel Chaverim


     On Friday, January 18, 2008 I received a phone call at 5:30 a.m. to the effect that Rabbi Charles Shalman had resigned his office at Temple Shaarey Zedek on Thursday evening, January 17. The resignation, I was told, was effective at once so that the congregation was given no advance notice nor an opportunity to find another rabbi.

    This seemed so incongruous to me that I only believed it after I found no rabbi at the temple on Saturday morning, January 19. I was then told what I had already heard from my telephone informant. Evidently , the rabbi resigned at once when he and the president of Shaarey Zedek were informed that the Rabbinical Assembly had been contacted by the husband of a congregant with a complaint that the rabbi had “an inappropriate relationship” with the complainant's wife.

    In  view of accusations concerning Rabbi Shalman stemming from possible similar activities nine years earlier, this further charge of wrongdoing evidently led the rabbi to make a precipitous panic decision. Like all acts not well contemplated, this decision has had negative consequences not only for the rabbi and his family, but also for the congregation.

    While moralists will argue that a rabbi accused of sexual misconduct must be removed, it needs to be understood that neither the board of directors nor the president of the congregation asked the rabbi to resign. He did so of his own accord, prompted by the knowledge that the rabbinical assembly intended to send a delegation to Buffalo to investigate the allegation. Nine years earlier, that same assembly recommended that Rabbi Shalman not continue as a rabbi.

   Now, nearly three months later, Temple Shaarey Zedek still has no rabbi. No “interim rabbi” has been assigned by the Rabbinical Assembly, so that the vacuum left by Rabbi Shalman has now been filled by a minuscule cadre of self appointed elitists and their insidious sycophants to the exclusion of all other congregants.

    The evidence therefore is that it was a gross error on the part of Rabbi Shalman to become entangled in a sexual relationship with a congregant. The error was then compounded by making the congregation the victim of the domestic problems of one family. Calling the Rabbinical Assembly was not only unnecessary, it was destructive, because the R. A. foolishly deprived the congregation of its rabbi and thereby made further attendance at Shabbat services spurious. This is so because Rabbi Shalman is a master pulpit rabbi. His discussion of the Torah reading each week, his involvement of the congregants in the proceedings each Shabbat morning, his homilies and his humor cannot be equaled. Hence, the amateurish efforts of laymen to do the same has failed ipso facto.

     Buffalo has two Conservative congregations. Temple Shaarey Zedek, founded in 1969, and Temple Beth El , the oldest Jewish congregation in Erie County, N.Y. Because both congregations have serious financial problems, a merger of the two congregations will be effected in May of 2008. This merger had been contemplated for some time but was delayed because a number of Beth El members would not consent to the merger as long as Rabbbi Shalman was still employed. With his resignation, the merger has become certain, although some legal formalities need yet to be concluded.

      No doubt, the merger of both congregations into a synagogue of about 700 families will make the financial position of the new congregation stronger than that of the two separate “shuls” now. Nevertheless, the old age of the majority of members, the constant movement of members to the “sun belt”, and the failure of at least one half of all Buffalo Jews to belong to any congregation make the prospects of Jewish life in Buffalo and Erie County doubtful.

      Therefore, the new congregation about to be formed needs to avoid the elitism which plagues most Jewish congregations in both the Conservative and Reform movements. In both of these denominations it is customary to use the congregation as an alternative status system, allowing a few politicians to dominate all activities to the detriment of everyone else. This method of operating our congregations defeats the purpose of having a Beth El, Beth Hamigdosh, a synagogue. It repels potential unaffiliated Jews to see that they are invited to send their money but are otherwise excluded. This is a systemic problem and not one pertaining to any one congregation. From coast to coast, our synagogues allow insidious politicians to ”take over” while the vast majority are left out of all events and congregate activities.

    Therefore, we must abolish such offices as president, vice president, chairman of the board, committee chair, trustee, etc, etc. etc. A Jewish congregation needs to practice equality among its members. Everyone, not only a few politically astute individuals, should be given an opportunity to participate. Such a policy will increase the membership and bring in those many Jews not now affiliated. Inclusion, not exclusion, needs to be practiced by all Jewish congregations.

    For established synagogues this advice can hardly be followed, as the entrenched bosses would never allow anyone to lessen their dominance. However, a new congregation, about to be formed by the proposed merger of Temple Beth El and Temple Shaarey Zedek, has an opportunity to avoid all the mistakes of the past and to promote a spirit of equality and inclusion in the yet to be formed new family of Jews.

    If a rabbi can be found to lead such a congregation then Buffalo and Erie County will yet have a chance of continuing a vigorous Jewish life despite all obstacles which demography has imposed on us.

Shalom u’vracha.

Dr. Gerhard Falk is the author of numerous publications, including Fraud (2007).

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