Synagogue Administration

Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk


The Organization of American Synagogues


   The Greek word synagogue is derived from syn, meaning together, and agein, meaning to lead. Hence we are led together in a building called Beth El in Hebrew. Beth El means House of God.  Beth Haknesset is also used. This means a house of assembly. Beth Hatefilah means House of Prayer. Any of these designations refers to buildings some congregations call a Temple.

    Most American Jewish congregations are organized like a business corporation. This is universal among Reform and Conservative congregations and is also known among some orthodox (straight belief) congregations, although Torah true congregations usually use a different model.

    The most common synagogue organization therefore includes a board of directors or trustees. These directors elect a chairman of the board and also appoint additional directors to replace those whose term has expired. It is claimed that board members are elected by the membership but this is only de juris. In fact, boards are self perpetuating oligarchies (rule of the few). These oligarchies nominate to the board those whom they favor. Those so nominated always “win” the so called elections to the exclusion of the vast majority of the dues paying members. Indeed, the majority of congregants seldom participate in any synagogue activities unless they attend a Bar/Bat Mtizvah or wedding or funeral or one of the three Holy Day services.

    The board of trustees appoints a president of the congregation as well as a number of vice-presidents, secretaries, treasurers, committee chairmen and usually a paid executive director. The rabbi and cantor are also appointed by the board. Therefore, the board members and particularly the officers of the board use the congregation as an alternative status system and thereby create a small cadre of self appointed elitists.

     The various committees in this kind of organization practice a division of labor which permits the committee members to deal with a variety of functions needed to maintain the congregation. There is usually a religious committee which decides which rituals the rabbi may follow. Then there is a house committee which deals with repairing the roof or removing the snow. There may also be an educational committee that appoints a school principal and supervises the operation of the “Hebrew” school. Numerous other committees may exist, such as a library committee or a special events committee.

     All of these activities facilitate the operation of large congregations. The difficulties that arise from these arrangements are, however, usually dysfunctional, in that they include a number of unanticipated consequences.

     The first of these dysfunctions is that these boards and offices lead to political fighting between contending members, all of whom want to be president, etc. Factionalism and infighting among the various contenders for the presidency or other offices create dissension among the congregants and angry resignations, together with the establishment of more and more small congregations with great economic difficulties but more presidents.

    Another dysfunction of the corporate structure of our congregations is that the poor are left out entirely. Since only wealthy members can promote themselves as candidates for the numerous offices available, the poor are of course left out of the competition. Moreover, the poor are also left out of the religious aspects of congregate life as they cannot afford expensive “Bar\Bat Mitzvahs” or expensive “dues” of $3,000 or expensive Holy Day tickets. Since our synagogues are almost entirely located in wealthy suburbs, the poor cannot attend ipso facto because they lack transportation. Moreover, the poor do not have the clothes or cars generally displayed at “services”. The truth is that poverty is embarrassing and that the poor don’t come to synagogues because they don’t want to face the humiliation associated with lack of resources.

    I cannot forget how I was ejected from a Philadelphia synagogue years ago because I did not have a Holy Day ticket, had poor clothes, no car and a bad German accent. I was also refused food at a Hillel house for the same reasons. It is interesting that those who kicked me when I was poor now remember me all the time when they want my money.

     Another dysfunction of the “corporate synagogue” is that only about 8% of the membership attend once a week Sabbath services. It is customary in our congregations not to greet newcomers or strangers. I have experienced this from coast to coast in that I have traveled from Buffalo to Ohio, the Dakotas, Alaska, California, Florida and many places in between. I have attended synagogues whenever I have been in any of these states and cities on a Saturday and can say that I have never been greeted or even looked at by anyone in any of these congregations..

   The only house of worship in which I was indeed greeted at the door and by the clergy was a Pentecostal Church I visited one time.

   Evidently we don’t greet newcomers who might even be potential members for fear that new members might want to enter the power structure to compete with the numerous officers, chairmen, presidents, and other elitists in the corporate status system. The outcome of these practices is that newcomers and members not part of the powerful minority  feel like a skunk at a picnic when attending a congregational function including Shabbat “services”.

    To avoid all this, there is another kind of synagogue organization. This is practiced among Torah-true Jews who have no congregational board, no committees, no officers and no dues. They come together every day and pray, study, and read Torah under the direction of a rabbi who is the only “officer” present. The Beth Hatefillah is financed by donations, which the congregants give according to ability to pay. No distinctions are made between the wealthy and the poor nor is there any contest as to who is president or chairman, etc., because such “offices” don’t exist.

    The major consequence of the first model is that it is based on the principle of exclusion while the second form of synagogue governance is based on inclusion.

     Over a century ago, the American poet Edwin Markham wrote: “He drew a circle that shut me out - heretic, rebel, a thing to flout; But love and I had the wit to win, We drew a circle that took him in.”

Shalom u’vracha.

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

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