The Synagogue as Alternative Status System

Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk


My Congregation


The National Opinion Research Council repeatedly asks a random sample of Americans to judge the prestige of American occupations. This is based on the evidence that occupation is the most important factor in assigning social prestige in the United States.

Over many years, physician has been the occupation to which Americans attribute more social honor than any other profession. The second occupation in this array is professor, tied with lawyer. In declining order are occupations which require a college education, and ending with shoe shiner on the bottom.

Occupational prestige is evidently assigned because of all the years of study needed to enter the profession, as well as the freedom from supervision associated with different kinds of work. Hence, doctors, professors, and lawyers who seem to work independently and have much schooling behind them are given high prestige ratings.

Now it is evident that the vast majority of Americans are neither professors nor lawyers nor doctors. It is for this reason that there are numerous voluntary organizations which may be viewed as alternative status systems, in that they provide opportunity to hold an office within the organization, such as president, chairman, trustee, and others. This makes such voluntary organizations substitutes for relative occupational deprivation. This means that some people are anxious to become officers in voluntary organizations so as to compensate for relative deprivation concerning their occupations.

As a result, many voluntary organizations become a self-perpetuating oligarchy. The word oligarchy is Greek and means “rule of the few.” Therefore, many of our synagogues are used by a few members who seize control of the congregation so that they can be officers, committee chairmen, and members of the board. Such offices allow the few self-appointed elitists opportunity to look down upon all the other members, who are not included except to furnish money.

In our synagogues, over 90% of the congregations do not attend weekly services but appear only three days a year on the high holy days and are therefore not interested in the daily activities of the congregation.

There are, however, some members of our Jewish congregations who attend weekly synagogue services because they seek to perpetuate the religion and because they feel impelled to be present at religious services at least once a week. These weekly attendees therefore become the outgroup within the congregation. The elitists view the weekly attendees with contempt. The elites don’t speak to such rabble nor do they include those who come because they truly believe in the announced purposes of the congregation and are not there to hold an office.

One feature of this arrangement is that those who seldom attend even one religious service in the year are nevertheless members of the board, so that they can make all the decisions that pleases them without reference to either the non-attendant 90% or the weekly attendees who seek a religious experience.

The consequences of this tripartite arrangement are that only one half of all Jews are members of any synagogue in this country, and that the vast majority of those who are members do not attend. Another consequence of this common arrangement is that Judaism is discarded in favor of gaining advantages over other members and priding oneself on being important “in shul.” It is of course understandable that prestige hunting defeats the purpose of maintaining a Jewish congregation.

In my own congregation, to which I have belonged for 60 years, these arrangements have led to the expulsion of numerous members during the past eight years. Included among those expelled is a former rabbi who, for reasons never revealed, was suddenly relieved of his position some nine years ago. Thereafter several rabbis came and went until one rabbi remained for eight years, only to leave for Israel a few days ago without intention of returning.

Exceptions to all of this are the Torah true or Chasidic Jews, whose congregations have no officers and who devote their time to the practice of Judaism, disregarding occupational prestige, wealth, or political acumen. Followers of Rabbi Menachem Schneerson may well be the few who will keep Judaism alive in America, even as the majority abandon all that Judaism teaches in favor of marrying non-Jews, relinquishing all Jewish teachings, and raising the children to abandon the heritage of their ancestors.

Shalom u’vracha.

Dr. Gerhard Falk is the author of numerous publications, including The Assault on Democracy (2017).

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