Synagogue Hierarchies

Commentary by Dr. Ursula A. Falk


Synagogues and Temples

Some Observations


There was a time when synagogues were places to pray, to find peace, to meet our religious obligations as Jewish people, to meet our co-religionists, to feel refreshed and renewed.  The synagogue was a place we could shed our weekly worries, where we could pray for our beloved parents who had passed on to their eternity, where we celebrated the holy days and the holidays, where we learned, where we listened and followed the tenets of the Torah, where we could participate and feel proud and comfortable with our Jewishness, our religion, our faith.  It was a place where we felt accepted and appreciated for who we are.

The Rabbi was our leader, our teacher, a man whose godliness shone through his actions, through his knowledge, through his teachings, through his ability to listen, to empathize, to advise and to help.  He was able to assist in solving problems, he knew what was right and what was not. He would do “scheinles” (decide if the flaw of a chicken made it unfit to consume); he assisted in selling chometz (bread products) to non-Jews (he actually helped to pay the real or imaginary recipients to symbolically keep them over the Passover holiday).  He would visit the sick, and comfort the bereaved.  He presided over circumcisions, over bar mitzvahs and much more. He commemorated the meaningful aspects of the human life cycle.  His knowledge was great and his dispensations were just.  He was the human representative  of haschem, godliness surrounded his very being. He was respected and honored by his congregation.

When synagogues became temples life changed. Today's synagogue/temple can be likened to a smaller or larger bureaucracy.  The Rabbi is titular head of the place.  He can be male or female, although the majority of “Rabonim” are as yet of the male gender (although it is changing slowly in the learning institutions).  The potential Rabbi is interviewed by a board of the designated congregation.  He is interviewed by a chosen few of the board.  They look at his background, get references, want to know about his personal and public life, judge him by his looks, his demeanor, what impression he may or may not make.  If they are pleased sufficiently they  will ask him to lead a service .  He appears before the entire board, the would be the “machers and knackers,” the elitists of the congregation.  He must understand children and adults, must be able to cater to all areas of human personality, must accept the salary that is offered, must officiate and attend all important life events, must be able to please outside religionists as well, must be able to do conversions, must be a good speaker, and must if at all possible have lived a moral life (as interpreted by the interviewers).  He must be ecumenical, must be able to teach and to “sing” to the tune of a critical, skewed crew of human beings who have their own agenda of competency, decency or otherwise.  Most of all he must be the Personality Kid.  Underneath his veneer and charming personality he could be a hidden molester, as long as the “important” people in the bureaucracy of the congregation find him pleasing.  The interviewers are most likely “important” people: folks who own businesses, and have money and status of various kinds.  They are not the knowledgeable folks who understand human nature, human relations and people.

The congregants who are the members of the temple/synagogue are sometimes folk who vie for honors.  They disregard the people who are real folk, who need understanding, love and respect, who have ordinary  common human needs.  There are the “rulies;” they dominate and insult others who do not do what they “must.”  They use their rules to inflict pain on those who do not count with these self appointed bosses.  They insult and shame in their ignorance and evil spirit.  They are those who ascertain that no noise must be made by shuffling feet, accidental cell phone noises, not cutting challahs exactly at the right moment, etc.  They will often on a one to one basis use expletives with a member whose kipah accidentally fell off his head.

For the common human there is no friendly greeting at the door, he is not welcomed, he is viewed as vermin  or, even worse, as a nonperson.  There is no camaraderie except for a few cliques or people of money or self appointed bosses who wear big hats, or former stutterers who feel good by denigrating older members of the congregation who do not follow the attacker's edicts and cut the “Motzie” at the wrong end.

Temples unfortunately have turned into hierarchies.  Is it any wonder that the attendance has shrunken, that less and less people want to attend synagogues, that human kindness and understanding, camaraderie, friendship and love has left the holy portals of the houses of prayer, that would be dictators have become the rulers over ordinary truly good human beings, that rabbis must bow to the whims and bosses of the congregation?   Rabbis no longer set the tone of the houses of worship; understanding and love has left and congregational positions have become alternate status symbols for an unfortunate group of questionable people.


Dr. Ursula A. Falk is a psychotherapist in private practice and the author of several books and articles.

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