Finances vs. Holy Mission |

Shul Politics Are Tough

What should one do when his synagogue is on the brink of shutting down?

Shul politics are tough. A few years back, my synagogue elected a new president. He had been on the board for a few years but quickly ascended the ranks and in a tight race became the leader of our shul during a tough economic and demographic downturn. He did alright. Despite some steep learning curves, he eventually got the hang of leading a group of misanthropic Jews, and people generally liked him – in fact, they even elected him for a second consecutive term.

Then that’s where things got interesting.

You see, one of his “crazier” ideas was that synagogue membership should be a right not a privilege, something that is attainable for every Jew, no matter their social or economic standing. In fact, he even went so far as to propose some pretty radical ideas with regard to reforming the synagogue dues structure. He said, “Maybe we could create a more open synagogue market place; a place where a Jew could look around the neighborhood a bit and decide what they wanted to pay for membership, and not be told by the office to pay exorbitant dues that are subject to rise every few years.”

“Membership should be affordable,” he said, “and it is time to find a way to make every Jew a member of our community.”

“You’re crazy,” they told him. “It will be anarchy,” they said; “and besides, we don’t want just anyone walking in off the street.”

But he was the president, and with some political maneuvering he got the Affordable Dues Act passed by the board of directors.

This past week things got really bad. A faction of the board – one that never wanted this guy as president in the first place – began seeking a way to sabotage the Affordable Dues Act. They called a meeting of the board, and they had enough votes around the table, including the treasurer and chair of the Budget and Finance Committee, to push our shul to the brink of collapse.

“We just can’t go through with this plan,” they told us. “This change will kill us, it will add to our synagogue deficit and it will ensure our financial demise.” “Therefore,” they declared, “unless you agree to withdraw the Affordable Dues Act, we will close the purse strings and shut down the shul.”

“What do you mean shut down the shul?” the others asked.

“Well, aside from certain essential business, from this point forward our synagogue is going to have to close its doors in order to save money.” “For example,” they said, “starting tomorrow morning we will be closing our daily minyan.”

“Close down the minyan?” people gasped, “But we are a shul, how can we survive without a place for people to pray or to say kaddish for their loved ones?”

“Minyan is a non-essential program,” they maintained, “and besides, it will only affect a small number of our members, barely anyone will notice.”

“But creating a prayer community is part of our holy mission!” the others screamed.

“Holy missions don’t pay the bills,” was the cold response.

“What about Shabbat and holidays?” the others asked.

“From this point forward, Shabbat and holidays will be placed on a furlough system. Shabbat services will only take place once every other week, and holidays will have to be cut back: only one day of Sukkot, one night of Hanukkah, one Passover Seder, and, as for Shavuot, well, we’ll just have to cancel that one altogether.”

“This is outrageous!” the others argued, “You are killing our synagogue!”

“Oh don’t pin that on us,” they maintained, “after all, it was your president who got us into this mess!”

The meeting went on for hours into the night with no resolution; in fact it almost came to blows. Finally everyone walked home and no one has spoken for days.

And so, as I sit here in the dark, waiting to say kaddish and wondering if there will ever be a minyan at my shul again, I can’t help but think, ”Shul politics sure are tough.”

Rabbi Joel Seltzer is the director of Camp Ramah in the Poconos, a Jewish Summer Camp experience under the educational auspices of The Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

Iranian Jewish men wearing Tallit shawls and read from the Torah during morning prayers at Youssef Abad synagogue in Tehran on September 30, 2013. Credit: AFP

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