Synagogue Government Part I

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The Jews of New York, in drawing up constitutions and regulations for their synagogues 
and societies, were following a traditional custom. Such laws and regulations for the proper
conduct of Jewish communities had been compiled many centuries earlier in Europe, where the local laws were called by the Hebrew name Takkanot.

In the new world, the Jewish organizations soon modeled their system of communal regulation after the pattern set by the constitutions and by-laws of American societies and institutions.

Thus, each synagogue, soon after its formation, drew up a formal constitution. A special book was usually reserved for this document; the last pages were signed by the members as a promise to uphold these laws and abide by them, and as an indication of membership in the synagogue. These rules were revised from time to time, as changes became necessary; by-laws were added and, occasionally, new editions of the constitutions were produced.

We read in the minutes of Shearith Israel, for example, that such a code of laws was formulated in 1706. There were, undoubtedly, even earlier codes. The code of 1706 was entirely revised in 1728. In the new edition, the administrative, financial and philanthropic
setup was defined in ten articles; an appendix of six articles dealt with the salaried officials of the congregation. While amendments to this code were added from time to time, it was not until sixty-two years later, in 1790, that a new set of rules was drawn up; these were entered into a book to which a later hand gave the title Ancient Law Book. In 1805, the laws of the congregation were again recast. They were divided into two groups, one of organic laws called "Constitution," and the other of laws of lesser importance called "By-Laws." In this edition, the form is like that of other American constitutions, with a division into articles and sections. At the end of the book in which the 1805 laws are recorded can be found the signatures of all the electors, and possibly of all the seat holders, from that year on.

Soon it became customary to print the constitutions and by-laws, not only of the synagogues, but also of many mutual-aid and benevolent societies and lodges of the fraternal orders. Many of these printed constitutions cannot be found today. The earliest constitution of Emanu-El, for example, can be found neither in printed form nor in manuscript, whereas the archives of Bnai Jeshurun, Shaarey Tefilah and Shaarey Zedek contain manuscript copies of their early laws.

A further formality to which, in the course of time, most of the New York congregations adhered was the designing of a seal with which to mark official documents. The earliest such seal in existence is that of Shearith Israel, made in 1797: an earlier seal of which the sources speak is lost. The 1797 seal consists of a central group of three pillars, above which is the beginning of the motto: Haolam omedet (sic!) al (the world is sustained by); this motto is completed by three words: mishpat, zedakah, emet (justice, charity, truth), one of which is inscribed on each pillar. Around the outer edge of the seal is the biblical sentence Veaidah li edim neemanim; and the English inscription: "Congregation of Shearith Israel in New York." The motto was chosen by the Reverend Gershom Seixas and Jacob Hart.

These formalities of government presuppose the existence of both a governing and a governed group. It is the purpose of this chapter to present a summary view of both these groups and of the relationship between them at different times.

In most Jewish communities in early modern times, the common man had no voice in community affairs; political democracy was unknown. This is not to say that the Jews were behind their neighbors in this respect; the absence of democracy in government in the old Jewish community corresponded at all times with conditions existing in the groups among whom the Jews lived. All Jews, regardless of wealth or social standing, were, to be sure, equal before the law. Only the upper classes, the richer Jews, however, had a voice in the management of the community. The upper class paid the highest taxes, and they purchased electoral rights for
themselves and their families. From their own ranks, they chose, sometimes by direct vote, sometimes by lot, those who were to be leaders; the presidents, the wardens, the elders. Below this group were those who paid smaller taxes and who were unable to purchase electoral rights; in the lowest position stood the poor, who could pay no taxes at all. Both of the latter groups were without the franchise. The system of electors and non-electors was introduced into the Shearith Israel congregation at an early date. All who paid a certain sum, first as offerings, later as payment for their seats, were considered as electors; all others remained "seat holders" or "congregators" until they, too, could afford to increase their payments and thus join the voting group. The
president and his assistants were usually chosen from among the electors, who also met to select the reader (hazzan) and the sexton (shammash). Non-electors participated only in the selection of the shohet, probably on the theory that they ought to be consulted on this matter since they had to purchase kosher meat slaughtered by this official.

For over a century this plutocratic division into electors and non-electors existed in New York's only synagogue. As we have seen earlier, however, the Religious Societies Corporation Act of 1784 provided that all who attended an incorporated religious place of worship for one year and who paid the customary dues became electors. When Shearith Israel decided to incorporate under this act, membership at the Jewish synagogue was completely revolutionized. "Sea holders" or "congregators" became a small and shifting group of those who, after one year, were automatically admitted to full electorship, with rights clearly defined by the law
of the state. The synagogue, as a consequence, was democratized. All "seat-holders" were registered the day they began to worship at Shearith Israel. After a year, they signed the constitution and by-law book; from this moment, they had the power to elect trustees and other synagogue officials.

Had the members of Shearith Israel so desired, they could have petitioned the state legislature for permission to retain the old system of electors and non-electors even after incorporation. Such exceptions were made; in 1788, for example, the Reformed Protestant (Dutch) Church had the law amended in its interest in order to permit the minister and elders to elect the trustees of the church. Similarly, the Jewish group might have asked for permission to continue the election of the ruling body by the "Elders." It is to the credit of Shearith Israel that it broke with its ancient traditions in order to allow democracy to enter its portals.



Website: The History
Article Name: Synagogue Government Part I
Researcher/Transcriber Miriam Medina


The Rise of the Jewish Community of New York 1654-1860; by Hyman Bogomolny, Grinstein. Philadelphia, Jewish Publication Society of America 1947, c1945
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