Synagogue Government Part III

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Apart from the franchise, the rights of an elector were honors in the synagogue, the use 
of synagogue officials at weddings and funerals and the right to a sepulcher at his death or at the death of his wife or any minor of his family. At Shearith Israel, no real distinction 
was made between an elector and a seat holder in the matter of sepulture; at other synagogues the seat holder had to pay a fee for "breaking ground" at the cemetery.

 Shearith Israel seems, in this, to have continued its original understanding that its cemeteries were for the use of all who were associated with the synagogue. Here as elsewhere, those who were neither seat holders nor electors had to pay a special fee for burial privileges.

Practically all New York synagogues distinguished sharply between electors and non-electors with regard to honors in the synagogue. Such obligatory honors (hiyuvim) as that of the bridegroom on the Sabbath before his marriage and that of the mourner on the anniversary of the death he mourned were the privilege of electors. Occasionally, such an honor might be granted by the president to a seat holder or a stranger, but never as a matter of right. Strangers were usually defined as those who were passing through or visiting New York, or who had not lived six months in the city. After six months, one was expected to purchase a seat
in a synagogue.

The use of synagogue officials, such as the reader and the sexton, was, for the most part, given free of charge to electors and seat holders alike. Several synagogues, however, among them Anshe Chesed, charged each group a different wedding fee. In one other financial respect, no differentiation was made, fines for disturbing worship were levied on all with impartiality, as the need arose.

Occasionally, particularly when new places of worship came into being, New York congregations were faced with the problem of electors in more than one synagogue. Some electors desired to worship in a place near their home and yet wanted to keep their prior affiliation for social or sepulchral reasons. All synagogues frowned on this practice and virtually prohibited it by withdrawing the franchise from such people. There were other reasons, besides this, for losing the franchise. Electors whose financial obligations to the synagogue remained unpaid for six months or more lost their membership; those who claimed inability to pay were always
given an extension of time. An elector who left town for a year lost his franchise because the state law required attendance of a year prior to voting. When an elector resigned or dropped his membership, but still owned seats in the synagogue, his account was not considered closed until the seats were purchased by a person acceptable to the congregation as an elector.

Thus we see that membership in the synagogue carried with it financial obligations for which the member was compensated by rights of two kinds: he gained certain religious prerogatives, and, at the same time, became a participant in the organizational life of the congregation. His membership had both spiritual and temporal implications; by being accepted into a religious body, he acquired a position in a businesslike corporation. We now turn to the governing officials of that corporation.

In discussing the rights and duties of synagogue membership, we pointed out the limitations of democracy in the government of the synagogue. Inevitably, this question will enter our discussion to an even greater degree as we concern ourselves with the methods of selecting synagogue officials and with the functions and obligations of these officials. Nor will it seem strange that, during the colonial period, there was little trace of popular sovereignty in the synagogue. At a time when the Mayor of New York City and the Governor of the Colony of New York were appointive officials, we might expect to find the same pattern followed by the Jews in their management of religious affairs.

The earliest history of Shearith israel for which records remain shows distinctly the influence of the Sephardic congregations in continental Europe. The ruling body, called the Junta, or "Assistants," was a self-perpetuating group. Although the very first president (parnass) was named by the electors, his successors and assistants from this time forth were handpicked by the group in office. By 1748, the influence of the Bevis Marks synagogue in London became dominant in the organizational structure of Shearith Israel. This manifested itself in the creation of a body of Elders, on the pattern of Bevis Marks, composed of former members of the Junta. This new ruling body of Elders met with the Junta, received reports on finances and other temporal matters, and made all rules and regulations for the congregation. The Elders also elected the president and the members of the Junta. The electors were now called in only for the election of the reader, the sexton and the Shohet.

In another direction, however, the laws were liberalized at this time, for it became possible to elect as president one who was not an elector, and who became one by virtue of holding office. Such an election was a very rare event; usually the Elders chose the president from among themselves. When the Elders were unable to reach a decision because of irreconcilable disagreement, the whole congregation was called in to decide the question at issue. It is also possible that in this early period the property of the synagogue was under the control of a group of trustees who were entirely dissociated from the president and the Elders.

Suddenly, in 1761, Shearith Israel took a long stride in the direction of the democratic selection of officials. The president and his assistants were elected by the whole congregation. At this time five assistants formed the Junta; later, the number varied. Ten
years later, the new order was scrapped and, for a brief time, the congregation returned to a self-perpetuating group of one president and two assistants. A few months later, the democratic method returned to favor, and five assistants were chosen by the electors; in 1773, the number of assistants rose to seven, and, a year later, it dropped back to five, but the principle of democratic election was retained.

The leaven of democracy was thus at work when most of the Jews left New York to escape the British occupation. How the synagogue was conducted during the Revolutionary War we do not know; Alexander Zunz, a Hessian officer, was president for at least part of this period. When the "exiles" returned, the old system of an elective president and assistants was restored. This continued until the situation was changed by the passage of the state law of 1784 on the incorporation of religious societies, which deeply affected the ruling body of the synagogue.


Website: The History
Article Name: Synagogue Government Part III
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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