Synagogue Government Part II

  Article Tools

Print This Page

E-mail This Page To A Friend

In the 1820s, however, as we have seen, Shearith Israel changed its liberal interpretation of the state law and ceased the automatic admission of seat holders to membership. The electors in meeting assembled now decided on the admission of seat holders. This interpretation, which was upheld by William Slosson, continued to be the policy of Shearith Israel at least until the end of the period of our inquiry.

 As newer congregations were formed, they were faced with the alternative of following Shearith Israel or of going back tot he old, liberal interpretation. All seem to have taken the practice of the Spanish and Portuguese synagogue as their model; all made it necessary either for the trustees or for the assembled electors to admit the seat holders. Thus, despite the fact that the secession of Bnai Jeshurun was, in part at least, the result of opposition to Shearith Israel's limitation of the franchise, the New York congregations universally accepted the selective rather than the automatic admission of new members.

This limitation had little effect, if any, on the admission of new members. The possibility of the rejection of members remained largely theoretical, for the congregations rarely made objection to the election of new persons. Quite the contrary, all the synagogues were anxious to increase their membership to provide for constantly expanding activities and constantly increasing expenditures. For all practical purposes, no real class of "seat holders" existed. The overwhelming majority of those who had held seats for a year or even less were admitted to membership; this was particularly true of those congregations in which, as in Shearith Israel, membership was primarily a matter of paying a yearly rental for a seat.

A large "seat holding" class might have developed in synagogues like Emanu-El and Anshe Chesed, were seats were sold and purchased outright for considerable sums; the poorer Jews, however, seem to have gravitated to other congregations where only the rental of a seat was required for the attainment of electoral privileges. Thus, electorship was not limited, but the membership of the synagogues tended to become stratified not only with respect to place of origin, but also with respect to ability to spend. Soon the synagogues which required heavy expenditures for membership became what Robert Lyon once termed "closed corporations."

Toward the end of the period of this study, a change occurred which was caused by increasing religious laxity and which produced a new type of worshipper in the New York synagogues. Until the late 1840s, a seat holder was one who rented and used a seat for a whole year and who, as a result, obtained certain privileges; he was on his way to becoming a member or an elector. In the late 1840s and in the 1850s, however, people began to rent seats only for the high holiday period; they attended the synagogue only once or twice in the year; they had no need for the seats beyond Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. This practice was not permitted by Shearith Israel and several other congregations; they refused to rent seats on a temporary basis. Emanu-El, Anshe Chesed, and some others allowed the practice. Needless to say, these temporary seat holders had no rights in the synagogues; but this was not as important as it had been earlier, since sepulchral and other needs were supplied, by this time, by the mutual aid societies and the lodges.

Several of the synagogues required the payment of an admission fee upon election. The sum charged was usually five dollars. Anshe Chesed continued this requirement for a long time. Bnai Jeshurun at one time raised the fee to such heights that a secession took place. Secession was the remedy for all the ills of synagogal practice with respect to membership. A congregation might try to make its taxes and fees burdensome in order to keep certain elements in the state of non-electorship; the result was secession, and the establishment of a new synagogue on a new plan. Unfortunately, the new synagogue, started with so noble a theory, often became exclusive itself; in order that its worshippers might have freedom of action, a new secession followed.

As a rule, in most synagogues, the son of an elector, upon reaching his majority, was admitted to membership automatically without special fees. This was a tradition transplanted from the European communities, where, once a family was domiciled in a given place and had purchased its admission into the community, it had nothing more to do than to pay the necessary taxes. The widow of a member also retained membership in the New York synagogues. Electorship, however, could be acquired only by males; although a single woman could rent a yearly seat in the synagogue, she could not become an elector.

Toward the end of the period of this inquiry, the method of enrollment in a congregation became standardized. A Jew who wished to join a congregation usually first rented a seat; then, after a lapse of time, he applied for membership. Most congregations thereupon appointed a committee to investigate his religious standing; that is, to determine whether he had intermarried or not. In some congregations the name of the proposed member was made known to the membership either in writing or by posting it on the synagogue door. After a favorable report by the committee, either the board of trustees or the whole body of electors voted on
the question of admission.

At stated times, annually or semi-annually, all the synagogues called meetings of their members to elect trustees and synagogue officials, to hear financial reports rendered by the trustees, and to conduct other important business, such as the election of new members and the passage of basic regulations or the amendment of the constitution. At some of the synagogues, these meetings took place during the intervening days of Passover and Sukkot. The general meeting of the members of Shearith Israel shifted from the month of Elul to the month of Iyyar, and was finally placed in July. Bnai Jeshurun, at first, held two meetings: one in Nissan, the other in Heshvan; by 1850, however, this congregation fell in line with the growing practice of holding only one meeting a year, and retained only the Heshvan meeting. Emanu-El held its meeting during April, the month in which the synagogue had been
founded. In addition to these regular meetings, special meetings could be called by the trustees when they considered them necessary or when they were petitioned in writing by a specified number of electors. Raising or lowering the salaries of the synagogue officials was in the hands of the electors, as provided by law; such matters were usually attended to at specially convened meetings. From the end of the eighteenth century these meetings were usually held on Sunday.

The business to be transacted at these meetings was, as a rule, prepared in advance by the trustees. Indeed, these leaders often tried to prevent the consideration of matters to which they had serious objections or which they thought their own province. Clever manipulation on the part of the electors was often employed in an attempt to circumvent the wishes of the board of trustees. In the early days, the reader announced meetings either during or after the service, and the sexton made the rounds of the electors to remind them of the meeting; by the 1840s, some synagogues sent out printed notices of the meetings in addition to the usual
synagogue announcements. At first, voting at the meetings seems to have been viva voce. In 1795 Shearith Israel adopted the ballot for the election of trustees and officials; this served as a precedent, and thereafter all of the synagogues used the ballot in elections. In 1835, the admission of members was voted at Shearith Israel by the use of white and black balls; other synagogues seem not to have adopted this practice.


Website: The History
Article Name: Synagogue Government Part II
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
Time & Date Stamp: