Synagogue Government Part IV

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For, as we have seen, Congregation Shearith Israel decided to incorporate under the 1784 law. After incorporation, the congregation elected six trustees, divided into three classes. The terms of office of these classes expired in successive years, so that a new pair of trustees was elected each year in place of the pair whose service ended. Originally in accordance with the terms of the law which was concerned only with financial affairs and property matters, these trustees were to conduct only "temporalities." The spiritual affairs of the congregation were to be conducted, as of old, by the president and the Junta.

Needless to say, these two governing bodies could not function in harmony. In 1786, a dispute arose over the request of the Hebrah Gemilut Hasadim to have offerings made for it in the synagogue. Both the trustees and the Junta claimed jurisdiction and disagreed in their decisions, one granting the permission requested, the other countermanding the permission. Within a few years, the president and Junta were meeting jointly with the trustees. In 1791, the Junta was abolished; the trustees now chose one of themselves as president, and matters spiritual as well as temporal were placed in their hands. For a time, this board met as "trustees" when conducting general affairs and as "Junta" when attending to religious matters. By 1805, this cumbersome fiction was dropped, and all matters were decided by the board sitting as trustees. Thus it took Shearith Israel twenty years to abolish the last remnants of its old system of government and to readjust the management of its affairs to the new order. From this time forth, all New York congregations, save, for a time, Emanu-El, operated under a board of trustees chosen by the electors as provided by the state law, giving no consideration to European traditions except in the election of a president (parnass).

Emanu-El's government in its early years differed some-what from that of the other congregations. This synagogue organized itself with a board of trustees, called Direction, and an advisory board, called Beirath. In 1847, the organic law of the synagogue was amended to provide for two boards: one of directors, the other of deputies, whose members were elected by the membership. These two democratically chosen boards met either separately or jointly. When they met together, under the name of Verwaltungsrath they constituted the real governing body of the congregation. The directors, meeting separately, were more or less an executive committee to carry out the resolutions of the larger group. The deputies, when they met separately, passed on the admission of new members, on large financial outlays, on the sale or purchase of property; they also examined the accounts of the board of directors. In the early 1850s, this clumsy and top-heavy system broke down of its own weight. Emanu-El then
fell in line with the policy of the other congregations by creating a single board of trustees to direct its affairs.

The number of trustees elected by the New York congregations ranged from five to nine. As time went on, the tendency was to have a larger rather than a smaller board. The trustees met frequently, in some congregations as often as once a week; in other cases, the stated meetings of the board were bi-weekly or monthly; special meetings were often called to decide pressing matters. In general, the trustees took into their hands, not only those matters expressly committed to them by the state law, but also all matters not definitely given to the electors for decision. They may fairly be said to have taken the responsibilities of their office very seriously and to have acted most scrupulously and conscientiously. Thus, in 1828, when the Society for the Education of Poor Children petitioned Shearith Israel for the use of the synagogue building and innocently asked to take complete charge for the day,
the trustees replied that they were always in charge of all synagogue property and could not relinquish their charge even for a moment. The society disclaimed any intention of usurping the power of the trustees; restored to their full dignity, the trustees granted permission for the meeting. At Anshe Chesed, in 1848, the trustees dismissed Dr. Lilienthal from his position as rabbi because of a controversy which involved their prestige.

Since they took their position so seriously, the trustees made every effort to live up to it. In a majority of the New York synagogues, a separate minute book was kept for the transactions of the board of trustees. In keeping with the state law, the board elected a
treasurer for the synagogue funds and appointed a clerk to keep their minutes. The trustees levied fines on themselves for not attending meetings and for not coming to order. The trustees of Shearith Israel and of Anshe Chesed drew up laws governing their own procedure, and periodically renewed or revised these rules. Infractions of synagogue regulations were judged by the trustees sitting as a body; the board had the power to levy fines on the synagogue members and to declare membership defaulted on the non-payment of dues or similar cause. All synagogue expenditure, including charity, was under their control; there was one
slight exception, the president could give a small sum to an applicant for charity without the endorsement of the board. The rental of seats, burial in the cemetery, care of synagogue property, permission for weddings and the collection of offerings and dues, all came under their supervision. In some synagogues, in the event of an emergency when no meeting of the board could be called, the president had the right to grant permission for burial; this permission had to be ratified at the very next meeting of the board of trustees.

As early as the 1820s, the trustees of Shearith Israel set up permanent committees on finance, cemetery, building and other recurring matters. Several of the newer synagogues imitated the parent body. Other synagogues, however, preferred to appoint committees as matters requiring attention arose. At all of the synagogues the treasurer was required to give security, usually the bond of a wealthy member; the collector, too, who was as a rule the sexton, was required to give bond. It does not seem to have been customary in the early days for the synagogue to maintain a bank account; the treasurer mixed congregational funds
with his own and gave a periodic accounting of the financial standing of the synagogue. Later, regular accounts were kept in banks, as the more businesslike procedure of keeping synagogue funds distinct from private funds was adopted.

The business of all boards of trustees was conducted in closed session and kept confidential. No member of a synagogue was permitted to attend any session of the board without express invitation. Before the group who formed Bnai Jeshurun had actually seceded from Shearith Israel, there was a desire among them to hold open meetings; once their own synagogue had been organized, they, too, fell in line with the parent body. The formalization of business of the boards of trustees was notable; at Shearith Israel, very early in the nineteenth century, it was ruled that all matters which were brought to the attention of the board by individuals had to be communicated in writing.

The president of the ruling body of the synagogue was called the parnass; this term originated in the Talmudic era and continued in use in Europe through the Middle Ages into modern times. In eighteenth-century New York, he wielded considerable power. He presided at the services, he was blessed at the reading of the Torah, and he expected obedience from the worshippers. At times, two presiding officers were chosen: one functioning from Sukkot to Passover, the other from Passover to the next Sukkot. Under this arrangement the man in office was called Parnass Presidente; the other was called Parnass Residente. By the second
decade of the nineteenth century this practice was abolished; a single presiding officer functioned, usually for a year.


Website: The History
Article Name: Synagogue Government Part IV
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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