Synagogue Government Part V

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In the eighteenth century, the president was, as a rule, appointed by his predecessor. After 1805, he was elected as president of the board of trustees. When more democracy existed, he was elected from among the trustees by the electors; at other, less democratic times, he was elected by the trustees themselves. Regardless of the method of election, the president in the nineteenth century no longer had the personal power of earlier generations.

The state law of 1784 did not recognize a presiding officer as such; he could, therefore, no longer have special powers by virtue of his office. His standing was now only that of a member of the board of trustees. When he presided at the synagogue, he merely carried out the orders of the board. The position of president was, however, a necessary one. It was a tradition not easily uprooted, for a presiding officer was needed at the service to distribute honors and to maintain order. At several synagogues, the members gave the president certain powers through their constitution. This could be done without conflict with the state law, because the
members could delegate any powers they chose to any individual they thought fit, and the trustees, too, could delegate some of their own powers to their president. But the position was not what it had been; when Isaac Mayer Wise came to America in the 1840s and remarked that the parnass "ruled the quick and the dead," he should really have said that the trustees ruled with a firm hand through their presiding officer, the Parnass.

In addition to presiding at the services, the Parnass was chairman of all meetings of the trustees and of the members. All communications were directed tot he board of trustees through him. The sexton, the reader and, later, the rabbi were directly under his charge and took orders from him. As a rule, he called to the attention of the trustees important matters requiring their decision. He voted regularly as a member of the board, not merely in the event of a tie. In his absence the treasurer usually became acting president; at Shearith Israel, however, a regular order of succession according to seniority on the board of trustees determined the acting presidency.

At Shearith Israel, the president or his replacement sat in a special seat of honor, called the Banca, during the services; other congregations also followed this practice. At Emanu-El, the early practice was for each director to act as chairman for four months; later, this was changed, and a president was elected semi-annually; in 1851, the term of office was increased to a full year, and a vice-president was also elected annually. In the late 1850s, Bnai Jeshurun adopted a new plan by electing a chairman of the board of trustees to preside at meetings of the trustees and of the electors, as well as a president who functioned only in the synagogue. This system, however, found no imitators among the other New York synagogues prior to the Civil War.

While, at the end of the period of this study, fines and other penalties were almost obsolete, in the earlier period the system flourished. Insulting the president by not making the required offerings or by refusing to come to order resulted in the imposition of a fine. During the early nineteenth century, the more liberal forces in the synagogue waged a successful campaign to have offenders brought before a court of judgment composed of the members of the board of trustees before fines were imposed on them. On the whole, the boards of the New York synagogues conducted these trials fairly and were rarely arbitrary. By 1860, however, fines had been abolished in a number of synagogues and, especially in the older places of worship, trials were eliminated. Thus, another of the powers of the president fell before the advancing wave of democracy in the synagogue.

The office of ritual slaughterer, or Shohet, which was important in the early days and continued so at Shearith Israel for many years, was abolished at other synagogues in the 1840s and 1850s.

It has been pointed out that the sexton, like the reader, was under the rule of the president and trustees of each synagogue. Many sextons found it difficult to accept this control submissively; the minutes of all synagogues reveal that the sexton occasionally refused to obey orders, whereupon he was called before the board for an explanation. If, in the social gradations of each synagogue, the president, the trustees and the electors occupied the topmost rungs, the reader just below them, and the seat-holders and the poor below the reader, the sexton was at the very bottom. Many men undoubtedly found it difficult to accept an office in which they were at the beck and call of every worshipper. There were, nevertheless, many sextons who gained the respect and admiration of their congregations. In recognition of his long and faithful service, the name of Abraham Isaacs, sexton at Shearith Israel, was placed when he died in 1815 upon the perpetual list of those to be remembered by memorial prayers. Isaacs' widow followed him in office, and became the first "Shamastress" in the City of New York. Within a few years, however, her son took over the position, so that her tenure was brief and merely maintained a dynasty. There were several cases at Shearith Israel in which a son followed his father in the office of sexton. Jacob J.M. Falkenau, sexton of Bnai Jeshurun, was said to have been a Talmudic scholar. When Benjamin Davis, sexton at Shaarey Tefilah, died, the attendance at his funeral and the eulogies pronounced over his coffin reveal that the members held him in high regard; moreover, this regard took the practical turn of providing for Davis' widow and family, which rarely happened to the family of a sexton in synagogues other than Shearith Israel.

The sexton's duties were many and varied. At one time, Shearith Israel declared that the duties appertaining to the office (are) so multifarious that to reduce them to writing might be attended with some inconvenience as many duties which of right would appertain to be done by the Shamash might be omitted and which would afford an excuse...(for) not performing duties belonging to the office.

As a rule, however, the duties were enumerated. In 1728, the sexton had to attend synagogue, call the electors to services and to penitential prayers, keep the synagogue candlesticks and lamps clean, make candles and keep water in the cistern. Later, his duties were increased by the requirement that he keep a special record book listing all interments. At Banai Jeshurun, in 1832,the sexton's duties included keeping the synagogue and the yard clean, opening the synagogue ten minutes before the services began, caring for the fires in winter, superintending funerals, keeping a list of mourners, caring for the welfare of strangers entering the  synagogue by seeing that they were supplied with prayer shawl and book, acting as a messenger, substituting for the reader, and, in general, obeying all orders of the president. In return for his services, the sexton received a salary; when he acted as collector, his salary was augmented by a commission on his collections.

The sexton at Shearith Israel was elected and dismissed by the electors, not by the trustees. No provision of the law of 1784 gave the sexton this unusual status; from time immemorial the election of the sexton had been in the hands of the general membership, and several New York synagogues continued this tradition. Only at Shearith Israel did the sexton have tenure in his position; at all other synagogues he had to be elected annually. When, in 1852, the trustees of Shearith Israel, feeling that there was a disadvantage in having a sexton elected for life, attempted to change the period of his service to one year, the members defeated this proposal.

The sexton was paid at a rate far below that paid to the reader; it is, therefore, understandable that an application to the congregation to increase the reader's salary was, as a rule, followed by a similar petition from the sexton. The sexton probably earned a living wage, both because of the augmentation of his salary by commissions, and because most synagogues furnished him with living quarters. In later times, it became common practice for the members to present gifts (nedarim) to the sexton; whether this practice originated in our period cannot be said, for no record of such gifts appears in the minutes of the congregations studied. The sexton, then, was an ill-paid employee of the synagogue, who could gain the respect of the members only by salient personal abilities or character.

A position of greater honor, but of irregular emolument, was the clerkship, an appointive office, with respect to which the members had no rights of selection. The clerk was chosen annually by the trustees. He was usually a person with another source of income, who accepted the position either for the honor or for the additional revenue. At Shearith Israel, this income took the form of a small salary; at a few other synagogues, in addition tot he salary, the clerk was paid small fees for recording and issuing certificates of marriage and birth. The duties of the clerk, as enumerated in the minutes of Anshe Chesed in 1853, were: the execution of all and every kind of writings as are generally performed by secretaries of congregations such as keeping the books regularly posted up, keeping correct minutes of trustee, committee, and general meetings, reading off minutes in Shul and ce (committee?) also making out seat bills, school bills, offering bills and c. (cetera).

At Shearith Israel the clerkship was a great honor, so much so that, in 1834, Naphtali Phillips resigned as trustee to accept the office of clerk. Several generations in the Phillips family have held this office. At other synagogues, however, the position would seem to have been less respected, for the incumbent was, at times, not even a member of the congregation. Yet all public notices were signed by the clerk, and, therefore, curiously enough, in many cases where synagogue records and minutes are lost, there is no information about the president and trustees, but we do know the name of the clerk from its appearance on these notices.

Some individuals wielded great power as clerks. Solomon H. Jackson, the printer, was the first clerk of several new synagogues, perhaps in order to show them how to conduct meetings and how to keep their records. Henry Jones, who was clerk at Anshe Chesed for several years, was the power behind the president's throne. It is possible, indeed, that most clerks were engaged because of their knowledge of the methods of procedure and of record-keeping which had been followed by other congregations. At all events, the books of most of the congregations which have been consulted resemble in many ways those of the parent body, Shearith Israel. This seems to indicate that traditional methods of keeping records were handed down from clerk to clerk, and, thus, from synagogue to synagogue.

In many cases, it is possible to deduce the attainments and character of the clerk from his entries in the records. So, for example, a few clerks were familiar with Jewish lore, and their entries of Hebrew or Yiddish words and phrases are correctly given. Many others were unlearned and made gross errors in the simplest of Hebrew terms. Occasionally, an ignorant clerk would leave gaps in his English or German minutes for some more learned person to insert the necessary Hebrew or Yiddish terms. If he forgot or was unable to secure the assistance he needed, his minutes today still await the insertions. Dr. James Mitchels, at one time clerk at Emanu-El, apparently had classical training, since he enters an occasional Latin phrase. The verbosity of the clerk determined the length of entries in congregational minutes; for example, Joseph Cahn of Anshe Chesed wrote endlessly. In reading his reports, one wades through the constant repetition not only of what was enacted, but also of the many proposals which failed of acceptance. This wordy clerk deserves our gratitude, however, for he has left us a far more complete record of behind-the-scenes procedure than any which the terse statements of other clerks can provide.

Another aspect of synagogue government which deserves mention is the cooperation with local and state governments in the matter of vital statistics. The officials of Shearith Israel and, later, of the other congregations complied with the laws of the Common Council of the City of New York, which, in 1801, made it obligatory upon the sextons of the various churches of the city to keep a re cord of all burials and to report on these to the City Clerk. In 1804, the clergy were required to report all marriages tot he City Inspector. These local laws with respect to the reporting of interments and marriages were made additionally compulsory by the state law of 1847, making failure to report to local officials a state offense. An interesting point with respect to these reports was that while the various Christian denominations made their reports on deaths for the preceding week on Saturday, the Jews were granted permission to make these reports on Friday. Some synagogues made a charge for recording vital statistics, while others did not; all, however, charged for a transcript of the record. Although no official regulation made obligatory a recording of births, Shearith Israel began voluntarily to keep such a list in 1812, because it felt that this record would be useful "for natives going abroad or in Captivity." Thus we find in the procedure of the synagogue an echo of the difficulties of those days prior to the war of 1812.


Website: The History
Article Name: Synagogue Government Part V
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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