Jews of Syracuse

by: Rabbi Jeremy Rosen

I often ask myself why I focus in my blog on the very small Jewish world and its problems (as well as its successes). Perhaps I should turn to the larger world picture.

Too large a canvas can be too vague and impersonal. Besides, Judaism is a microcosm. Everything that goes wrong within our small community is a small version of the larger one. Perhaps a smaller focus is more precise and instructive.

I constantly come back to the way the religion I love is misused, how instead of being a tool for uplifting humans it is too often a vehicle for controlling and limiting them. I stand for the former but this week I find another example of the latter. I had thought that the Young Israel organization was an example of what was good and enlightened in American Orthodoxy. Not so, it seems.

According to The Jewish Week, the National Council of Young Israel, is trying to expel a small affiliated synagogue in Syracuse, New York. You might think it is for ideological reasons, following the current trend to get stricter and stricter (and sadly, Young Israel seems to be going in that direction). But in fact what it really boils down to is (surprise!) cash.

In the UK and Europe Jewish communities, synagogues and burial grounds are usually controlled by a centralized organization, the result of the social and political circumstances that prevailed in the nineteenth century. That is the norm; there are, of course, exceptions. In the USA it is a free-for-all and, in my view, much healthier for it—synagogues are fiscally independent, own their own real estate, and may choose to affiliate with umbrella organizations.

Each synagogue that chooses to affiliate pays an annual fee to benefit from the organization’s administrative and educational facilities. The organization can, of course, expel constituents, and by the same token synagogues can resign. It is a free society

In recent years, tension between some constituent synagogues and the head office of Young Israel has arisen over several issues of “Orthodoxy”. Rabbi Weiss in Riverdale recently hit the headlines for trying to ordain a female rabbi (a rose by any other name, etc.). A few years ago he established a more open-minded and less rigid rabbinic training college called Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, to counterbalance what he saw as Yeshiva University’s drift to the right. Young Israel refuses to accept YCT rabbis. Some member synagogues want to.

And there is the issue of the role of women. No, not whether they should or should not be rabbis, but whether they can run synagogues as lay leaders. They can run countries, corporations, and universities, but not, it seems, synagogue boards (perhaps they are not crazy enough).

Syracuse has had two women presidents in recent years. Young Israel does not approve. It wants to expel the Shaarei Torah Orthodox Congregation of Syracuse, officially over the synagogue’s failure to pay $20,000 in back dues. The Syracuse congregation actually resigned from Young Israel two years ago when Young Israel demanded it overturn the election of a woman president. So it can hardly owe dues if it resigned, no?

Dr. Beverly Marmor, its current lay leader of the congregation, said, “We were told that if our [woman president] did not resign immediately, they would sue us for having used their name for years and would also claim our assets.” The synagogue owns its building, a parsonage, and at least three Torah scrolls. Now there it is, ladies and gentlemen of the jury. The assets. That’s the issue. Religion is the front; money-grabbing is the truth.

The June 10th article in The Jewish Week states:

Although Marmor said her synagogue sent a letter to the National Council informing it of the resignation and a name change from “Young Israel-Shaarei Torah of Syracuse”, the National Council hired an attorney who wrote back to say that the organization’s constitution bars a member congregation from resigning its membership and affiliation.

The letter also instructed the congregation to confirm its continued membership and “cease and desist from any further effort to operate as an independent Orthodox synagogue…”

Marmor said her synagogue has ignored the letter.

“This is the United States of America,” she said. “Whoever heard that you can’t resign from a voluntary organization?”

But the National Council does have the authority to expel a member and seize its assets, according to the organization’s constitution.

I just hope this doesn’t get to the civil courts. The case for the defense is that Young Israel is a badly run, incompetent organization whose left had does not know what its right hand is doing. Perhaps. But once again, it’s a religious organization creating a PR debacle in which religion is associated with primitive values and money-grabbing. And it seems to happen almost everywhere.

As we approach Tisha B’Av you have to wonder how we Jews ever did get our act together, ever!!!! Sure, the rest of the world is just as crazy and probably more corrupt. But weren’t we supposed to set a good example?