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Jews of Syracuse


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?

14 thoughts on “Jews of Syracuse

  1. Gevalt! Where are their brains? I am minded of Dryden's Absolom and Achitophel which I always considered to be anti-Jewish but which may be more true that one would like to think. To quote a little –
    "The Jews, a headstrong, moody, murmuring race
    As ever tried the extent and stretch of grace," etc. etc.

    What I've reiterated many times is still true – united we stand; divided we fall. Where are their brains?

  2. Here in Sydney (Australia) we sometimes have a little more sense. The Great Synagogue Sydney last year had a woman as president and the North Shore Synagogue this year has a woman as president (both consider themselves as "modern orthodox")

  3. I really don't think this is over $$ but rather over a difference in world views within Orthodoxy. Young Israel has been moving to the right, and outlawing all attempts of Modern Orthodoxy to expand the roles of women within halacha

  4. Anonymous:
    Yes, you are right about the swing. But tell me, you think they are only threatening to take their money? They don't really want it?

  5. Jeremy, you don't mean: "This is the Jew That Shakespeare drew", do you?

    I can do better for Shabbat and it's apropos with regard to money as well as everything else.

    For forms of government let fools contest;
    Whate'er is best administered is best;
    For modes of faith let graceless zealots fight;
    His can't be wrong whose life is in the right:
    In faith and hope the world will disagree,
    But all mankind's concern is charity.

    Pope's "An Essay on Man"

  6. I'm the puerile one responding intelligently.

    Jeremy, your blogs are often very thought provoking and necessary for addressing pertinent issues within our people and the world at large. On some points I agree with you and respect your dedication to attempting to unearth the real truths of situations that arise.

    But where I do find your delivery very disturbing and tarnishing to your holy title of "Rabbi" is when you unashamedly attack, denigrate and speak negatively about entire groups of Jews whether it be Chareidim one week, Modern Orthodox the next, Chasidim after that etc…. You came to my attention initially because people said you like to get your hands dirty and address issues in an unconventional way. That's cool and very valid.

    But what's not cool is how you seem to use scenarios in the public arena to vent and then put down either individuals or whole sects. That's not your job. You're supposed to be a kidush Hashem and bring people together, ESPECIALLY in this low generation. You make out that all Charedim are a bunch of crooks, the Gedolim are all corrupt and religious organizations are rotten to the core. How does all this help the Jewish people??? You then illicit responses from your loyal followers who jump on the bandwagon and get their swords out too. More loshon hora.

    I might be a chozer b'teshuva and I may not be from the frum world but I can say this – if it wasn't for the Chareidi world then I, my wife and my mates wouldn't be keeping any mitzvot today. And I'm not one of "them"; I wear a srugi because it's just comforatable. I'm not stupid or naive; I know things are very far from perfect. I know very dodgy and self centered things go on in the religious world which desecrate Hashem's name. My eyes are wide open and am never shocked anymore. But why should that lead to essays and blogs fueling the fire even more? Why paint such a negative picture.

    I know your heart is in the right place. But it's not often conveyed that way.

    Shabbat shalom achi.

  7. Anonymous:

    I am delighted you have expressed your reservations so clearly and honestly. I really appreciate it. Thank you.

    The trouble I have is that almost wherever I look in the Charedi world I find things going on I cannot morally or spiritually approve of.
    I cannot accept the involvement of religion in party politics. I cannot accept Batei Din who are dishonest. I have experienced first hand corruption and deceit. Of course there is another side. There is so much Torah and Chessed and Massim Tovim going on too, far more than in any other sector of Judaism. And I think I do emphasize the good points of Judaism and the Charedi world often enough to counter balance my broadsides.

    But here's the problem. In no way am I comparing myself to the prophets of course, but read them. Read how they castigate their generation and supposedly they were all Tzaddikim in those days. Are we to suppose they were wrong? Yes I know there are Midrashim that say they were, but others take a different point of view. Chazal accepot that we brought our own catastrophes on ourselves. The Kamza Bar Kamza story blames the rabbis for not intervening. I cant tell you how many cases I come across every day of so called rabbi taking money and making a living from the credulous in exchange for false promises. Yes I know evangelicals do it too but thats no excuse. Am I to remain silent? Isnt that a dereliction of duty?

    I was brought up on Mussar. Mussar requires one to criticize. In my yeshiva we were given a partner who spent half an hour every evening criticizing ones behavior. Criticism is good. Why should one not criticize rabbis if the fact is one sees a failure of moral leadership? Surely rebuke is required by Jewish Law and the response ought not to be to ignore it but to engage. Sadly I see no engagement.
    You know that Proverbs says 'God rebukes those He loves' and we are supposed to try to emulate Divine values. If I didn't care as much as I do I wouldnt be expressing my pain.


  8. National Council of Young Israel is a fraud that actively supports the right of Rabbi's to steal money from their shul.

    Try and go to them and ask them to force a Rabbi to release the shul's financial records to board members. Not their business they will say.

    Of course why any honest Rabbi would want to keep the books secret is pretty obvious…

    And Rabbi Lerner knows that no honest Rabbi would refuse any board member the right to see the financials. Only one who can't see the difference between his money and the shuls.

  9. Anonymous:
    I agree it is scandalous that anyone in a position of religious responsibility should appear even if erroneously to be hiding anything. It comes under the issur of appearances, Marit Ayin, which I notice too many rabbis are strict about when it comes to ritual matters but very lax when it comes to financial or ethical issues!

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