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The Synagogue President: Unsung Hero of American Judaism

The Synagogue President: Unsung Hero of American Judaism

Wooden gavel and sound block

Anyone who has been a synagogue member or professional knows that the synagogue president is the unsung hero of Judaism in America. The synagogue president, often by personal nature and always by congregational legislation, is the number one volunteer at a synagogue, performing work that often borders on being a full-time, albeit unpaid, job. The president is charged with vast governance, management, and financial powers. Partnering with the clergy, overseeing the business operations of the synagogue, presiding over the governance of the congregation, and serving as the chief financial officer and revenue generator is just the tip of the iceberg of a modern synagogue president’s responsibilities.

Despite the enormity of this role in synagogue life, the congregational president is virtually absent in the history of American Judaism. Whether in full-scale academic publications, 100-year anniversary books, or online descriptions of individual synagogues, little is reported about the synagogue president.

Who are they? What do they do for a living? Do they have a background in Jewish studies? What are their reasons for volunteering?  What business skills do they have to do their synagogue-based work? Are they active in other non-profits?  Are they personally observant or are they serving for non-religious reasons? What do they view as their greatest responsibilities and, later, accomplishments as synagogue president?

One day, perhaps, every gallery of lay leaders’ portraits in our synagogues will include labels with basic biographical information about each of our congregational presidents and what they did during their time in office. It would be good to know these facts and, equally important, to weave them into our institutional and denominational narratives.  Perhaps, one day, a social history of the American synagogue will be written that includes a significant focus on the vast volunteer population of lay leaders who actually make our congregations run.

Currently, we only know basic contours of the history of the synagogue presidents. First and most importantly, from 1654 when Jews first settled in North America to 1840 when Rabbi Abraham Rice was called from Bavaria to serve the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation as the first resident rabbi in America, no ordained rabbi led an American synagogue. In other words, for its first two hundred years, American Judaism was lay led, a characteristic deeply embedded in American congregational by-laws. Indeed, the Reform Movement in American Judaism has a uniquely Congregationalist polity once reflected in its denominational name, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (emphasis added).

As proto-rabbis (Isaac M. Wise, among others), professional preachers, and ordained rabbis began to appear on the American scene in the decades prior to the Civil War, tensions with existing lay leadership quickly developed. In 1850, every major Jewish religious leader in the United States was dismissed from his pulpit. The most infamous incident was an “on the pulpit” fistfight on Rosh HaShanah between Isaac M. Wise and his congregation’s president in Albany, NY. Years later, a dispute allegedly erupted between Rabbi Stephen Wise and the president of New York City’s Congregation Emanu-El over the sensitive topic of freedom of the pulpit. Wise, Dr. Jacob R. Marcus, dean of the field of American Jewish history, boldly maintained, “would not serve under Marshall Law.”

Several major changes have taken place in the world of synagogue presidents since World War II. First, for nearly three decades it was not unusual for a person to be a congregational president for 10 or more years, sometimes nearly 30 years and for a rabbi to serve a brief term of two to three years. The nature of volunteering in America changed and the rabbinate professionalized.

Second, although women began serving on synagogue boards before World War I, it was not until the 1950s that women began serving as congregational presidents. Today it is possible if not likely, that women make up the majority of synagogue presidents outside of Orthodox Judaism in America, although lay male leaders continue to cluster around positions of power and authority in the synagogue.

Third, synagogue presidents historically did not train for their jobs and learned the ropes experientially in synagogue boardrooms. Although the formal qualifications to become a congregational president still did not include any educational requirements, a number of continuing education opportunities were developed beginning with the Reform Movement’s Scheidt Seminar for synagogue presidents in 1998 and the publication of a guide to synagogue management the following year. Today, The Tent, the communication and collaboration platform for congregational leaders offers an online presidents’ lounge and a forum specifically for presidents of large congregations. In addition, special learning and meeting opportunities are increasingly available at URJ Biennial conventions and ad hoc meetings.

Finally, within congregations, it is often said that the best job is the IPP – the immediate past president! For some IPPs, that may be true. However, the majority of IPPs seem to continue with their congregational responsibilities and, in some cases, even revert to setting up chairs and tables for special events and stuffing envelopes for mass mailings. The historical reality of the American synagogue is that it would not exist and probably could not persist without its number one lay leader, the synagogue president, the unsung hero of Judaism in America.

Rabbi Lance J. Sussman, Ph.D., is the senior rabbi of Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park, PA, and the Chair-Elect of the Board of Governors of Gratz College. A historian of the American Jewish experience, Sussman has taught at Princeton, Binghamton University (SUNY), and Hunter College. A prolific author, he is currently editing a volume of his own essays and working on a television documentary on Philadelphia Jewish history.

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