Why Is There So Much Shul Politics?

Shul Politics Makes Us Smile
When I tell people that we’re starting a Website call shulpolitics.com they invariably smile. Why is that? Because there’s a lot of shul politics going on.

The Roles of a Shul
If you Wikipedia the word shul, you’re taken to the page for Synagogues which includes the following:

A synagogue from the Greek for “assembly” is a Jewish house of prayer.

Israelis use the Hebrew term bet knesset (assembly house). Jews of Ashkenazi descent have traditionally used the Yiddish term “shul” (from the German Schule, school) in everyday speech….Some Reform Jews use temple. The Greek word synagogue is a good all-around term, to cover the preceding possibilities.

Synagogues have a large hall for prayer, and can also have smaller rooms for study and sometimes a social hall and offices. Some have a separate room for Torah study, called the beit midrash (Sfard) or beis midrash (Ashkenaz) which means “House of Study”.

Synagogues often take on a broader role in modern Jewish communities and may include additional facilities such as a catering hall, kosher kitchen, religious school, library, day care center and a smaller chapel for daily services.

We’re going to use the word shul here because it’s short, part of our title and the term with which I’m most comfortable. An interesting side bar is that “Shul Politics” beats “Synagogue Politics” by a margin of 3,330 to 1,580 in results found when searching with the quotes around the words in Google.

All shuls are used for prayer, but depending on the type of shul (which we’ll discuss next week) they differ in their Torah study and communal and auxiliary functions and in some situations the shul functions as the center of Jewish community in the midst of the larger geographic community.

Why Politics?
Let’s Wikipedia the word, politics:

A process by which groups of people make collective decisions.

Depending on the structure, shuls often operate in a collective decision making mode in which case their primary process is one of politics, groups of people making collective decisions. Political processes bring conflicting viewpoints to the table and resolving the tensions in these conflicts is not always easy.

Authority Distribution
Shuls are primarily for the benefit of their members, but different degrees of authority are distributed among the Rabbi, president, treasurer, other officers, board members, gabbai and general membership. The financial structure will also be a determinant on how authority is distributed. Although a general member is often lower in the authority ranking, the membership often has a strong collective voice and their participation and attendance or lack thereof ultimately determines the success of the shul.

When you factor the range of activities, the authority distribution, the financial contributions, the needs of the general memberships and the different points of view, you get a lot of shul politics.

Purpose of this Site
Our goal is to better understand shul politics and hopefully improve the shul experience. We’ll look at the issues, the tensions and possible paths to resolution. We won’t be talking about the politics of any specific shul, just the general issues.

Initially we’ll be publishing a post once a week.

Please join us by reading, commenting, subscribing and sending in your guest posts to [email protected].

3 thoughts on “Why Is There So Much Shul Politics?”

  1. Looking forward to upcoming posts (I subscribed).
    I think (base on personal experience) the more involved/invested you are in your shul, the more you get out of it. Sadly, after belonging to my current shul for 5 years, I am just now realizing this.

    1. Neil, as with most things, the more you’re involved the more you’ll get out of it.

      Shuls have an additional interesting angle in that anybody who wants to pray with a minyan must attend, but each attendee is not looking for the same thing from the Shul.

      1. I go to shul to sit and daven quietly and wear my multicolored talis and matching kipa and enjoy annoying those who wanted a homogenized atmosphere. (This is in NYC)

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