Who’s The Boss? – Shul Types and Authority

Shul Structure Guides Decision Process
The baseline services of every Shul includes communal prayer. So, decisions like seating, prayer leaders, prayer speed, prayer time, Torah readers, and Aliyah recipients will always need to be decided. Beyond that, the scope of the activities and the Shul’s financial and authority structure will guide the decision making process. The following is a general overview of typical shul structures. Of course, there will be exceptions. Please add your disagreements, amplifications and corrections in the comments.

Yeshiva Minyanim
In Yeshiva minyanim, the heads of the Yeshiva make the decisions and run the minyan as an extension of the Yeshiva. It would be a stretch to even call it a Shul. There are few outside activities other than davening. People who daven there make voluntary contributions and expect little input. There is very little politics. Women’s involvement is minimal. The heads of the Yeshiva make all the policy decisions.

Shtiebels and Rabbi-centric Shuls
In Shtiebels and other Rabbi-centric Shuls, the founding Rabbi is the top authority. There are often shiurim for the members, but generally not so many activities beyond that. There is a Gabbai who assists in the day to day affairs. When the Shul assumes a degree of financial responsibility, donors will have some say. Women’s involvement is minimal. The priorities for leading the davening, getting Aliyahs and seating can sometimes be tricky because the Rabbi often chooses not to get involved and there is no formal mechanism to resolve conflicts.

Chabad Shuls

In Chabad shuls, the Rabbi is the top authority. There are usually many activities provided. A Gabbai often assists in the day to day affairs. The financial responsibility is assumed by the Rabbi but big donors will also have some say. Women are usually involved. The priorities for leading the davening, getting Aliyahs and seating are set by the Rabbi and carried out by the Gabbai.

Independent Minyans

In independent minyans a small group of members assume the primary financial responsibility. A place to daven is the primary priority but other activities are sometimes provided. A Rabbi is sometimes hired. The financially responsible members have the primary authority. Women are sometimes involved. Shul policies and roles are sometimes formalized.

Democratic Shuls
In Democratic shuls like Young Israel and OU shuls, for example, the membership assumes the financial responsibility. The Rabbi is paid a salary and is vested with a good deal of authority. There are many activities provided. There is usually a sisterhood that provides additional activities. There are by-laws, procedures, officers, a board of directors, committees and elections. The elections are usually rubber stamps of the election committee’s recommendations. Women are active. Policy decisions are distributed among the Rabbi, the officers, the gabbai, the board or the membership depending on the by-laws or policy. The president has significant responsibility and authority, and longer standing members and significant contributors are sometimes informally vested with more authority than the average member.

As we discuss the issues in the weeks ahead we need to keep these authority and financial structures in mind as they will be a major factor in determining Shul Politics.

3 thoughts on “Who’s The Boss? – Shul Types and Authority”

  1. Where did you say that this website would only be about Orthodox shul politics? Us non-Orthodox Jews have PLENTY of shul politics too, and all your example shuls are Orthodox.

    In my experince, non-Orthodox shuls generally fall into categories 4 and 5, but type-3s exist (except for the part about no women).

  2. Comments, criticisms and corrections by all Jews are greatly appreciated. Thanks for yours!

    I’ve never heard about a non-Orthodox Chabad.

    My impressions is that the vast majority of non-Orthodox shuls fall into category 5 – Democratic Shuls, which are the most ripe for Shul Politics.

    1. My mistake! I meant that I’ve seen non-Orthodox versions of #2, the rabbi-centric shul. Most commonly when a shul in group #5 makes a unilateral decision not to renew a rabbi’s contract, and the rabbi sets up his own shul with a few loyalists.

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