In Defense of Democracy

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 and how they govern.

Democratic Shuls
In Democratic shuls, such as Young Israel and OU shuls, 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.

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.

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.

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.

Although the decision making process is a little stickier in Democratic Shuls, because of the involvement of more people, I think it is the best structure. More say means more involvement, and more involvement means that the members will get more out of their Shul experience. The major issue is that the authority of the Rabbi may be diminished in a democratic structure. However, a good Rabbi will have a strong influence on the important decisions and a well developed membership will look to their Rabbi for guidance. Unfortunately, I think the days of the Democratic Shul are numbered as people are prefering smaller Shuls which are primarily financed and governed by a smaller group of people.