Thursday, June 10, 2010

Of Synagogue Presidents, Part I

My shul just elected its new slate of officers. In honor of the occasion (and because life is too crammed for writing new material at the moment), herewith the first part of an article I once wrote, on "Shul Presidents." If you're good, I'll post parts 2 and 3, too.

(And if you know where I first posted this, feel free to email me - but don't put it in the comments...)

The following is a genuine, TRH-original joke, told first at the Congregation Sons of Israel Purim Gala three years ago; if you hear it from anyone else, know that they got it from me:

Yankel was herding the sheep of his father-in-law in the desert, when he saw a fire in the distance. He went to see, and behold, it was a bush that burned, but was not consumed!
Yankel drew near, and a voice emerged from the bush: “Yankel, remove your shoes, for this is holy ground!”
To which Yankel replied, “But, G-d, how recently have the custodians waxed the floor?”
And G-d said, “Never mind, Yankel. I’ve seen the way the Jews are suffering in Egypt; go tell them that I’ve decided to take them out.”
And Yankel responded, “That sounds great - but, G-d, is there room for this program in the budget?”
And G-d replied, “It’s all right, it’s covered; I’m going to bring them to a land flowing with milk and honey.”
At which point Yankel interjected, “Will we need police protection along the way? And who’s going to wash all the dishes - or are you going to put the milk and honey in disposables?”
And G-d said, “I’ve got the perfect job for you, Yankel.”
“Will I be Your agent to take the Jews out of Egypt? Will I be Your first prophet?” Yankel asked, all excited.
“No, Yankel. You will be My first shul president.”

[pause for appreciative laughter]

I had quite a few presidents over the years, and dozens of board members, and the great majority of them honestly meant to work for the benefit of the community. The presidents, in particular, were sincere, hard-working individuals.

Most presidents take the job only because they are cajoled, urged and generally harrassed by the nominators, whose sole qualification for the job of nominator is that they have large, soulful puppy dog eyes, the kind of eyes that can melt the hearts of unwilling presidential candidates. If Hashem had had a nominating committee, it wouldn’t have taken a week to get Moshe to sign on.

So far, then, presidents are sincere people who are working for the community, and aren’t looking to aggrandize themselves. At least, not at the start of their terms. So why do so many rabbis have so much trouble with their presidents? Why is the synagogue president the target of so many jokes?

I think the main problem is that whereas the rabbi’s job is clearly defined ("Be everything to everyone"), the president’s job is entirely undefined.

If you look in your standard-issue synagogue constitution (and every rabbi should memorize his synagogue’s constitution, I kid you not; knowledge of that document saved me from trouble more than once!), you find that the president is supposed to call board meetings and chair them. That’s basically it; he has no vote other than as a tie-breaker, he has no power to hire and fire. He might be able to create committees as needed, but that’s basically it. (Yes, it’s true - making the announcements is not a job listed in the Constitution.)

Of course, synagogues tend to grant additional privileges to the president - the right to sign checks, the right to glare at non-members as they chow down at kiddush, the right to call the rabbi on his cell phone several times each night, the right to set the agenda for board meetings, the right to attend every meeting of every committee under the sun.

But, at the end of the day, what is his job? He’s not a spiritual leader, he’s not in charge of finances, he’s not anything. So some presidents take it upon themselves to shape the job personally… which can be problematic for the rabbi, because there is nothing a rabbi wants more than to have to re-shape his presidential relationship every two or three years.

So we are going to work on defining the job of a shul president, right here on this blog. From here Torah shall go forth to Israel, and shul presidents shall receive their marching orders. Really. Tune in next time.


  1. If we use a corporate analogy, I always viewed the shul president as the Chairman (as you note) and also the COO of daily operations (unpaid position). I think the rabbi should be the CEO (or do we not really not believe he's the mara d'atra)? But from what I've seen, the Rabbi often effectively becomes COO of religious affairs for two reasons I believe:

    1. "Rabbi, you stick to religious matters, we'll look after strategic issues on the future of the shul, the building etc We're the experts on those matters."
    2. The rabbi is an employee with a contract and is viewed as being lower in the pecking order (and I know that relationship has been the source of many machlokes both here and in pre-war Europe - eg. does the Rav or his son have a chazaka on the position?)

  2. "He’s not a spiritual leader, he’s not in charge of finances, he’s not anything."

    Then there should be no problem of serirut for women presidents.

  3. Michael-
    Yes, I've seen both of those. Thank Gd, neither was an issue for me in my shul, because the great majority of people didn't approach things that way.

    Depends on how we define serarah, no?

  4. I think of the rabbi/president relationship this way. A horse with only one eye is still a horse but it can't do all the "horsey" things optimally. With only one eye it sees only those things on which ever side that eye is. Going forward, never mind racing, is with an uneven, halting gait. The horse gets tired more easily and prefers to spend its days grazing rather than moving around. A shul with a strong rabbi and a strong president is like a horse with two good eyes. Everything that needs to be seen is seen because the eyes work in tandem even while each does its own job. If one eye should blink the other eye is still open and vice versa. Neither eye can claim to be the "best" eye. (Yes, in some cases, one eye may be weaker than the other and need some rehabilitation.) In the end both eyes are necessary for optimum functioning but it's the whole horse that is the most important thing, both eyes serving that horse to the best of their ability.

  5. Hi ProfK-
    A good analogy - so long as the eyes don't get crossed...