Synagogue Constitutional Conventions

Synagogue politics are rarely pleasant but they’re often necessary to ensure a functioning congregation and to provide protections from hostile takeovers. Personally I’ve always been content to just show up to shul, daven, and go home, but just because you’re oblivious to the legalese of official documents in no way mitigates their importance. Having a constitution and explicit rules is crucial for defining expectations but also for conflict resolution should disputes arise.

For better or worse, few people have ever read their shul’s constitution – assuming the synagogue even has one. To understand the political issues a synagogue faces, consider the following proposed draft constitution from the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale (PDF).

I’m not going to go through the entire document, though if you’ve never read a constitution it’s probably worthwhile to note the issues the constitution seeks to address. I have no idea what the current constitution states and which passages are new or emendations to a previous document. Still, two passages are notable for their current implications.

Here’s one example:

FORMS, INTERPRETATION AND AFFILIATION: The Congregation shall follow the forms, practices, and usages of an orthodox interpretation of Judaism committed to Halacha and may affiliate itself with the Union of Orthodox Congregations of America.

Given the HIR’s reputation for envelope pushing the constitution allows for a seemingly wide berth. That the HIR is expected to follow “an orthodox interpretation” implies that there is there is no uniform “Orthodox” institution let alone a singular orthodox interpretation (note the use of lowercase for “orthodox.”). Furthermore, the HIR’s affiliation with the Orthodox Union is optional – it is one possible sign of orthodox affiliation. In theory, HIR could leave the OU or simply adopt contradictory policies without violating its constitution. As long as the HIR can show that it is “committed to Halacha” – however they define it – they will still be within their constitutional mission.

The next passage reflects the social progressiveness of the HIR, and I would not be surprised if The Organization for the Resolution of Agunot campaigns synagogues to adopt similar policies:

SUSPENSION OF BENEFITS FOR RECALCITRANT SPOUSES:
Notwithstanding any other provision of these By-Laws, one who withholds issuance or receipt of a Get shall (a) be ineligible for membership in the Congregation, if not yet a member; (b) have his or her membership immediately suspended if such withholding occurs while a member of the Congregation; (c) not be permitted to occupy, or if elected, to retain any appointed or elective position in the Congregation; (d) not be permitted to serve as an employee of the Congregation; and (e) not be given any honor or recognition, or be granted any right or privilege or participation within liturgical services on any occasion whatsoever.

This Section shall apply only to the following situation:
1. Where a married couple has either separated in contemplation of a divorce and been living apart for a year or been granted a civil divorce,
2. One of the parties has filed for issuance of a civil divorce,
3. One of the parties has made a verifiable, formal written request for the unconditional termination of the marriage by execution and receipt of a Get, and
4. The other party has refused to comply with the request of a Get and has not appeared before a beth din recommended by the Senior Rabbi or the beth din’s designee to explain this non-compliance within three (3) months following the fulfillment of the prior three conditions.

If after the allegedly recalcitrant party appears before a beth din, the beth din rules that sanctions should not be adopted, or should be adopted in a modified fashion, then the ruling of the beth din shall be determinative in this matter. The actual or potential application of this Section to a member shall not prevent the member from being suspended or expelled by the Board of
Trustees pursuant to Section 4 of Article II.

Note that this passage refers to withholding either the issuance or receipt of a get such that it does not automatically assume the husband is automatically in the wrong by default.

If you find any particularly interesting passages for discussion, please comment below!

UPDATE 5/16/2013: I just received the text of the officially approved constitution which can be downloaded here. There does not seem to be any meaningful changes between the draft and the approved constitutions in the passages which I had cited.