‘Can Anyone Grow Up To Be (Shul) President?’

I get off my sickbed Shabbos afternoon and go to this lecture.

Last year, a Young Israel shul hired a graduate of the most left-wing Orthodox yeshiva (Chovevei Torah) — as its assistant rabbi.

A few months later in response, the Young Israel movement required that all rabbis hired by Young Israel shuls be approved by a panel of rabbi who hate Chovevei Torah.

All Young Israel shuls and everything of value inside of them are owned by the Young Israel movement.

This movement also ruled last year that women and converts can never be presidents of a Young Israel synagogue.

It’s rare for an Orthodox synagogue to have a woman president. I’m not sure if any have had a convert as a president. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein ruled about 40 years ago that a convert could be the rosh yeshiva of a particular Talmudic academy.

From the December 3, 2007 YU Commentator (the student newspaper of Yeshiva University):

Young Israel officials were not only exercised by the new rabbinic screening policy; the NCYI’s recent decision to bar females and converts from being a Young Israel synagogue president was heavily criticized as well.

Dr. Jay Cinnamon, past president of the Young Israel of Toco Hills, Atlanta, who spoke as a private citizen, said he was "disappointed but not shocked" that the NCYI chose to ban women from holding a synagogue presidency. But he found the ban on converts "repugnant." He explained that in Atlanta and many other cities, there is "a small but significant number of converts, many of whom are true gerei tezedek and extraordinarily devoted to the community and halacha." Many of them, he said, are "as pious as any other Jew." Dr. Cinnamon said that to categorically deny converts synagogue presidencies removes productive members from consideration, and possibly more injurious, sends a "profound and distasteful message" that converts are not fully equal Jews.

Other Young Israel officials shared his sentiments. 58% of Young Israel leaders said that they strongly felt that their president should be male. But 67% strongly believed that a convert should be able to serve as president. In practice, it seems that several Young Israels have had females serving as de facto presidents, though at times they used different titles.

The NCYI gave no defense for their restrictions on synagogue presidential candidates in their memorandum. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, a leading scholar of the last generation, wrote responsa addressing the scope of the prohibition against converts or females serving in a position of coercive authority over other Jews. Medieval scholars dispute whether women can hold such positions, and Rabbi Feinstein decides strictly, mentioning in passing that women shouldn’t be shul presidents. While he also upholds the prohibition on giving converts a position of major authority, he does advocate using maximum possible leniency on this issue to be sensitive to converts, and he explicitly permitted a convert to become a rosh yeshiva. He did not say whether a convert was prohibited from becoming president.

Women’s Tefillah & Megillah Reading Services Banned

The NCYI also recently prohibited all Young Israels from having women’s tefillah and megillah reading services. One president of a Young Israel, whose shul holds women’s tefillah services under his rabbis’ aegis, felt that this was a grave overreach. "This is a halachic issue, but they should allow the shul rabbis to make these decisions."

Dr. Cinnamon was particularly upset that they chose to focus their energies on these topics in the face of what he thought were "the big issues facing the Jewish community." He asked, "what is more critical to the Jewish people, and more relevant for the NCYI to be dealing with right now: massive assimilation in America and existential threats to Israeli security? Or whether converts can serve as shul presidents?"

Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter, senior scholar at Yeshiva University’s Center for the Jewish Future, stressed that "the authority to decide whether women should hold a tefillah or megillah reading service, or elect a woman or ger as president, should be left up to the rabbi of the shul."

NCYI’s Rightward Shift

Many officials inside the Young Israel as well as observers outside of it thought that the host of new directives reflected an ideological shift to the right by the NCYI. The specifically anti-YCT rabbinic screening process and the more restrictive, rightward shift on the issues of synagogue presidents and women’s tefillah and megillah reading services seem to encroach further on what have previously been individual synagogue’s prerogatives. While Rabbi Lerner had said that rabbinic candidates "don’t have to match my exact hashkafa" to pass the investigatory committee’s muster, some members feel that the recent decisions seem to indicate that individual synagogues need to match the NCYI’s hashkafa in order to retain their Young Israel affiliation.

Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot, Chair of YCT Rabbinical School’s Departments of Tanakh and Jewish Thought, thought that the shift has been long in the making, noting that "I and others in the Orthodox community believe that Young Israel has a much broader issue. In the last two decades, the national office has developed a narrower conception of what Orthodoxy is and represents, in both religious and Israeli political issues. This stands in contrast to what many other fine, upstanding Orthodox institutions, rabbis and baalei batim believe and what the Young Israel itself represented in the not too distant past." Dr. Cinnamon further worried about stifling the variety within Modern Orthodoxy, saying that it was "disconcerting that one body of rabbis was making decision for synagogues and their rabbis scattered throughout country." One search committee head said that he had received several resumes, and all of them were for candidates far to the right of the synagogue and what he considered mainstream Modern Orthodoxy. Rabbi Yosef Blau, mashgiach ruchani of Yeshiva University, mused that the spirit and ideology of the Young Israel movement has strayed far from its original roots, which were focused on involving a broader segment of young Jews and preserving the tenets of Judaism, rather than elevating minority opinions on women’s megillah readings into standardized law. "The Young Israel movement of today is not the Young Israel that I grew up with."

Generally speaking, having a woman or convert in a position of coercive leadership has not been done in Jewish history, but the position of shul president is not one of coercive leadership.

Until modern times, women and converts were regarded as adjunct members of the community. In Jewish as well as goyish society, it was not considered that women were equal to men. Women were rarely considered for positions of leadership.

Young Israel of East Brunswick is the only Young Israel shul to have a woman president. The Young Israel headquarters refused to acknowledge her. They kept sending their mail to her predecessor. On the positive side, the movement didn’t send the shul an invoice for dues for those two years.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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