The Synagogue President: Exploring Lay-leadership in the Modern Orthodox Community
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A man enters a small town looking for his friend, the synagogue president. He stops a stranger to ask for directions who replies, “You are looking for that idiot? He lives on the other side of town”. Every person whom he stops along the way responds similarly, “Why are you looking for that thief, that moron, that good for nothing”. Upon finally reaching his friend he asks, “After meeting your community, I must ask you- why do you do it?”. To which the president responds, “For the kavod (honor)”. The role of synagogue president is not easy. Charged with the administration and maintenance of the synagogue, the position of president is one of self-sacrifice and is not understood by many congregants. In the past, the role has been grouped with other lay positions; an expansive category including the role of the gabbai, sisterhood, men’s club etc. However, the role of synagogue president deserves its own separate analysis. Building off the works of Samuel Heilman (1976), Jack Wertheimer (1987), and Zev Eleff (2016), this paper explores the role and power of the Modern Orthodox synagogue president and, as an extension, synagogue life among Modern Orthodox Jews. This paper discusses the genesis of this position in the 18th century and explores the anthropological paradigm of the Big Man to shed light on this unique position.
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