Shuls that are too big to manage

By Miriam Shaviv, August 17, 2012

This is a painful and unusually personal column, because it concerns the complete breakdown of management at my shul and the partial breakdown of community relations.

The tension at Borehamwood United Synagogue - one of the US's flagship communities, with 1,300 families - is considerable. The political developments are happening so fast they give The West Wing a run for its money. Sadly, it may be a sign of things to come elsewhere.

After Rabbi Naftali Brawer left, Shimshon Silkin, rabbi of the local Seed outreach programme, was named interim minister. He initially said he had no long-term interest in the job but, as the search got under way, he changed his mind. As the incumbent, it was widely assumed that he was a shoo-in.

Earlier this summer, the shul announced that not only had he not got the job, nobody else had either. The committee apparently could not recommend any candidate wholeheartedly, and the search was to continue.

Facing an outcry from Rabbi Silkin's supporters, the shul chairman rushed to extend his contract for up to 12 months, while a successor is found. Said chairman then promptly resigned with two other honorary officers, leaving behind a complete mess.

The shul rushed to extend Rabbi Silkin's contract

At root, this is the story of a community that has grown too big and diverse to agree on what it wants from its rabbi. This was apparent already with Rabbi Brawer. One part of the community relished his outstanding speaking and teaching skills; the other bemoaned a perceived lack of pastoral care. With Rabbi Silkin the reverse is the case: his supporters cite his charisma and personal warmth, while others seek a more experienced, more modern Orthodox leader.

For the US, all this should raise profound questions. Borehamwood is not the only large community to recently lose one rabbi, then spend well over a year looking for a replacement without success. It was a similar story at Norrice Lea.

Have some of these suburban shuls simply become too big to manage? What happens when members have little more in common than their postcode? The US is meant to be a broad church but at what point does keeping diverse groups under one roof become counter-productive?

All shuls have to accommodate different people, but smaller ones can to some extent "specialise". In larger shuls, there may be more significant generational, economic or cultural divisions. This is likely to become more pronounced, with the intensification of religious commitment from many young families. On the one hand, this has given many shuls an unexpected boost, but it can also create conflict with less observant members and even with more established religious members, who may have very different expectations from their rabbi.

Either way, it seems unlikely that one person, even with an assistant, can satisfy the needs of all. Has the job of community rabbi, in our biggest suburban shuls, become "mission impossible"? Internationally, some large shuls have two or three relatively senior rabbis who appeal to different groups. Perhaps the US should consider this. For Borehamwood, meanwhile, the unrest is set to continue. As long as Rabbi Silkin is interim rabbi, some of his supporters continue to press for his permanent appointment.

The only amicable outcome might be for Rabbi Silkin and his most devoted followers to establish their own shul locally. For the US, a split may sound like a disaster. In truth, it was inevitable as the community grew larger - it is only a shame it will happen under such circumstances. But it will be healthy for Borehamwood to have more options, and for the main shul to be a little more homogeneous. To remain united, sometimes it is necessary to divide.

Last updated: 12:45pm, August 17 2012