United Synagogue row over 'live near shul' rule

The United Synagogue has been warned that it could be left without a congregation in some parts of London because of a rule banning some shuls accepting members who live more than one and a quarter miles away.

Rabbi Stanley Coten, of Ruislip and District Affiliated Synagogue, has intervened in a row between the US and its 14 affiliated synagogues over the rule.

In a letter to the Chief Rabbi, the London Beth Din and leaders of the US rabbinical council, he said it was putting off potential members.

“One family with young children who applied to join our shul and were turned down have joined the Reform,” he wrote. “If we continue with the status quo, we will be heading for fewer shuls, some parts of London without a local United Synagogue, and fewer rabbis, which will diminish the Anglo-Jewish community.”

The dispute involves the different status between the majority constituent members of the US and its affiliated synagogues, often situated in the outer suburbs.

Affiliated synagogues enjoy greater independence than constituents and generally charge lower fees. But US leaders have renewed efforts to fulfil their long-held ambition to bring affiliates into the constituent camp.

Affiliated representatives say the 1.25 mile rule, which applies only to their synagogues and was widely ignored in the past, is now being enforced to pressure them to adopt constituent status.

It is meant to prevent people bypassing, or transferring from, their constituent synagogue, to a cheaper affiliate that may be further away.

Rabbi Coten said affiliates should “shoulder their fair of financial responsibility” for the US as a whole but the distance rule was “unacceptable”. He said: “When people inquire about membership they get turned away if they live further than 1.25 miles because our lay leadership does not want to waste its time processing the applications of individuals who are not going to be accepted.”

Alan Sless, chairman of Enfield and Winchmore Hill Affiliated Synagogue, said it had considered the possibility of converting to constituent status several years ago. “It was fairly obvious that we would have to put up fees to pay for services we never used,” he said.

He said affiliates wanted to retain their status. “We are not thinking of breaking away from the US,” he said.

Harvey Dryer, chairman of Romford and District Affiliated Synagogue, said they had turned away up to eight people in the past year: “Over 10, you would be talking about 60 to 80 members.”

“It’s against someone’s human rights to force them to join somewhere they don’t want to join.”

A spokesman for the US said: “The trustees have reported to Council their commitment to bringing in the few remaining affiliate communities to full US membership, but in the meantime the US will continue to operate the Affiliate Scheme rules, under which those communities operate”.

    Last updated: 4:40pm, January 28 2010