Small synagogues have condemned an “unfair” and “disproportionate” charge imposed by the Board of Deputies for a simple administrative procedure towards the validation of new shul marriage secretaries.
The Board is obliged by statute to register the secretary for marriages at all UK Orthodox and Masorti synagogues with the Registrar General. Until the end of 2011, the Board did not charge for this service, but has now set a fee of £675.
Defending the charge, chief executive Jon Benjamin said it was reduced by two-thirds for synagogues affiliated to the Board — those who send deputies to meetings and ask members to pay a voluntary £25 contribution towards the Board’s costs. This was “an advantage of membership”, he claimed.
As marriage secretaries tended to change infrequently, “this occasional expense should not be onerous, given that synagogues are no doubt charging couples to perform marriages under their auspices”.
Two synagogues unaffiliated to the Board which want to change marriage secretaries have complained to the Office of the Chief Rabbi over the £675 charge.
One complainant is the 100-member Congregation of Spanish and Portuguese Jews in Salford. Board of management member Roy Shasha has acted as marriage secretary for seven years but would like the shul’s rabbi, Nir Nadav, to take over the role.
“We are a small congregation,” he said. “We have just taken on a part-time rabbi which is extending our finances to their limit. We don’t have the money, resources or manpower to send a delegate to the Board meetings. And even if we did, the chances of our delegate being allowed to speak are remote.
“Why is the Board forcing this charge on us in such a draconian way? The fee itself does not stack up. And while we want to be able to offer our members the opportunity of holding a wedding in the synagogue — as we have been authorised to do for more than 100 years — we have had only one marriage in the past five years, so we cannot even pass on the charge.”
Similar sentiments were voiced by Howard Wallis, treasurer at St Albans Synagogue, which is also unaffiliated to the Board. He claimed the imposition of the £675 fee “without any discussion or notice” was unfair on small communities which often could not afford to pay. “How long can it take just to record a change of name?”
Although the charge has been in place for over a year, the news was a surprise to Rabbi Dr Julian Shindler, director of marriage authorisation at the Chief Rabbi’s Office. “To the best of my knowledge, the Board has not been in touch with the Beth Din or the United Synagogue to notify them of its intention to impose the fee,” he said. “Congregations haven’t noticed it at the moment but as they need to change their marriage secretaries, it will come to the attention of more and more shuls.
“It does seem to me rather an excessive charge as well as an unfair and ill-judged move, especially as it is the congregations who can least afford such a charge that will have to bear it.”
According to the Board, 15 of the 60-odd United synagogues and two of the 13 Masorti congregations are not affiliated.
Mr Benjamin maintained that the registration process was not straightforward. “It can be lengthy, with queries being raised by the civil authorities. Unless it is done properly, marriages performed in a synagogue could technically be invalid.”
Reform and Liberal communities have their marriage secretaries validated respectively through the West London Synagogue and the Liberal Jewish Synagogue in St John’s Wood, who deal directly with the Registrar General. Neither charges congregations for the service.