A collection of synagogue constitutions I recently acquired provides a fascinating insight into how synagogues were run in the early 20th century in the United States – before the rise of minyan factories and the growth of small synagogues.
The collection comprises over 60 different constitutions, which reveal a whole host of interesting facts. For one, membership in synagogues was generally a strictly guarded privilege, not a right, and deviating members could expect to be fined or expelled. Many synagogues imposed fines for members who talked during davening, removed their tallit before completing the prayers, or were habitually late.
Many of the provisions in these constitutions attempted to curtail assimilation or deter members from moving toward Reform. A look at some of the by-laws in these constitutions sheds light on the challenges to Judaism in this period.
From the constitution of the Congregation Beth Hamedrosh Hagodol of Washington Heights: “A member may be expelled for creating a disturbance in the synagogue or if convicted of a criminal offense.”
“No alterations that are conflicting with the laws as laid down in the Shulchan Orach shall be made in the daily prayers, ceremonies or customs as long as one member of this congregation shall oppose it.”
From the constitution and by-laws of Congregation Agudas Israel of Ridgewood, Brooklyn: “The Congregation is forever to be an Orthodox Congregation.”
“All books and business shall be conducted in the English Language although a member has the privilege of employing the Yiddish language when addressing members of the congregation.”
“In the case of the death of a member, the Congregation will provide a plot in our cemetery, a hearse with two carriages.”
From the constitution of the New Kosintiner Young and Old Mens Benevolent and Aid Society: “A brother who does not attend a funeral and does not show just cause shall be fined $2.00”
“A brother who falsely claims sick shall be subject to expulsion at the discretion of the members.”
From the constitution of Washington Heights Congregation, adopted in 1914: “None but Hebrew will be permitted to participate at services in the Choir of the Congregation.”
“Any member conducting himself at a meeting or during services in the synagogue in a disorderly manner, or who shall depart from the strict Orthodox Faith, may be expelled or suspended.”
From the constitution and by-laws of the Congregation Mishkan Tefila, Boston, in 1913: “Marriage contrary to the laws of the Jewish religion, renunciation of Judaism, or conduct injurious to the cause and welfare of our ancient faith and race shall be deemed ample grounds for expulsion from membership.”