December 7, 2006
Getting kicked out of shul
The unpleasant underside of synagogue life raises questions about the power of rabbis and boards to keep some Jews out
(Page 2 - Previous Page)"What is the line between making your shul an open place and a safe place?" asked Rabbi Abner Weiss of Westwood Village Synagogue, who was rabbi of Beth Jacob for 15 years prior to Weil.
Weiss is also a licensed therapist, and he said there are situations where rabbis are obligated by law to report to the authorities when a person is a danger to others, such as when they are suspected of child or elder abuse.
A man once dressed up in Army fatigues and ran around Beth Jacob wielding a knife, Weiss said. They had him committed, but when he seemed better, Weiss let him back into the synagogue and invited him to his house for lunch. "That was a mistake, because he was unstable," the rabbi remembered. "He didn't take his meds. I'm sorry that I wasn't more careful about letting him into the house."
The man threatened the rabbi and had to be medicated again.
Which is why in some cases, it's better to err on the side of caution, Weiss believes. When the rabbi was leading Beth Jacob, he said, one man was accused by members of getting too close to children.
"It upset parents, so I quietly spoke to him, and I said people are uncomfortable, and I didn't want him to get into trouble. I suggested he would be more comfortable somewhere else," he said.
That man left the synagogue -- but he came back after Weiss left, presenting Weil with the same problem.
"He's a single man, doesn't have children, why is he sitting on the ground talking with little kids in the middle of the prayer services?" Weil said. "We asked him to come to the office, and we explained to him why we were asking him to leave," Weil said, and they also notified other shuls in the area to alert them of the danger.
Rabbi Stewart Vogel of Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills said that when he was a rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom, a "bag lady" came into the synagogue. "There were people who were uncomfortable, and we talked about it and said, 'You know, these people have a right to come in; she's not bothering anybody,'" he said.
The situation resolved itself without conflict.
"I think she just stopped coming," said Vogel, whose congregation is Conservative. He added, "The synagogue should be a haven for anybody. Think about the haggadah, 'Kol dichvin' -- those who have spiritual need and those who are just hungry should be able to come there."
That sentiment is shared by Rabbi Dan Shevitz of the Conservative synagogue, Mishkon Tephilo: The shul should be open to all.
"Beiti bet tefila, yikarehu lechol ha'amim means that a house of God has to be universal, since God is universal," he said. "We can't tell people they're not welcome in God's house."
Shevitz should know, because his congregation has its home two blocks from the beach in Venice. Homeless people can often be found sleeping on the top of the shul steps, behind the white pillars at the entrance, and often wander into the synagogue during services.
"Sometimes they come in and they're abusive or they think it's a church. The harder cases may be someone suspicious, or who maybe smells, who wanders in and sits in the back." he said.
The congregation usually lets these people alone, although for security's sake, they offer to check their packages, and if the person is compliant, he or she can stay.
Sometimes, he said, vagabonds also come for Kiddush. "Sometimes guests are greedy, but I figure if they're hungry, then they'll eat it. It's better than giving them money and them shooting up," Shevitz said. "If we can use the Kiddush to alleviate hunger in the community, then that's a good thing."
"We don't check the tzitzit of anyone who comes in; they can enjoy the tefillah and Kiddush like anyone else -- as long as they're not disruptive," Shevitz said.
Disruptiveness is another story when it comes to synagogue etiquette. Rabbis, like comedians and politicians, sometimes must tolerate hecklers.
"There are people who can be disruptive in a synagogue setting," said Rabbi Mark Diamond, executive director of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, who spent 20 years as a Conservative pulpit rabbi in Washington, Philadelphia and the Bay Area.
"If someone was being disruptive during or after services when I was a pulpit rabbi," he said, "I conferred with the president and key members of the board -- and every situation is different -- it would involve someone speaking with the individual, making them aware of their conduct." If that didn't work, he said, the person was told, "This is not the place for you."
Diamond said pulpit rabbis often have to deal with people who are dangerous, offensive, disruptive or just plain political. He once had to deal with a leader in his congregation "who often was irritating and very much a contrarian and said and did things that were very hurtful to me as a rabbi."
Diamond said he went out of his way to be extra nice to this thorn in his side. "People were watching to see how I would respond, and it was important for me as the spiritual community leader that I wouldn't let him get to me."
Shul politics and dealing with disruptive leaders and members is one of the topics discussed in the synagogue leadership institute, Diamond said. The program, which is five years old, trains emerging synagogue leaders, taking lay leaders from different synagogues to "engage in serious text study and give them leadership skills."
Another part of the course involves mediation and dispute resolution. Lawsuits between shul members are very common, he said.