“What is the organization of the Jewish faith like? We Catholics have a parish pastor who reports to a diocese bishop. Then comes the archbishop, the cardinal and the pope at the top.”
Many of my colleagues and I joke about the “dis-organization” of the Jewish community, perhaps precisely because there is no one central religious authority in Judaism, such as the pope or bishops. Instead there are local communities organized into synagogues (sometimes called “temples”), which are often—but not always—affiliated with a centralized denominational organization.
Synagogues are typically led by a partnership between the spiritual leader, usually an ordained rabbi, and an elected lay-volunteer board, which manages finances and policies with the rabbi’s spiritual guidance. Each congregation selects its own rabbi or spiritual leader and is responsible for that person’s salary and benefits. Larger congregations may have a senior rabbi, as well as one or more associate or assistant rabbis. Some congregations are staffed by a cantor, an ordained Jewish clergyperson who specializes in the music of worship.
Individuals and families can choose to become members or participate in any congregation that aligns with their own religious approach. Members make financial and other contributions that offset the costs of running the congregation.
The major denominations, or streams, of Judaism in North America are Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist and Orthodox (which includes Modern Orthodox, Hasidic, Haredi and other approaches). Each denomination reflects a different worldview and ideology regarding where it places religious authority—whether with the individual, the norms of congregation or with Jewish law as determined by that denomination’s rabbinic scholars. This leads to widely different religious practices.
Nevertheless, every denomination understands itself to be part of a larger Jewish community, which we call by its Hebrew term, Klal Yisrael, literally “the Community of Israel.”
Rabbi Julie Zupan is the associate director at Reform Jewish Outreach Boston, which welcomes interfaith couples and individuals exploring Judaism. She is also an instructor for Parenting Through a Jewish Lens, a program of Hebrew College.