Advice for Life: The Difficult Congregant


Q: How much eccentric behavior should a synagogue community tolerate?

I am the president of a small synagogue in the metropolitan area. Our staff consists of a part-time rabbi, a weekly bookkeeper and a maintenance person. Volunteers keep the synagogue going, and we pride ourselves on our welcoming environment. People of different ages and socioeconomic situations come to our services and programs.

Recently however, the behavior of one congregant, “Janet,” has become intolerable. Janet, who looks to be in her late 40s, lives with her elderly father in the neighborhood. She showed up in the synagogue last summer. While Janet appears healthy, she carries large bags of papers and possessions wherever she goes. More distressing is her regular interruption of services and classes with insistent questions, criticisms and occasional verbal outbursts. People avoid sitting next to her and some have even stopped coming to the class that she attends. At the same time, she is very engaged.

We assume that she has chronic psychological difficulties. The rabbi put a lot of effort into reaching out to Janet and meeting with her. She told him that she has been on psychiatric medication in the past but doesn’t need it any more, and that her affairs are none of his business. She then proceeded to send the rabbi lengthy e-mails on all sorts of religious and philosophic topics.

How far do we have to go to accommodate the needs of difficult congregants? Additionally, how much responsibility do we have to get involved in the social, financial and other needs of compromised persons?

– Sharon

Dear Sharon,

I want to start by commending your synagogue for making hospitality a core value. People with all sorts of differences — developmental, medical and emotional to name just a few — often feel marginalized and unwanted in mainstream Jewish life. This situation unfairly deprives these Jews of needed social and spiritual support. It also isolates the majority community from an awareness of diversity and the benefits of inclusion for themselves as well as for persons with disabilities or differences.

At the same time, any community needs to establish and maintain general rules of conduct. Certainly any person who exhibits physically threatening behavior must be escorted out of the synagogue, with police assistance, if necessary. Such a person should be allowed to return only when he/she demonstrates better self-control.

Janet’s conduct has disruptive and destructive elements. I encourage you, or another member of the board, along with the rabbi, to meet with Janet. The goal would be to jointly negotiate a clear code of conduct. Janet needs to know that she is a valued member of the community and that to preserve her dignity as well as synagogue decorum, she must abide by rules you will establish together. For example, while she might continue to bring her bags with her to services or programs, repeated interruptions or outbursts will result in her being asked to leave the room until she can regain composure.

I also applaud your rabbi for trying to establish an alliance with Janet. Having background information such as key contact people, finances and current mental or physical treatment allows the synagogue community to better support congregants’ needs. Outside of an emergency, the congregant’s permission is required before contacting any individuals or agencies related to such matters.

This being said, I want to emphasize that a synagogue should not attempt to be a primary mental or physical health-care facility. Inclusion should not be misunderstood as trying to provide a level of care that a synagogue is not equipped or designed to do.

A Clarification

Several readers critiqued my March column, “Difficult Promises,” in which Eddie, the observant son of a very ill father asks how to handle the conflict of values posed by his father’s insistence that his son arrange for cremation (which is forbidden by religious law) after the father’s death.

One writer felt that I should have encouraged more conversation between the two, hoping that each might better understand the other’s perspective. I always advocate for communication. Upon review, I see that my writing should have better conveyed Eddie’s concerted effort to speak with his dad and to empathize with the desperation and fear of death that might have underwritten his father’s insistence on cremation. I did not adequately portray how inaccessible the father was to dialogue. Certainly lying or misleading is to be avoided whenever possible. In addition, my use of “oath” and “promise” in one sentence implied interchangeability, which is incorrect.

Another Jewish Week reader captured the essence of the conflict in her critique: “The religious qualms of the son should not override his responsibility to his father.”

Eddie’s religious convictions posit that both he and his father are obligated to follow religious law. In making the choice to follow religious law, Eddie takes on the responsibility of working through guilt incurred by not carrying out his father’s wishes. Personal preference and religious tradition clash most painfully in this story.

Dr. Michelle Friedman, a psychiatrist, psychoanalyst and the director of pastoral counseling at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, invites Jewish Week readers to send questions to Issues related to psychology, psychiatry and the interface of mental health and general culture are welcome.

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