Are Minimally Involved Shul Members “Parasites”?

The passion around the “Sharing the Burden” issue in Eretz Yisroel has been inflamed to the point that this week’s Hamodia asks the question on its front cover “Are Charedim Parasites?”. Of course Hamodia is asking the question rhetorically, but unfortunately many Torah Observant voices on the Internet and in our communities feel the answer is yes. Let’s look at this from a Shul perspective and see if there are any insights to be gained.

In a growth oriented Shul, an annual or biennial ritual involves finding/electing new officers and Gabbaim. In established Shuls, where many members have already filled those roles, it is sometimes difficult finding members to fill one of these positions of greater responsibility. It can sometimes be frustrating, and it would great if some more people would step up, but if we look closer at the spiritual mission of the Shul, we might conclude that it’s fine that some people don’t participate at all in the operation of the Shul.

As discussed previously, Shuls are a place for us to grow spiritually through prayer, learning Torah and acts of Chesed. Shul members are very happy when the Shul is being used to capacity as intended. To operate and serve its spiritual purpose, Shuls need people to perform the necessary roles. As long as the roles are adequately filled by willing participants, it’s absolutely fine that other members don’t participate in the operation. Sometimes new participants are needed to become officers, to daven, to teach, or to clean up after Shalosh Seudos, but as long as the Shul is operating properly, it’s fine that many members are just davening or learning or participating socially.

Perhaps we can look at the “Share the Burden” issue in this light. From a Torah perspective, countries, like everything in this world exist to support our spiritual growth. Major components of this supportive function is protecting and helping with the physical needs of the citizens. Depending on the countries resources, political structure and ingenuity, different levels of citizen participation are needed. If a country was satisfactorily providing these services with minimal willing citizen participation, due to ingenuity, resources or some other means, it would (or should) be happy to support most of its citizens in their spiritual and physical pursuits.

So perhaps the issue in both Shuls and countries is not so much to “Share the Burden”, but rather to insure the necessary participation, so that the Shul or country can fulfill its purpose. If the necessary functions are being fulfilled, there’s no problem with as many members or citizens benefiting physically and more importantly spiritually. “Share the Burden” implies everybody must participate, while I think that adequate participation is what’s necessary. How that translates into policy as to what is needed to insure adequate participation is a separate question.

6 thoughts on “Are Minimally Involved Shul Members “Parasites”?”

  1. Not so much “Share the burden” but “share the cost”.

    Every shul has members with different levels of involvement. Some come to daily minyanim and shiurim, others only enter the building once a year.
    Obviously it would be easier to maintain strong minyanim, shiurim, and other activities if more people were more active, but the shul can operate according to the needs of the congregants, whatever that may be, even if it can’t maintain a daily minyan or daf-yomi shiur.

    HOWEVER, if there are congregants who refuse to pay anything into the upkeep of the shul (whether through membership fees or other types of payments), this rightly upsets other members because they need to pay more than their fair share, just to keep the shul open.

    If a large percentage of the membership expect the building to be maintained and have running water and electricity, but refuse to contribute financially – they really are acting like parasites. if they also demand the right to daven from the Amud or receive aliyot or other honours, they have chutzpa as well.

    1. Michael, most/many Shuls have members who don’t/can’t pay anything. Many have argued that everybody can/should pay something, which may be true, but because our Shul is meeting its budget, we choose the route of not pressing those people who don’t pay anything. And we give them full rights. The resulting peace and furthering of the Shul’s goals are well worth that price.

      If the Shul can survive operationally and financially, we want whoever can benefit from our services to come. I will point out in all fairness that some people agree with you and feel that everybody should contribute, but part of that is due to the governing structure of our Shul. In a Chabad or Shteibel which is owned and financed by the Rebbi, non operational/financial participation by some members is accepted.

      In regards to a large percentage not paying, that might be a different story depending on the Shul’s structure and needs.

      1. The comparison is not valid. I’ve never heard anyone suggest that Shul members should be able to decide if they wish to pay dues or not. Of course consideration is given to those in financial difficulties. No Shul worth its existence is going to revoke membership from a struggling congregant. However, when the Shul has to pay the bills, it’s going to press members to pay their dues. There is no real ability to force payment, and most Shuls don’t wish to revoke memberships, but they would be in their right to do so.

        It seems many people (probably most are Charedi) do not understand the difference between a freeloader and a person in desperate straits. The former is capable of earning/paying his own way but chooses not to. The latter would love to be able to, but can’t. Not too many people have sympathy for a freeloader.

        1. Avi, the extremes, can’t pay and can pay but doesn’t, are easy to define,and most people including myself would agree on your conclusions on those groups.

          But the majority of our non-paying cases fall in the grey area, i.e. not doing great financially, but not clear exactly what they can or should pay. In those cases, since our Shul is financially stable, we give the non-paying member full rights.

          So I think most people can tell the difference between freeloaders and desperate straits, however it’s that large middle category where this post comes into play. And in well financed shtiebels, there is sometimes no demand to Share the Burden at all.

  2. But it’s not the case that the shul is always right.

    Sometimes a shul can lose sight of its proper function, and become an organization whose only direction is to support its staff and the “old guard” of its membership. When that happens, the only choice may be to vote with your feet or (the absense of) your checkbook.

    1. David, in all non-trivial situations, the Shul will be right for some and not right for others, because people are often not looking for Covey-like synergistic solutions.

      The case you mention, transitioning from the “old guard” to a “newer guard” is one of the most difficult Shul situations. On one hand the “old guard” has put much time and resources to build and maintain the Shul. On the other hand, the “newer guard” often has a different set of needs then the “old guard” and will often be the primary source of new members.

      The foundation of a solution is to integrate the “newer guard” into the governing structure and over time move the Shul in the direction that the “newer guard” desires. People who want instant results will be disappointed as Shuls are generally longer term situations.

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