Across the spectrum, including among the Orthodox, synagogues have done an admirable job in recent years making themselves more welcoming to the unaffiliated, the intermarried and the just plain timid. There’s a long way to go, but between Chabad’s outreach, the Reform movement’s embrace of interfaith families and the Conservative movement’s push for keruv, religious life is more welcoming and more accessible than it’s ever been. Which makes it all the more unfortunate that the practice of charging non-members for High Holiday tickets–and in some cases, barring non-members from attending–persists.
It’s one of the most shortsighted strategies in modern religion: during the small number of days that Jews actually want (or at least feel obligated) to go to synagogue, congregations charge them exorbitant prices to enter, either through one-off ticket prices or a requirement that the non-member pay dues to join the synagogue. Rather than use the holidays of Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah as an occasion to show non-members how welcoming they are, they use it as an occasion to show how restrictive–and expensive–they are.
For years, the excuse for such unwelcoming practices has always been financial. If we don’t get non-members to join during the High Holidays, when we have something they want, when will we get them to join? But this rationale ignores the possibility that there may be many people–like myself when I was living in San Diego–who are so turned off by High Holiday ticket prices that they don’t go to synagogue at all during the holidays. While congregations are responding to the market, and charging for a seemingly scarce resource when demand outstrips supply, they are also pricing out a portion of their potential market.
Thankfully, as Sue Fishkoff of JTA reports, there is a growing trend for “praying without paying” during the High Holidays. Inspired by Chabad, which holds free High Holiday services at most of its locations world-wide, synagogues in other movements are beginning to open their doors during the holidays to non-members, free of charge. The Conservative movement, for example, encourages synagogues to offer free tickets to a non-member for a year or two. In New York, the New York Metropolitan Conference of the Men of Reform Judaism sponsors free High Holiday services for students, young professionals and faculty members.
Meanwhile, Chabad continues to argue that not charging for the High Holidays contributes to long-term membership and who can argue? New Chabads pop up weekly in ever more obscure places, and continue to surprise local synagogues with the number of Jews they engage on a regular basis. Moreover, Chabad uses innovative fundraising techniques, from cultivating large regional donors (as opposed to congregational donors) to holding celebrity-studded telethons. It doesn’t hurt that the slichim (emissaries) that start synagogues are young, driven couples who essentially work for free for several years as they get their Chabad centers off the ground.
But the rest of the Jewish world could learn a thing or two from Chabad’s marketing and fundraising, starting with its strategy of not charging for people to hear the shofar blast.
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