High Holiday Tickets: High Prices, High Barriers to Involvement

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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4 thoughts on “High Holiday Tickets: High Prices, High Barriers to Involvement

  1. Such a timely entry! Just last night I was looking for somewhere for my husband and I to spend the High Holidays this year and was shocked and frustrated to find such high fees. One synagogue in the Boston area is charging $500 a person. Unfortunately we don’t have $1000 to spend this fall, any suggestions on where I should look in the Boston area?

  2. It depends on what kind of service you’re looking for. The JTA story linked to in the blog post includes links to websites for free Orthodox services. For Reform services, try contacting the Union for Reform Judaism’s outreach department in the Boston area. You can also look through the listings for synagogues in the Boston area at Connections in Your Area, our online database of synagogues, organizations and programs.

    One of the cheaper, and most friendly, places in Boston is Boston Jewish Spirit, which asks for a $100 donation per person.

    Best of luck!

  3. I know that dumping on synagogues for charging for high holidays is almost as sacred a fall tradition as college football, but the reality of the situation is that synagogues charge that much money because there are many people willing to pay for high holiday tickets rather than join a synagogue. Many synagogues rely on that line item in their budget every year. We can’t all have telethons and get celebrity donors to support our institutions. Also, many congregations do have space limitations on the holidays.

    My congregation does charge for tickets, but will also take whatever donation someone is willing to pay for tickets. No one is turned away at the door if they can’t pay.

  4. Alice, you’re right on all counts, but just because that’s the way business has been done, does that mean that’s how business should be done? Investing in development–either through contracting out with a freelance development person, sponsoring fund-raising events using connections from the synagogue or perhaps even joining forces with other synagogues in the area to raise money–could potentially provide the revenues that synagogues are “forced” to extract from unaffiliated Jews. One or two giving wealthy members of a synagogue could easily cover dozens of unaffiliated High Holiday participants. Or perhaps the debate needs to go further–the reason so many people don’t join synagogues is because they can’t see why it’s worth their investment. Synagogues need to provide services beyond K-13 schooling that will appeal to singles, 20-somethings, couples without children and empty-nesters.

    It is also true, as you say, that no one is turned away from (most) synagogues for inability to pay, but as our friend Paul Golin of JOI points out in the JTA article, the embarassment of asking for a free ticket no doubt prevents many from going to High Holiday services at all.

    While numerous services have sprouted up around the country that cater to the unaffiliated (and are either free or low-cost), they don’t provide the link to a lasting community that synagogue services do. While charging for tickets may allow synagogues to win the battle of covering their annual expenses, they’re losing the war of getting people to affiliate.

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