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Pay to Pray? Synagogues Are Rethinking the Old High Holidays Formula

Aug. 21, 2007

SAN FRANCISCO (JTA) -- When 63-year-old Steven Fruh was growing up in Manhattan, his parents did not belong to a synagogue. "They couldn't afford it," he says.

At the High Holidays, they would buy one ticket between them, for the congregation's overflow service in the basement.

"As a kid, I was very affected by this second-rate, third-rate thing," he says. "That's what I grew up with--this one ticket my parents shared, and not even in the main sanctuary."

The only thing that's changed since then is the price. Fifty bucks if you're lucky. Hundreds of dollars if you're not. As summer draws to a close, tens of thousands of unaffiliated American Jews begin the yearly hunt for affordable Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services, which fall this year on Sept. 12-14 and Sept. 21-22.

Tickets for these services are usually free for dues-paying members of a congregation, but can be quite expensive for non-members, if they are even available. Price is driven by demand--these are the only two times of the year that many Jews, synagogue members or not, step inside a shul. And while the extra crowd puts pressure on a synagogue's resources, it can also be a major source of revenue.

In recent years, however, more and more synagogues have begun opening their doors for free on the High Holidays. Some look at it as an outreach strategy aimed at introducing non-members to their congregation, in the hopes they will be so entranced with the community that they will become dues-paying members.

Other congregations view it as a mitzvah, providing worship opportunities for those who cannot afford tickets, or are away from home. Still others emphasize the communal responsibility aspect, explaining that a synagogue should be open to any Jew.

"It's a growing trend, dating back at least to the 1994 G.A. and the 50 percent intermarriage rate," says Mayer Waxman, former director of synagogue services for the Orthodox Union, referring to the General Assembly of the then-Council of Jewish Federations that focused on the results of the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey.

"The keruv," or in-gathering, "mentality has entered the mainstream," he says.

Many people credit Chabad-Lubavitch with spearheading the movement for free holiday services across the denominational spectrum. Building on its extensive network of more than 2,000 outreach centers, the movement operates a global search engine that lists free services at its centers around the world.

The Orthodox Union offers a list of "beginners minyanim" for the High Holidays on its Web site. Some are free, while others are low-cost.

None of the liberal streams offer such comprehensive listings, but they are taking other steps and individual congregations of various stripes are launching initiatives of their own.

Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, says there have always been some Conservative synagogues that offer free holiday services, but it's become "much more in vogue this past decade, especially the last five years."

He says the movement encourages synagogues to offer free tickets to a non-member for a year or two, but not forever. They need to ante up and join eventually, and it's up to the synagogues to encourage it.

Some congregations and institutions are going beyond just opening their doors:

  • The Young Adults Division of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia is co-sponsoring "Taste of the New Year," a first-time outreach event aimed at students and young Jewish professionals. At the Aug. 29 event, representatives of most local synagogues will hand out sips of kosher wine along with free seats to their High Holiday services.
  • Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld of Ohev Shalom-The National Synagogue in Washington is holding a "Honey Giveaway" on Sept. 11, blowing the shofar and giving away free High Holiday tickets at the corner of Connecticut and K.
  • Baltimore Hebrew Congregation is expecting 2,000 to 3,000 people for "Rosh Hashanah Under the Stars," a free Rosh Hashanah Eve service that it's sponsoring on Sept. 12 at Oregon Ridge Park. Things will get rolling at 5 p.m. with picnicking, family activities and a performance by the Israeli group Seeds of Sun. At sundown, seven shofars will be blown from the hills, and the service will be conducted from a symphony bandshell.

In general, most congregations will give tickets for free to those in financial need, but the person has to ask for it, a process many find embarrassing.

Paul Golin, assistant executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute, says synagogues should be more helpful. "If you really don't have the room, at least know what other services are going on in your community," he suggests. "That's very rare."

Most congregations of all denominations let young Jews in for free, or at a highly reduced rate.

The Conservative movement sponsors Project Reconnect, encouraging its member synagogues to offer free seats to young alumni of Conservative youth programs. In Manhattan, the High Holy Days Committee of the New York Metropolitan Conference of the Men of Reform Judaism sponsors "Bernie's Services," free services for students, young professionals and faculty members. Three to four hundred people attended last year.

Fewer synagogues are willing to open their doors for free to adults beyond college age. "It's a trend that makes more traditionally structured synagogues nervous," says Golin. "In the liberal movements, a lot of their economic model is built around the number of Jews that only come to synagogue three times a year, so they say, we have to make those days how we support ourselves financially."

While such thinking is widespread, none of the movements keep track of how member congregations' budgets are affected by High Holiday ticket sales.

Brenda Barrie, executive director of Beth Shir Sholom in Santa Monica, Calif., says she doesn't "think it's true" that synagogues need the holidays to stay afloat. Last year her congregation took in $7,500 during the holidays, but that barely covered renting a hall, paying for security, and providing food and drink.

"The High Holy Days aren't a moneymaker for us, not even close," she says.

Some congregations report that offering free services actually helps fundraising.

Last year, Congregation Sinai, a small Conservative synagogue in San Jose, Calif., offered free services for the first time. Congregational President Steve Dick reports they took in more money than in any previous year, as many of those who attended for free made substantial donations afterwards.

"People enjoyed the services, and wanted to contribute," Dick says. "Some even became members. The year before, when we charged for tickets, people felt that was their donation."

Chabad rabbis say free services help membership grow. "Our experience is, get people involved, get them excited, it generates more vitality in the Jewish community. And they say, hey! I want to support this," says Rabbi Mendel Lifshitz, who runs the three-year-old Chabad Jewish Center in Boise, Idaho.

That happened to 60-year-old retail salesman Jan Toas, who moved to the Philadelphia-area two years ago after many years as a self-described "three-times-a-year Jew," loosely affiliated with his family's Reconstructionist synagogue.

He went to the free Rosh Hashanah services last year at Congregation B'nai Abraham, a Lubavitch-led congregation in downtown Philadelphia, liked what he found, and joined up right after the holidays. "It was the most welcoming, non-judgmental place," he explains.

"Our philosophy is, everyone is welcome," says Rabbi Yochonon Goldman, spiritual leader of B'nai Abraham. That is, he admits, "an expensive philosophy, " and he "understands the perspective" of congregations that don't do it."

Even congregations that feel compelled to charge for tickets draw the line at actually turning people away. Congregation B'nai Israel, a small Conservative congregation in Danbury, Conn., charges for tickets, but doesn't check for them at the door.

"We've been doing it for years," says Rabbi Nelly Altenburger. "We have a number of 'regulars' who always show up, and there's always some kvetching."

Recently a board member suggested a "pay as you pray" system, whereby those who only want to come for the holidays would pay reduced dues. The idea was quickly voted down.

"We go back and forth a lot," Altenburger says. "But at the end of the day, we decided we are not going to check. That's not how we see ourselves."

That's not how Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, a gay- and lesbian-friendly congregation in New York, sees itself either. It's had an "Open Door" policy since its founding 15 years ago.

Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum says that for a community that has faced "so many barriers in coming to Judaism" over the years, offering free High Holiday services "has a deeply religious meaning for us, it's not just a strategic move."

And Steven Fruh, the one whose family needed to share one ticket when he was growing up, is now a member of Beth Simchat Torah -- these days he "gives significantly" to the congregation to make sure the doors are never closed.

Hebrew for "Head of the Year," the Jewish New Year. With Yom Kippur, known as the High Holy Days. Hebrew for "Joy of Torah," a fall holiday that celebrates the completion of the yearlong Torah cycle and the commencement of a new one. Hebrew for "Day of Atonement," the final of ten Days of Awe that begin with Rosh Hashanah. Occurs during the fall and is marked by a 24-hour fast. One of the most important Jewish holidays. Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." Hebrew for "commandment," it has two meanings. The first are the commandments given in the Torah. ("You should obey the mitzvah of honoring your parents!") The second is a good deed. ("Helping her carry her groceries home was such a mitzvah!") A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Hebrew for "fit" (as in, "fit for consumption"), the Jewish dietary laws. Simple musical instrument made from a ram's horn that is blown in synagogue on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, as well as each morning after daily services during the Hebrew month of Elul (the month leading up to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur). Hebrew for "bringing close," a term meaning Jewish outreach. Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation. Yiddish for "synagogue."
Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the West Coast correspondent for JTA. Formerly a features writer and New York correspondent for The Jerusalem Post, her first book, The Rebbe's Army: Inside the World of Chabad-Lubavitch (Schocken, 2003), was named one of the best religion books of 2003 by Publisher's Weekly.

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