More shuls opt out on pay to pray at holidays
By Sue Fishkoff
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SAN FRANCISCO (JTA)—When 63-year-old Steven Fruh was growing up in Manhattan, his parents didn’t 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.
Tickets for High Holiday services are often free for dues-paying members of a congregation, but can be quite expensive for non-members, if they are available at all. 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, www.chabad.org/HighHolidayServices, which 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, at www.ou.org/community_services/minyan. 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, for example, is co-sponsoring “Taste of the New Year,” an outreach event aimed at students and young Jewish professionals. At the event, representatives of most local synagogues will hand out sips of kosher wine along with free seats to their High Holiday services.
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.
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.”
However, none of the movements keeps 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, which barely covered renting a hall, paying for security, food and drink.
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 3-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 of B’nai Abraham. That is, he admits, “an expensive philosophy” and he “understands the perspective” of congregations that don’t.
Congregations that feel compelled to charge for tickets draw the line at turning people away. Congregation B’nai Israel in Danbury, Conn., charges for tickets, but doesn’t check for them at the door.
“At the end of the day, we decided we are not going to check,” said Altenburger. “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.