Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Paying for High Holiday Tickets

Who shall live and who shall die? Who shall pray for free and who needs to buy?

Okay, so maybe those aren't the exact words of the Unetaneh Tokef prayer on the High Holidays, but "pay to pray" is once again the big conversation as the High Holy Day season approaches with Rosh Hashanah beginning tomorrow evening.

High Holiday Tickets - Pay to Pray

Many synagogues require membership for attendance during the High Holidays or they charge a fee (or suggest a minimum donation). An increasing number of congregations, however, are offering free services and hope that attendees will generously contribute a donation after the holiday. Just about no synagogue will intentionally turn anyone away who wishes to pray during these Days of Awe. The famous Jewish joke comes to mind:

A Jewish man comes to the door of a synagogue on Rosh Hashanah without a ticket and explains to the usher that he doesn't want to stay, he just wants to give a message to someone inside. After a tense confrontation, the synagogue usher finally agrees to let the guy in, but he warns him sternly: "I better not catch you praying in there."

There is a certain misnomer about the tradition of synagogues requiring tickets on the High Holidays. It is not that synagogues are trying to make Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services like a sporting event (although some synagogues do have assigned seating). Rather, synagogues are trying to stay in business and be able to collect membership dues. For many Jewish people, the High Holiday services are the only "service" they find themselves using at the synagogue. Therefore, if congregations didn't require membership to attend those services, they wouldn't collect enough membership dues to balance the annual budget. Thus, High Holiday tickets are really just a way for congregations to collect dues. For many synagogues, the fiscal year begins over the summer so getting congregants to pay dues payments during the first quarter of the fiscal year is highly advantageous as they set the annual budget.

Free High Holiday tickets is also a misnomer because just about any congregation offering complimentary attendance at their Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur prayer services is expecting donations in return for their generosity. In other words, in exchange for not charging a fee you will likely receive an empty self-addressed envelope with an expectation.

The "pay to pray" on the High Holidays tradition has even made its way into pop culture. A few years back Larry David satirized the idea of High Holiday tickets on his HBO TV show "Curb Your Enthusiasm." When Jeff Garlin wasn't able to procure a couple tickets to temple on Yom Kippur for his friend Larry, his only hope was to find a scalper outside the Los Angeles temple. Here's the clip:

No synagogue wants to turn anyone away from a prayerful experience on the High Holidays. They are just trying to keep their doors open and balance an often challenging budget. Appropros of this, Adina Kay-Gross wrote a particularly insightful article recently in Kveller.com about the difficulty many young families have paying for High Holiday tickets.

I’m at home. My kids are upstairs napping. The mail arrives. I run to catch the carrier before he slams our mailbox cover, setting off a domino effect of barking dog and kids woken too soon. Top of the mail pile? Envelope addressed to my children. Not in the handwriting of their grandmothers. Who else sends them mail? I check return address: it was from the shul we had just visited for the challah baking extravaganza. I open the envelope up. Inside is a letter to my kids, thanking them for coming to the PJ library event, and two high holiday tickets, one for me and one for my husband, along with an invitation to join the congregation at Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services, as guests of the synagogue. No fee required, no RSVP necessary, no literature on synagogue membership. No “pay for pray.” Just a warm and welcoming gesture from an established community to a new family in town. It was so simple, so menschy, and so right.

The Talmud teaches kol yisrael arevim zeh le zeh, which basically translates as “all of Israel is responsible for one another.” This synagogue took responsibility for my family. And it didn’t take much. They sent a note in the mail. They made it easy for us. They let us know they wanted us around.

Temple trustees, board members, presidents, and staff: during this high holiday season, if you find yourself in a position to open your doors to the young and unmoored, do so! Worry not about hosting poker nights or golf club extravaganzas. Don’t send bulletin after bulletin to a ream of addresses that mean nothing but wasted paper. Identify a family; throw two tickets in the mail. Include a schedule of childcare hours at the temple. Make it easy. They will come. And it will be sweet.

Some synagogues will continue to require High Holiday tickets -- either as a perk of membership or as a fee for service for non-members. Other synagogues will offer free High Holiday services and hope to collect enough donations to be fiscally responsible throughout the year. Still other congregations will begin to experiment with other membership models such as voluntary dues and endowed High Holiday services so anyone who wishes can attend without a fee. Whatever the case may be, the most important thing is that everyone who wishes to gather communally in prayer during these Days of Awe will be able to -- regardless of financial ability. After all, it is the feeling of togetherness that we all seek during this season.

Shanah Tovah! May it be a year of health, happiness and peace!


J. Stern said...

Rabbi - where do I begin with my thoughts on this...I have lived in the Metro Detroit area all of my life and have struggled all of my adult life to find a place to attend high holiday services that did not require a paid ticket and where I could make a donation I could afford afterward. Most temples, synagogues etc. say they have a tiered plan however, they expect everyone of a certain age to make a certain amount of money and therefore be able to afford x amount for a ticket. If you can't afford that, you need to provide 3 years of tax returns to the finance committee and they will get back to you w/a reduced amount ticket (true story). Because I will not play this game, I have attended services in more places than I can count and not been able to create any type of affiliation. Luckily, for the last 7 years or so my family and I have attended services at a very small out of the way temple without the need of a tickets and although my we make a nice donation after the holidays we are still sent dues invoices every year which we ignore. That the reality of being a Jew at the High Holidays in Metro Detroit.

Rachel kapen said...

Pay to pray indeed doen't sound very good, however, synagogues are not maintained by the government but by the congregation who has to pay a yearly membership or charge a fee from those who choose not to be members. My son comes from out of town so I get him a ticket, it's only fair.

Roland Hansen said...

In regards to mandatory dues paid up membership or requiring the purchase of tickets to attend synagogue services on the High Holy Days, I have heard and listened to arguments pro and con. I believe our business-minded synagogues are more concerned about dues, financial donations, and other money matters than they are about our religion and the entire "Jewish community" as a whole. Chabad may be somewhat aggressive in seeking financial donations but Chabad welcomes everybody regardless of financial means without question or "application" for dues or "tickets" waiver and does not require payment to attend services on the High Holy Days or any day. For several decades, I had been a bona fide synagogue dues paid member, but not any more. I have made and continue from time to time to make voluntary at-will donations to various synagogues and to Chabad and to other Jewish charitable causes. I will never ever pay synagogue dues again or buy tickets to pray and/or to observe and practice my Jewish religion.
In my humble opinion, a policy of "Pay to Pray" is sacrilegious.