September 24, 1998
Strangers No More
By Marlene Adler Marks
On Yom Kippur, the last and greatest of the Days of Awe, Jews know that something big is at issue, the ebb and flow of life's grand themes, who shall live and who shall die, when even individuality and family are not enough. Cynics and true believers alike, we meet in "holy convocation," instinctively reaching out to each other, seeking the company of our truest soul mates. To my surprise, I find what I need not high on a mountain top alone, but on hard seats in overheated, cramped quarters, in, of all places, the synagogue.
The psychic angst of Yom Kippur may not be the most obvious lead-in to a discussion of High Holiday tickets, and yet, angst is the real bottom line. Synagogue is our community, it is the Jewish home base. For years it has been the whipping boy of Jewish life, the scorned symbol of everything staid and unmoving, resented and unloved. Yet now that the Holocaust and Israel have lost their force, the synagogue alone is our glue. When we choose our synagogue for the Holy Days, even as drop-ins, we seek the one that reflects us, the place where everybody (or somebody) might eventually know our name. Whether the cantor plays a tambourine, or the rabbi wears a designer tallis, community is our mirror. It is who we are. The question is, how do we get in?
My synagogue, Malibu Jewish Center & Synagogue, has had an "open tent" policy for some 10 years. We have a beautiful five-acre site overlooking the Pacific, but no permanent structure large enough for community services. Rather than adjourn to the local movie theater or high school auditorium, we erect a huge tent that stands between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, which accommodates everyone. And, until this year, anyone could come, for free.
The no-ticket policy is one that I have advocated proudly as board member and resident propagandist. Sitting in that tent is one of the great spiritual moments of the Jewish calendar. It's the way I find that prayer is possible, and I want to share it with everyone. I love it that we have not sold tickets, the paper symbol of Jewish elitism that has turned off so many. I love it that my community has a generous open heart, and I love the yearning crowds that answer its call.
Everything good about my synagogue has been summed up in the words "open tent." But this year, that policy changed, and finally, in contemplating the needs of my changing community, I understand why. Money is not the issue. A building fund (though essential) is not the issue. Desire to punish some Jews who want something for nothing is not the issue either.
When the board voted to charge non-members for seating passes (while allowing members to bring their guests without charge), it picked the middle ground in a raging battle in Jewish life: what is the best way to get Jews back in. With affiliation rates so low, but spiritual hunger so high, "tickets yes or no," can split a congregation in two. That it did not do so in Malibu testifies to the desire of a community to hang in there together, to know and hear each other.
I fought even the compromise policy for a long time, fearing we were reverting to selfishness and exclusivity. After all, the no-ticket policy cost nothing. Most synagogue boards insist that fiscal responsibility is the reason for selling tickets. It's not true. The open tent policy actually made money, through the generous contributions from appreciative members and non-members who wanted to reward our institutional bravery. We turned a profit every year, and brought in amounts equaling what fair-market tickets would have earned.
Beyond actual donations, the policy bought us lots of good will. Many of our members recall when they were too poor to belong to a synagogue, or that they were turned away for having no tickets.
The no-ticket policy meant that ambivalent Jews could still walk through the door, and discover where they belong.
But what if just the opposite occurred? During emotional meetings of our congregation, our activist members charged that the no-ticket policy actually discouraged membership and the very sense of belonging that in our generosity we had hoped to build. Rather than encouraging all who were needy to participate without consideration of cost, maybe free entry made belonging only one-sided: we, the synagogue, belong to you. But do you belong to us?
What an irony! Most people say they won't pay for tickets because they don't want to go to a shul where they don't know anyone. But what if the very act of paying for a ticket increases the odds you'll try to make yourself known.
The great convocation is upon us, the in-gathering of Yom Kippur. But this year I'm asking, what does it mean to belong?
Marlene Adler Marks is senior columnist of The Jewish Journal. Her e-mail address is email@example.com