August 30, 2007
‘Praying without paying’ becomes more common
Los Angeles/Southern California guide to free High Holy Day services
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 said.
At the High Holy Days, 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 said. "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 nonmembers, 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 Holy Days. Some look at it as an outreach strategy aimed at introducing nonmembers 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.
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, which lists free services at its centers around the world (see box) .
The Orthodox Union offers a list of "beginners minyanim" for the High Holy Days on its Web site, http://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, said 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 said 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.
Most congregations of all denominations will give free tickets 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, said 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 also let young Jews in for free, or at a highly reduced rate.
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," Golin said. "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 Holy Days ticket sales.
Brenda Barrie, executive director of Beth Shir Sholom in Santa Monica said 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 said.
Some congregations see offering free tickets as part of their mission. Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, a gay- and lesbian-friendly congregation in New York, has had an "Open Door" policy since its founding 15 years ago.
Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum said 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, 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.
Here are some local options for free High Holy Day services:
Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills
Hillel at UCLA
Temple Israel of Hollywood
Temple Israel of Hollywood will offer a free Yizkor service on Sept. 22, at 4 p.m. The community Yizkor service will not be held at the synagogue. For more information call (323) 876-8330 or visit www.tioh.org.
The Board of Rabbis of Southern California
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