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Balancing Acts

Congregations strive to keep holiday ticket prices low and their doors opento the unaffiliated despite additional expenses.


by Ellen Jaffe-Gill

September 7, 2000 | 8:00 pm

Rabbi Shlomo Schwartz, expects to host more than 2,000 worshipers in a user-friendly,English-language Orthodox service near LAX.

Rabbi Shlomo Schwartz, expects to host more than 2,000 worshipers in a user-friendly,English-language Orthodox service near LAX.

A common complaint of the unaffiliated Jew is having to buy tickets for the High Holy Days services they choose to attend. They see it as being required to "pay to pray" and often get quite huffy about what they see as a predatory hunger for cash on the part of synagogues.

The temples, on the other hand, see charging for High Holy Days tickets as a matter of survival, and their leaders and staffers are understandably annoyed at religiously marginal Jews' stubborn cluelessness about what it takes to run a house of worship.

"In addition to the extra time for hourly staff, we rent chairs for additional attendance, we pay child-care workers, we order supplies for the children, we bring in special outside program runners for junior congregation and children's services, we pay for valet parking, and more," said Lisabeth Lobenthal, executive director of Adat Shalom in West Los Angeles. "The amount for seats barely offsets our additional expenses."

Brenda Brook, a staffer at Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills, reeled off a similar litany: "Increased security, Beverly Hills police and fire protection, increased payroll costs, musicians, music, audio technicians, publicity, printing, additional maintenance help, child care, temporary office help."

And those are temples that stay in their own buildings for the holidays. Many synagogues, whose sanctuaries don't accommodate the extra crowds that come for holiday services, rent larger spaces, with good-sized congregations going into hotel ballrooms, theaters, and civic auditoriums, while small congregations go into churches, larger synagogues, and secular spaces such as hotel meeting rooms. Those rents constitute a hefty expense.

And for a lot of temples, the sale of High Holy Days tickets is an important and necessary fundraiser. "Ours is a small congregation comprised mainly of older people on fixed incomes who are not able to endow us with large sums of money," said Harvey Malloy, president of Congregation Beth Ohr in Studio City. "This is the one time of year that we are able to raise money to support our rabbi and pay our overhead for the year. We welcome guests, but we will only be able to meet our financial obligations if everyone contributes."

"It's simply a matter of keeping the doors open," said Rabbi Michael Beals of B'nai Tikvah Congregation in Westchester. "For us, High Holiday tickets are a budget item. The synagogue counts on a certain number of High Holiday tickets sold to make the budget each year."

There are philosophical considerations at work too. Synagogues want Jews to become members, supporting the institution year-round - and coming to services year-round. "The only way we can create a synagogue that really makes a difference in people's lives is through Jews supporting [them] by being members of the congregational community," said Laura Geller, senior rabbi at Temple Emanuel.

"We're here for the community all year because our member families support us," said Sheryl Goldman, executive director of Congregation Beth Am near Beverly Hills. "On the High Holidays, those who choose not to affiliate by way of full synagogue membership are asked to do their financial part for the community." To encourage membership, many congregations allow purchasers of holiday tickets to apply the cost of the tickets to membership dues if they decide to join.

Some institutions, of course, do offer free seats for holiday services, most visibly the Chabad network of Chassidic congregations and the Chai Center, whose rabbi, Shlomo Schwartz, expects to host more than 2,000 worshipers in a user-friendly, English-language Orthodox service near LAX.<?p>

"At Chabad, you don't have to pay to pray. It's a fundamental belief we have that goes back to the Baal Shem Tov, the father of Chassidism," said Rabbi Chaim Cunin, director of public relations for West Coast Chabad Lubavitch. "If someone comes to us on Rosh Hashanah for their first encounter with Judaism, the last thing we want to do is ask them to pull out their checkbook."

In an unusual move, a small Conservative congregation in Gardena that's planning a move to Torrance, Southwest Temple Beth Torah, is opening all its services to the public without tickets. "We'd like to offer Jews a place to go," said Jo Kahn, one of the temple's vice presidents. "And we'd like to have as many unaffiliated Jews as possible join us for holiday services, because we want them to see what we're all about and if they'd like to join us once we relocate."

Goldman pointed out that her temple never turns away anyone who truly can't pay for holiday tickets, a policy of many area synagogues. And while horror stories abound of temples that have given financially strapped would-be congregants a hard time, and while it isn't a lot of fun to approach a synagogue kippah in hand, so to speak, it is often possible to arrange for tickets at a congenial shul at little or no cost.A number of congregations keep their ticket prices well under the local median of about $175 for the full series. "We charge $95 because it's enough to help the budget without scaring people off," Beals said. "Some synagogues make the tickets so expensive that it's cheaper to become members. But we realize that people are at different levels of Jewish growth, and we don't want to shut people out of the experience because they can't afford it. So we're not going to price them out."

"If someone calls a synagogue and are told they can't go to services unless they pay $300, that could be the last Jewish decision they make in their lives. We can't let that happen," said Rabbi Yaacov Deyo, education director of Aish Los Angeles, an Orthodox institution.

But Aish does charge a nominal fee these days for its beginner's High Holy Days services, which used to be free. "We found that if we didn't [charge], people didn't take it seriously," Deyo said.Keep in mind that some synagogues, for reasons of space or for philosophical reasons, don't make tickets available at all to nonmembers.

When Rabbi Elazar Muskin arrived at Young Israel of Century City 15 years ago, he was informed that the Orthodox shul does not distribute High Holy Days tickets. "I thought to myself, 'Finally, somebody understands. It's not a show,'" Muskin said. "The philosophy is to encourage membership, involvement and commitment."

While synagogues, like businesses, have financial bottom lines, they also have a doctrinal bottom line: Jewish worship is a week-in, week-out proposition, not a once-a-year event, and week-in, week-out worship is absolutely free. "Synagogue doors are open daily, on Shabbat and for every other holiday of the year for those who wish to worship, all without a fee," Goldman said.

Rabbi Mark Diamond, the new executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, fielded many angry e-mails on the issue of buying holiday tickets when he administered an "Ask the Rabbi" board on America Online. "When we think of the question, 'Why do I have to pay to pray?' that's a very consumer-oriented way of looking at spirituality and synagogue membership. It's unfortunate," he said. "My message would be to convey to people the importance of belonging to a congregation. That's what it means to be a part of the Jewish community."

"There was a time when Jews were involuntarily taxed to support the community, the rabbi's salary, maintenance of the building, et cetera," Lobenthal said. "For better or worse, we no longer enjoy that luxury."

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