October 9, 1997
‘If She Couldn’t Pay, She Couldn’t Pray’
As a Jew in his early 30s,I have had many different experiences of beauty and pain during theTen Days of Awe, ranging from the first time I started to reallyunderstand the implications of being on trial for my life, to thefirst Yizkor after my father's death. Yet last year, I experiencedsomething that made me feel more emotion than I can remember everhaving at this time, and, unfortunately, the feeling was that ofanger toward other Jews.
A friend of mine had not been to services duringRosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur for many years, mainly because she feltthat most temples were filled with hypocrites who were not reallypresent in prayer. Rather, they seemed to be there out of a sense ofguilt or a desire to "network" with other congregants. She had prayedwith Native Americans and Africans, yet she was disconnected from heroriginal faith. An out-of-work actress who was financially strappedat the time, she came to me last year with the desire to attendservices. Although she couldn't really afford the tickets, she toldme that she would be willing to do menial labor or secretarial workin exchange for being allowed to come pray before the Torah on theseHigh Holy Days. She claimed that after many years of being away fromher tradition and tribe, she would like to reconnect to her roots andstart to experience again the beauty of Judaism. I referred her to asynagogue that I respect, and she called and requested to come toservices. She was told that she would not be allowed to come and prayunless she could immediately pay $150 for tickets. If she couldn'tpay, she couldn't pray.
She called me back, angry, upset and humiliated.Obviously, if she had the money, she would have been happy to donateit. But she was told by the person at the synagogue that it was themandate handed down by the board of directors and that there was noother alternative. She conveyed to me her frustration, and thisinteraction merely reinforced her pain and discomfort with her owntradition. An opportunity to bring a Jewish woman back to hertradition was wasted, and, even more, she felt antipathy to her ownroots and the ways the culture expressed itself.
I understand that there are important financialneeds in every synagogue. The cost of the rabbis and staff, buildingupkeep, hall rental for the special celebrations, and otherfacilities and services provided are extremely expensive. Like anyorganization, it is a process of love to be on the board of directorsand a difficult job at best. Balancing the books and making sure thatends meet are always tough, and even tougher when all too many Jewsare involved with their synagogue only for the High Holy Days,weddings, bar mitzvahs and funerals. But throughout the financialtrials that we experience, it is imperative that we do not forget whywe are involved with the synagogue in the first place, what it reallymeans to be a Jew, and what our responsibilities are to eachother.
"Do not treat others in a way that you would notwant to be treated. This is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary."If you did not have the funds to go to services but still wanted togo pray, you would never want to be humiliated and made to feel shamefor wanting to come to the synagogue. The Torah was given to all ofus, and it cannot be stressed too much that we should all help eachother out in times of need. In our wealth and complacence, we haveforgotten that we always need to bind together, that we need towelcome each other into our homes and hearts, that we must take careof each other. If it is a mitzvah to welcome guests to our homes onShabbat, how much more important is it to welcome Jews back tosynagogue on the Shabbat of Shabbats, Yom Kippur?
We all have many friends who are Jewish but whohave no relationship with their culture whatsoever. They have deniedtheir roots and do not even come to the High Holy Days. They have noguilt about this, for, consistently, they feel that the Jewishcommunity turned its back on them, and that this forced them toreject the tradition and culture.
When someone like this has a desire to come backto the culture, this desire should be treated as a delicate spark andbe used to ignite a fire of passion and love for our beautifulheritage. This year, welcome these brothers and sisters. Encouragethem to come and daven with other Jews. Realize that they might useany excuse not to.