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Jewish Journal

The High Cost of High Holidays

By Julie Gruenbaum Fax,

by Julie G Fax

September 10, 1998 | 8:00 pm

For 25 years after his bar mitzvah, Bob Feldman didn't attend High Holiday services, and he felt little compunction -- "about 20 percent guilt and the rest...nothing at all."

So when some friends suggested he attend Rosh Hashanah services at the Westin LAX Hotel a few years ago, he said why not -- it's free.

"If they had said it was going to cost 150 bucks, I would have said, 'You've got to be kidding,'" says Feldman, a composer/musician who lives in Santa Clarita.

As it turns out, Feldman enjoyed the services run by Rabbi Shlomo Schwartz, aka Schwartzie, who offers free services for about 3,000 people a year. Feldman has gone back every year, and now sends donations too.

Feldman's story is typical of the small fraction of unaffiliated Jews who end up at free services. But for thousands of others who see the High Holidays as an unnecessary and meaningless religious burden, the $50-to-$400 price tag is the perfect excuse not to attend.

"I have a lot of friends who could afford tickets but wouldn't necessarily go," says Patrice Fisher, another Schwartzie returnee. "They don't go throughout the year, and they don't want to pay $200 or $400 to go to one of the big shuls where they don't know anybody and they have to sit in back...and they find it hard to follow services."

Some institutions, such as Schwartzie's Chai Center and Chabad, reach out to just these type of peripheral Jews -- and to those who genuinely can't afford tickets -- by offering free services.

"There has to be someplace you can go for nothing. People began to use the ticket thing as an excuse, and I'm taking away their excuse," says Schwartz, who runs his traditional and user-friendly service with a hefty dose of comedy.

But for most mainstream synagogues -- with buildings, staffs and year-round programming -- the issue becomes more complex.

'We Need to Charge'

This is the time of year when a good chunk of a synagogue's budget comes in, when both active members and those who show their faces only for High Holidays and life-cycle events are expected to support the institution.

"My father had a strong philosophy that if you came to his shul, you were a member," says Rabbi Yitzchok Summers, who took over for his father, Rabbi Allan Summers, at Anshe Emes in Pico-Robertson. "The problem is it's hard to support a synagogue that way."

Rabbi Michael Resnick of Adat Shalom in West Los Angeles is more blunt.

"In an ideal world, I would love to have services be open to everybody and, in fact, would love to have a synagogue that charged no dues whatsoever. But, unfortunately, the reality of doing programs is that we need to charge."

Rabbis urge High Holiday attendees to recognize that they are paying for the institution's existence, and not merely for a seat for a few hours.

Admission fees also serve as a method of crowd control and ensure that longtime synagogue supporters are rewarded for their investment -- be it financial or time -- with good seats.

"The idea is not to make the High Holidays a fund-raiser," says Rabbi Steven Tucker of Temple Ramat Zion in Northridge. "The idea is to cover the cost of doing this. We try to be accommodating on the one hand, while being fair to those of our members who support the place on the other."

Money vs. Morale

Many disgruntled worshipers -- or those who don't bother going at all -- say the issue goes deeper than the prices; it has to do with the financial culture that seems to permeate synagogue life.

"I know that temples need to make money to keep doing what they do, but it all seems so money-driven," says David Robinson, who can't afford the tickets, let alone shul membership.

Echoing a widely heard complaint, Robinson wrote a letter to The Jewish Journal, saying that "synagogues charge people to practice Judaism."

"It always made me mad and embarrassed to be Jewish," he said in a phone interview. "It seems like it reinforces bad stereotypes about us."

For many, the ticket price and perceived emphasis on money reinforce a resentment at having to pay to pray. They see it as an insult to their spiritual integrity to put a price tag on their time with God.

For others, $200 is the final tug that breaks a tie to Judaism which was tenuous to begin with. If they were hesitant about attending services at all -- sometimes doing it out of a vague sense of nostalgia or guilt -- the dollar amount will make the decision for them.

Rabbi Harold Schulweis of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino contends that most complaints about synagogue costs are not really about money, but about morale.

"The real issue is, do you believe that the synagogue is an institution that is indispensable for the advancement and preservation of Jewish life? Do you think it's worth it? That question is much deeper than is it too expensive," says Schulweis, whose synagogue offers tuition-free Hebrew school to members.

Professional synagogue watchers agree that the perennial September battleground has more to do with the perception of the relationship between the synagogue and the community than with actual dollars.

But the problem works both ways, according to Ron Wolfson, a principal investigator with the transdenominational Synagogue 2000, a project that's researching the future of synagogue life.

"On both sides of the equation, we have to rethink the conversation about what does it mean to belong to a synagogue," says Wolfson, who is vice president and director of the Whizin Center for the Jewish Future at the University of Judaism. "On one side, we have to say to the congregant, don't treat this like you would a consumer transaction. That is the wrong approach," he says.

Rather, both rabbi and prospective member need to examine whether this is a good match, whether the synagogue can provide the kind of community the congregant is looking for.

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