When their religious new year begins at sundown Monday, Jews across the world will begin a 10-day period of spiritual reflection to atone for their wrongdoing and reconcile with God. For many, holiday worship also will have an impact on their wallets.
Synagogues often charge hundreds of dollars for tickets to attend services for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, called the High Holy Days because they are among the most sacred in the Jewish calendar.
The expense of participating has become a simmering issue within the Jewish community, with leaders trying to balance their desire to strengthen observance with the need to cover costs. There also is a fear that high-priced tickets create a disincentive for Jews who don’t belong to a synagogue.
“The holidays are a time for people to connect. When you distract it with money, it chases people away,” said Rabbi Eliyahu Schusterman, whose Hasidic Chabad Intown congregation has rented out an Atlanta hotel to offer free services to worshippers.
But congregational leaders say the cost is justified by the expense of organizing the services, which involves hiring extra clergy for worship that lasts hours each day, and the need to raise money for programs for the rest of the year.
“It’s how we help pay to keep the lights on,” said Mark Wolf, president of Congregation Beth Am in Los Angeles, where a balcony seat for services this year will cost nonmembers $180 and twice as much for a choice seat in the front.
“It’s a fact of life our dues structure doesn’t factor all of our expenses.”
Each year, adults take off work and students are excused from school to celebrate the holidays. Synagogues with sparse weekly attendance suddenly overflow with worshippers who spill into banquet rooms and auditoriums. On these rare days when the entire congregation is under one roof, rabbis and administrators appeal for financial support.
Synagogues also face a crush of the unaffiliated. Many are young college graduates yet to plant roots, “two-day” Jews with only nominal ties to the religion and those unwilling to pay annual membership costs that can exceed $1,000 per family.
The National Jewish Outreach Program, a nonprofit that aims to provide basic religious education to Jews so they remain within the community, said its research on the impact of the costly tickets revealed that they were a turnoff and should be reconsidered.
“We end up charging so much money we push people out,” said Rabbi Yitzchak Rosenbaum, director of the New York-based group.
At Atlanta’s Congregation Beth Shalom, nonmembers pay $360 a ticket. President David Klarman said the price was set to prod families to sign up for the $1,650 annual membership – which includes tickets – rather than buy individual tickets.
“You’ve got to encourage membership,” he said.
Beth Am in Los Angeles hosts an annual spring banquet, a music concert and other events. This year, the Second City comedy troupe is headlining a show. But Wolf said the 400 or so holiday tickets they sell each year is its largest fundraiser.
Some Jews who want to attend have taken to the Web seeking help.
Jason Glick, who moved to San Francisco last year, posted an online want ad in search of affordable tickets. “There’s got to be someone out there who’s going out of town or has a slightly capitalistic attitude,” said Glick, a 22-year-old paralegal.
Budget crunch or not, rarely will a synagogue turn away a worshipper who cannot afford a ticket. And many offer deep discounts for students, military personnel and relatives of members. Synagogues across the nation have opened their doors free of charge to Hurricane Katrina victims, and some offer reciprocity to members of the same branch of American Judaism from other parts of the country.
In Washington, D.C., Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld’s Ohev Sholom Talmud Torah Congregation sells tickets to members for $75 and nonmembers for $100, but allows anyone in the door for free. “Rather than view this as an opportunity to money grab, we should view this as an opportunity to bring people back to the synagogue. Jews belong to the synagogue,” he said.
The National Jewish Outreach Program is offering rabbis an abridged holiday program for nonmembers to compel synagogues to host free or low-cost services. So far, more than 40 synagogues have signed up.
“Jews have enough reasons to wander. We wandered for 40 years in the desert and we’re still wandering further,” Rosenbaum said. “We can do a better job bringing them in.”