No One Should have to Pay to Pray

Every year there is a big debate as to whether or not people should have to buy advance tickets to attend High Holiday services. Known as “pay to pray,” this practice, while beneficial from a financial standpoint, can also be seen as a cost barrier for people who want to attend synagogue on what many consider the holiest days of the year.

JOI weighed in on the matter with an op-ed in the daily Metro newspaper, which is published in New York, Boston and Philadelphia. We believe people shouldn’t have to pay to pray, especially this year when we have such high unemployment and a sour economy. Giving someone the opportunity to experience the High Holidays for free might encourage them to come back and even pay annual dues.

Through our Big Tent Judaism Coalition, we have heard from many places across the country that offer free High Holiday services. Temple Adat Shalom in Poway, CA has a number of services with free admission, and Congregation Shirat Hayam in Marshfield, MA is free for all who approach. You can also check out BTJ’s Directory of Welcoming Organizations to find synagogues and congregations in your area that might offer free or reduced cost tickets for the High Holidays.

Nationally, Chabad also offers an easy and accessible online search for free High Holiday services everywhere from “Alabama to Wisconsin.” And as they did last year, Nashuva is working with to stream its Yom Kippur services. Anyone with an internet connection will be able to participate. Last year the service drew an estimated audience of 200,000 from all over the world.

We urge you to contact your local Jewish federations to find out if there are any free High Holiday services being offered in your area, or if any congregations offer reduced cost tickets for non-members. No one should be shut out on these holidays. And if you know of free services in your area, we invite you to leave comments on this blog with information!

To read the article in its entirety, click the link below.

No One Should Have to Pay to Pray
Published Sept. 15, 2009
Metro Daily Newspaper, New York City

Somewhere along the way in Jewish history in North America, we created a myth. This myth continues to be perpetuated each year in most communities, though there are a few bold, practical thinkers who attempt to shatter it. The myth is that it costs money to pray, especially during the High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and advanced-purchase tickets are required.

The practice, often referred to as “pay-to-pray,” is becoming less and less popular with a Jewish community that continues to struggle with membership and affiliation. Every year the same arguments are tossed around. On the one hand, synagogues understand the financial benefits, as these are the two days a year that people are willing to pay for services. On the other hand, being Jewish shouldn’t be cost prohibitive. Giving someone the opportunity to experience the High Holidays for free might encourage them to come back and even pay annual dues.

This year is different, though. With high unemployment and a poor economy, many families simply can’t afford to pay yearly dues, much less fork over additional money for the High Holidays. Recent surveys have found that dues-paying members are reaching out more than ever for help from their synagogues. How can we expect these folks to stay involved if they can’t even afford to pray during what many consider to be the holiest days of the year?

Luckily, there are a growing number of places for these families to turn. Chabad, well-known for their ubiquitous large menorahs for Hanukkah, has long offered free services for anyone who arrives. They even have an online directory where you can easily look up the closest Chabad service in your area. In New York, Congregation Beth Simchat Torah fills to capacity an oversized room the Jacob Javits Center on Yom Kippur. Some congregations, like Nashuva in Los Angeles, put their High Holiday services online.

Whatever the method, money should never be the deciding factor for someone considering a trip to synagogue. We understand that Jewish institutions are not immune from the bad economy, but they need to ask what’s more important: a few extra dollars during the High Holidays, or free services that can lead to a lifetime of engagement?


  1. I read your article on “Pay to Pray” with interest.

    Even though I make an OK living I cannot join a synagogue because the cost is prohibitive, plus many synagogue’s want you to pay for holiday tickets also. As the article mentioned in my area the only place you can go is the Chabad.

    In fact when I was in synagogue the other week the synagogue’s president basically said that if you are not member they really don’t want you there. So your basic premise is correct, if you don’t pay your dues they don’t want you in the temple or synagogue.

    If jewish institutions would concentrate more on getting people in the synagogue then as members perhaps these institutions would be in better shape.

    Comment by jackie — September 16, 2009 @ 7:38 pm

  2. We put together this resourceful website which lists over 100 locations which offer services which are either for free or very affordable. Each location is open to Jews of all denominations, and offer services which are meaningful and easy to follow, in a non judgmental atmosphere.

    Check it out at

    Comment by Shira — September 17, 2009 @ 9:02 am

  3. my parents are members of an Orthodox shul even though they rarely attend services and are not Orthodox themselves. in the past, they’ve had to pay for HH tickets in addition to membership dues. i’ve always expressed uncomfortability with this, as well as the fact that i am often bored during the services. this year, they flat out refused to pay for the tickets on account of not being able to afford it…the board granted them free tickets for both RH and YK. not bad. if only it were like this all the time…though it still wouldn’t change my feeling towards Orthodox services, i’d feel better knowing that the cost had been waived.

    Comment by h. — September 17, 2009 @ 1:51 pm

  4. Check out this website for free services in the outer Northern VA suburbs:

    Comment by Sheri Brown — September 18, 2009 @ 9:05 am

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