The High Holidays are right around the corner, and synagogues all over the country are preparing for the annual influx of worshippers. At many synagogues, a ticketing model comes standard for the High Holidays, and worshippers must pay to attend services. However, as this article in the Forward notes, an increasing number of synagogues throughout the country are shifting to a cost-free High Holiday services model, with promising results.
Here at JOI, we have been advocating for steps such as lowered fees or free High Holiday services for some time now. Offering free samples is even one of the principles of our Big Tent Judaism Coalition. We strongly believe that lowering or eliminating the cost barrier is important in encouraging people to take that first step through our doors. But with the High Holidays, we don’t have to ask people to take that step – they will do it on their own, and we need to be ready for their arrival.
Luckily, many Jewish institutions are prepared and they are using the High Holidays to turn one time encounters into deeper engagement. Some, like the Sixth and I Historic Synagogue in Washington, D.C. even use this model for weekly Shabbat services. The Forward spoke with Esther Safran Foer, director of Sixth and I, who said the synagogue’s no-dues policy has been a key factor in boosting the number of participants and donations. She cited high Shabbat service attendance rates and a strong core of committed volunteers as evidence of the synagogue’s success. This shows that communities can be vibrant even without the financial support of High Holiday tickets, and even a traditional membership model.
While free services do not provide the injection of cash that High Holiday tickets do, we at JOI believe that these free services demonstrate a commitment to serving the entirety of the Jewish community, one that will really resonate with worshippers. The popularity of synagogues such as Sixth and I has proven that this financial model can lead to a committed community year round, and not just well attended High Holiday services. And, as we wrote in an op-ed on this topic last year “What’s more important: a few extra dollars during the High Holidays, or free services that can lead to a lifetime of engagement?”