The High Holidays are Free

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, requiring advanced-purchase tickets. I wonder what would happen if American synagogues changed their financing structure to open their doors, free of charge—no ticket required—to anyone who wanted to pray on the High Holidays. An article in The Jewish Week highlights some of the synagogues in New York that are leading the way.

As we study community after community through our Outreach Scans, we continue to encounter some institutions that offer discounts to select groups like students, older adults, newlyweds, and newcomers, but most of these discounts are advertised internally, or at best, in the local Jewish newspaper (which is only read by “insiders”). I wonder if we could transform the High Holidays (despite the sometimes inaccessible worship services) into a vehicle to reach those on the periphery. Are free services enough? What would it take to reach people who are not currently involved?


  1. Our synagogue has always had an ” open door ” policy. Tickets for the HH are included in our dues structure ( which is no more than the area synagogues ). We also have a community service for those without affiliation. Granted the service is not lead by anyone we have a live video of the main service on a large screen TV. It is not the ideal situation but we are there for those that do want to come - unfortunately our sanctuary is only able to seat our membership without any room to spare.
    We fill the room on the HH, but comes Shabbat we’re back to our 40 congregants, so there must be something more that we can do then just opening our doors.

    Comment by elliott — September 20, 2006 @ 5:32 pm

  2. This is a great start. The challenge is whether such free services get advertised to the general public. If people are allowed to just attend (we can debate the second service without a leader and just a screen at a different time), is contact information collected so that follow-up can be done? (Obviously, it has to be collected within the comfort level of what is permissable in your particular synagogue.)

    Comment by Rabbi Kerry Olitzky — September 20, 2006 @ 7:33 pm

  3. What do you folks think of the free services offered by Chabad?

    Comment by Ron in Croton — September 21, 2006 @ 10:06 am

  4. In this regard, Chabad indeed “gets it.”

    Comment by Rabbi Kerry Olitzky — September 21, 2006 @ 10:14 am

  5. while i have no intention of becoming Orthodox, i admire Chabad for “getting” what so many other Jewish institutions do not. their free admission and no label policy have enabled many people to feel more welcome in a Jewish setting, regardless of their affiliation level (or lack thereof) or what religion their partner is. while Chabad obviously does not approve of interfaith relationships/marriages, they don’t turn people away simply for having a non-Jewish partner, which speaks very highly of them. even though they may not agree with people’s relationship choices, they are never harsh or mean to anyone.
    perhaps more Jewish organizations should take a hint from Chabad if they want to “get it.”

    Comment by heather — September 21, 2006 @ 10:51 am

  6. It’s always interesting to me to see barely affiliated young people flock to the Chabad services this time of year. People lament that we “lose” our young people from age 13 to whenever they sign their own kids up for Hebrew school. Free services and relief from steep membership fees are ways to curtail that trend.

    Comment by Ron in Croton — September 21, 2006 @ 11:20 am

  7. Getting word out is a real issue, but preventing the need to pay from eclipsing the need to pray is a priority for all of the groups that I’m involved with (the Conservative synagogue where I work now; another other Conservative synagogue where I’m a member & part of 2 lay-led minyanim within it; an online bulletin board for 21-35-year-olds in the Jewish community in this area): in every forum I’ve been involved in where the process for getting high holiday seats is announced–and, alas, because of security concerns, etc., both of these large DC-area synagogues do require everyone to have acquired a ticket beforehand (except for students & military with photo ID, who can come free to one of them)–the fact that no one will be turned away for financial reasons is highlighted.

    Because I run with a crowd of fellow 20-to-30-somethings, I’m now pretty well versed in what’s out there to offer free or low-cost high holiday seats to young folks through GesherCity (; free high holiday seats at Conservative synagogues nationwide for alumni of Conservative youth groups or camps [USY, Ramah, Nativ, etc.] through Project Reconnect’s Come Home for the Holidays (…and whenever someone comes to me through one of them, I ask them to tell anyone they know who needs a place to be for the high holidays to spread the word about these programs, or to contact the synagogue directly to work something out with the executive director: first get the tickets so you can pray, and the paying part can be worked out later.

    And yes, your non-Jewish spouse absolutely gets a ticket too! :)

    Comment by Becca — September 21, 2006 @ 9:26 pm

  8. I totally disagree with the policy of charging for tickets and membership. It is a real turn-off to joining a synagogue. The costs are exceedingly steep and if you want to apply for some sort of discount, you have to reveal your finances to the synagogue committee in charge of it. Access to God should be free. I won’t join, simply because I can’t afford it, and I don’t feel I should have to reveal my personal financial situation with the synagogue in order to have access to God. I think churches have the right idea. Pass the collection plate and you put in what you can.

    Comment by Naomi Lakritz — April 28, 2007 @ 10:27 pm

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