SAN FRANCISCO (JTA) -- When 63-year-old
Steven Fruh was growing up in Manhattan, his parents did not
belong to a synagogue. "They couldn't afford it," he says.
At the High Holidays, they would buy one ticket between
them, for the congregation's overflow service in the
I was very affected by this second-rate, third-rate thing," he
says. "That's what I grew up with -- this one ticket my
parents shared, and not even in the main sanctuary."
The only thing that's changed since then is the price.
Fifty bucks if you're lucky. Hundreds of dollars if you're
not. As summer draws to a close, tens of thousands of
unaffiliated American Jews begin the yearly hunt for
affordable Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services, which fall
this year on Sept. 12-14 and Sept. 21-22.
Tickets for these services are usually free for dues-paying
members of a congregation, but can be quite expensive for
non-members, if they are even available. Price is driven by
demand -- these are the only two times of the year that many
Jews, synagogue members or not, step inside a shul. And while
the extra crowd puts pressure on a synagogue's resources, it
can also be a major source of revenue.
In recent years, however, more and more synagogues have
begun opening their doors for free on the High Holidays. Some
look at it as an outreach strategy aimed at introducing
non-members to their congregation, in the hopes they will be
so entranced with the community that they will become
Other congregations view it as a mitzvah, providing worship
opportunities for those who cannot afford tickets, or are away
from home. Still others emphasize the communal responsibility
aspect, explaining that a synagogue should be open to any Jew.
"It's a growing trend, dating back at least to the 1994
G.A. and the 50 percent intermarriage rate," says Mayer
Waxman, former director of synagogue services for the Orthodox
Union, referring to the General Assembly of the then-Council
of Jewish Federations that focused on the results of the 1990
National Jewish Population Survey.
"The keruv," or in-gathering, "mentality has entered the
mainstream," he says.
Many people credit Chabad-Lubavitch with spearheading the
movement for free holiday services across the denominational
spectrum. Building on its extensive network of more than 2,000
outreach centers, the movement operates a global search
which lists free services at its centers around the world.
The Orthodox Union offers a list of "beginners minyanim"
for the High Holidays on its Web site, at www.ou.org/community_services/minyan.
Some are free, while others are low-cost.
None of the liberal streams offer such comprehensive
listings, but they are taking other steps and individual
congregations of various stripes are launching initiatives of
Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the
United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, says there have
always been some Conservative synagogues that offer free
holiday services, but it's become "much more in vogue this
past decade, especially the last five years."
He says the movement encourages synagogues to offer free
tickets to a non-member for a year or two, but not forever.
They need to ante up and join eventually, and it's up to the
synagogues to encourage it.
Some congregations and institutions are going beyond just
opening their doors:
* The Young Adults Division of the Jewish Federation of
Greater Philadelphia is co-sponsoring "Taste of the New Year,"
a first-time outreach event aimed at students and young Jewish
professionals. At the Aug. 29 event, representatives of most
local synagogues will hand out sips of kosher wine along with
free seats to their High Holiday services.
* Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld of Ohev Shalom-The National
Synagogue in Washington is holding a "Honey Giveaway" on Sept.
11, blowing the shofar and giving away free High Holiday
tickets at the corner of Connecticut and K.
* Baltimore Hebrew Congregation is expecting 2,000 to 3,000
people for "Rosh Hashanah Under the Stars," a free Rosh
Hashanah Eve service that its sponsoring on Sept. 12 at Oregon
Ridge Park. Things will get rolling at 5 p.m. with picnicking,
family activities and a performance by the Israeli group Seeds
of Sun. At sundown, seven shofars will be blown from the
hills, and the service will be conducted from a symphony
In general, most congregations will give tickets for free
to those in financial need, but the person has to ask for it,
a process many find embarrassing.
Paul Golin, assistant executive director of the Jewish
Outreach Institute, says synagogues should be more helpful.
"If you really don't have the room, at least know what other
services are going on in your community," he suggests. "That's
Most congregations of all denominations let young Jews in
for free, or at a highly reduced rate.
The Conservative movement sponsors Project Reconnect,
encouraging its member synagogues to offer free seats to young
alumni of Conservative youth programs. In Manhattan, the High
Holy Days Committee of the New York Metropolitan Conference of
the Men of Reform Judaism sponsors "Bernie's Services," free
services for students, young professionals and faculty
members. Three to four hundred people attended last year.
Fewer synagogues are willing to open their doors for free
to adults beyond college age. "It's a trend that makes more
traditionally structured synagogues nervous," says Golin. "In
the liberal movements, a lot of their economic model is built
around the number of Jews that only come to synagogue three
times a year, so they say, we have to make those days how we
support ourselves financially."
While such thinking is widespread, none of the movements
keep track of how member congregations' budgets are affected
by High Holiday ticket sales.
Brenda Barrie, executive director of Beth Shir Sholom in
Santa Monica, Calif., says she doesn't "think it's true" that
synagogues need the holidays to stay afloat. Last year her
congregation took in $7,500 during the holidays, but that
barely covered renting a hall, paying for security, and
providing food and drink.
"The High Holy Days aren't a moneymaker for us, not even
close," she says.
Some congregations report that offering free services
actually helps fundraising.
Last year, Congregation Sinai, a small Conservative
synagogue in San Jose, Calif., offered free services for the
first time. Congregational President Steve Dick reports they
took in more money than in any previous year, as many of those
who attended for free made substantial donations afterwards.
"People enjoyed the services, and wanted to contribute,"
Dick says. "Some even became members. The year before, when we
charged for tickets, people felt that was their donation."
Chabad rabbis say free services help membership grow. "Our
experience is, get people involved, get them excited, it
generates more vitality in the Jewish community. And they say,
hey! I want to support this," says Rabbi Mendel Lifshitz, who
runs the three-year-old Chabad Jewish Center in Boise, Idaho.
That happened to 60-year-old retail salesman Jan Toas,
who moved to the Philadelphia-area two years ago after many
years as a self-described "three-times-a-year Jew," loosely
affiliated with his family's Reconstructionist synagogue.
He went to the free Rosh Hashanah services last year at
Congregation B'nai Abraham, a Lubavitch-led congregation in
downtown Philadelphia, liked what he found, and joined up
right after the holidays. "It was the most welcoming,
non-judgmental place," he explains.
"Our philosophy is, everyone is welcome," says Rabbi
Yochonon Goldman, spiritual leader of B'nai Abraham. That is,
he admits, "an expensive philosophy, " and he "understands the
perspective" of congregations that don't do it."
Even congregations that feel compelled to charge for
tickets draw the line at actually turning people away.
Congregation B'nai Israel, a small Conservative congregation
in Danbury, Conn., charges for tickets, but doesn't check for
them at the door.
"We've been doing it for years," says Rabbi
Nelly Altenburger. "We have a number of 'regulars' who always
show up, and there's always some kvetching."
Recently a board member suggested a "pay as you pray"
system, whereby those who only want to come for the holidays
would pay reduced dues. The idea was quickly voted down.
"We go back and forth a lot," Altenburger says. "But at the
end of the day, we decided we are not going to check. That's
not how we see ourselves."
That's not how Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, a gay- and
lesbian-friendly congregation in New York, sees itself either.
It's had an "Open Door" policy since its founding 15 years
Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum says that for a community that has
faced "so many barriers in coming to Judaism" over the years,
offering free High Holiday services "has a deeply religious
meaning for us, it's not just a strategic move."
And Steven Fruh, the one whose family needed to share one
ticket when he was growing up, is now a member of Beth Simchat
Torah -- these days he "gives significantly" to the
congregation to make sure the doors are never closed.