High Holy Days Are Free at Some Shuls, And Worshipers Flock

By Nathan Guttman

Published August 25, 2010, issue of September 03, 2010.
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When the waiting list for High Holy Day tickets reached 700, leaders of the downtown Sixth and I Historic Synagogue decided to look outside the box — in their case, to the Chinese Community Church across the street.

The church was a perfect match for the needs of the ballooning congregation: In its previous life, the building had served as a synagogue, and Stars of David still decorate its pews and stained-glass windows. Now, for at least three days in September, the church will house Jewish worship once again with a spillover service to accommodate the roaring demand for the synagogue’s distinctive offer: free High Holy Day tickets.

Afterward, organizers plan to hold a Rosh Hashanah Kiddush for worshippers from both facilities, in the park between the Sixth and I Synagogue and the church.

The secret of the multi-denominational synagogue’s popularity is its “no barrier” policy, which effectively translates into a no-membership community. Congregants can attend Orthodox or non-Orthodox High Holy Day services without being required to become members of the synagogue and, just as important, without having to pay dues.

Synagogue officials say that the no-dues policy has been crucial to boosting both the number of participants in the congregation’s programs and donations to its coffers. Last year, Newsweek named Sixth & I as one of the 25 “most vibrant congregations” in the country.

“We are trying to create a new vocabulary for Jewish life,” said Esther Safran Foer, director of Sixth and I. Foer refuses to use the term “membership” when describing what connects participants to the synagogue. And the numbers, she said, prove that there is interest in this kind of new vocabulary. Sixth and I’s sanctuary is filled weekly to its capacity of about 400 for its regular Sabbath services, she said.

The Washington synagogue is not alone. Free services are sprouting up all over as the holiday season approaches. For some, it is an attempt to draw in young Jewish singles and families who are “shul shopping” and have not yet settled on a congregation. For others, it is an effort to challenge the standard model of synagogue membership and to bypass the need for a ticket, a checkbook and even a suit and tie on the way to attending holiday prayers. The spread of free services is also partly due to the financial downturn that has made synagogue membership a luxury that some cannot afford.

According to the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, an umbrella organization of Conservative communities, annual membership dues for Conservative congregations average about $1,900. The Reform movement said that dues for its synagogues range from $1,000 to $3,000. Most synagogues offer discounted rates and free tickets for those who cannot afford the dues.

In New Jersey, the MetroWest federation is sponsoring a program called “Metro Pass” that connects newcomers and those who do not belong to a synagogue with local congregations, free of charge.

In Philadelphia, Congregation B’nai Abraham holds High Holy Day services free of charge and does not even require registration for tickets. New York offers a variety of free and open services, most of them catering to specific crowds, including young professionals, newcomers to Judaism and those who have yet to choose a denomination of their liking.

Leading the pack when it comes to open-door synagogues is Chabad, which maintains a donation-only policy in all its synagogues throughout the country. Most welcome walk-ins and do not require tickets or reservations. Still, according to Rabbi Chaim Mentz of Chabad of Bel Air in California, those who walk in eventually become part of the community, even without formal membership. “If you come to services, then sooner or later I will find a way to get to you and invite you to my home,” he said. “The fact that you were born to the Jewish people makes you a member.”

For most synagogue-goers, however, a seat for the High Holy Day services will require paid membership. And while regular Sabbath services are usually open to all, during the High Holy Days, congregants will have to present the usher with tickets upon entering the synagogue. In many synagogues, they will then be shown to their reserved seats. Holiday tickets are included in the membership, but congregants are encouraged to make further donations during the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services.

“The dues and the High Holiday tickets are the price we pay for separation of church and state,” said Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University and a Forward contributing editor. According to Sarna, synagogues can offer free of charge religious services only by radically cutting costs and relying on donations as Chabad does, or by depending on a few major donors, as in the case of Sixth and I. There are more attempts in recent years to offer free services, he said, but he stressed that it is not a trend. “Eventually, you get what you pay for and Jewish institutions in America can never be free,” Sarna explained.

Those maintaining an open-door policy may also charge for classes and other activities throughout the year, and cut overhead costs by maintaining a smaller paid staff and a broader base of volunteers.

Beyond the financial questions, the open synagogues face the challenge of defining their community when no formal lists of due-paying members exist. Foer believes that even without the formal membership, a community has been created. She points to the full sanctuary during regular Sabbath services, and to the fact that many participants volunteer when needed, as evidence that the system is working.

Contact Nathan Guttman at guttman@forward.com

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