I’m embarrassed to admit this, but this was the first year I ever picked up my own tickets for High Holidays.
In previous years, my in-laws have taken care of it. And before I got married, I did holidays on my college campus, at a Chabad abroad, or my cousin would pick them up.
But now I finally understand just how much chutzpah I was displaying to expect the folks we were staying with to pick them up. That’s because “picking them up” does not mean simply putting my name down along with their order and then picking them up at will-call. It means paying — and those tickets don’t come cheap.
This year, after placing the ticket order for my family and myself, I got to thinking about just how not-cheap this time of the year is. I thought about what it really means for both synagogues and congregants to have to cover all those expenses, and what happens when a family can’t afford those expenses — which are going up.
My Christian friends often ask me, incredulously, why a synagogue has to charge members to come and pray on holidays at all. And I try to answer in a way they can understand.
The fact is that many houses of worship these days have to charge just to meet the costs of holding the services. In the era of declining attendance and membership at almost all types of houses of worship, congregations — Christian and Jewish — are getting fewer regular donations throughout the year. Selling tickets for holiday services, which everyone attends, is the only way to make up the difference and keep the synagogue lights on.
And the lights have to stay on a lot during the high holidays, and I don’t just mean electricity.
In recent years, expenses for holding High Holiday services have increased slightly faster than the rate of inflation. I reached out to Yehuda Friedman, the Associate Director of Synagogue Services at the Orthodox Union (OU), to help me flesh out where these expenses are coming from, who has to pay them and why they are on the rise.
First of all, Friedman told me, the need for security is a big reason costs have gone up. In light of the recent, horrifying synagogue massacres in places like Pittsburgh and Poway, California, most Jewish organizations and houses of worship have added guards and security infrastructure in their buildings.
This costs money, and that extra cost gets passed down to congregants. Your temple may add on a security surcharge as a separate line item for congregants, or simply lump it into the total cost of the ticket. Either way, members feel the squeeze.
But what happens when a family or individual can’t afford a seat at High Holiday services? I spoke to Friedman about this too. He told me that every synagogue he has spoken to about their ticket prices said they would waive the cost for those who asked.
In my personal experience, I have found that many synagogues have notices on their websites saying anyone unable to pay should contact someone in the administration confidentially.
To get those reduced-price or free tickets often means having to ask for this financial help, which can be intimidating or embarrassing for some, but it need not be so painful. I should know because I’ve had to ask for help myself.
While my husband and I are able to pay for our tickets this year, thankfully, in the beginning of our marriage, the annual dues for our local synagogue were well beyond our budget. We had to work out an arrangement to join. It was uncomfortable, so I can really sympathize with those of us who have to start the new year feeling like they are begging for charity to attend a prayer service.
The whole process could easily have a way of making one resentful and mired down in temporal concerns instead of the Olam HaBa (the World to Come). But it’s important to look inward and ask yourself what is most important to you during the holiday season and prioritize that.
For example, if you know you’ll be sitting in services, stressing about spending too much for your tickets rather than taking in and enjoying the warmth and spirit of this holy time, then consider reaching out to administrators and asking how you can work out a payment plan or a reduction in ticket cost.
It can feel uncomfortable to ask for financial assistance, especially year after year.
Every year I have to beg. It’s exhausting and shameful and I tired of having to do so.— Chaviva G-B (@TheChaviva) September 4, 2019
For many conversations of this nature, many people find it easier to write an email instead of picking up the phone and making a call.
One way to ask for help in this way is to simply write: “Like for many families, finances are tight for us at the moment. We love being part of this community and we would like to bring in the New Year here. Is there anyway we can pay the ticket amount in installments, or is there a way to volunteer that would be able to lower the cost, or perhaps do you have tickets set aside for families unable to pay? Any assistance you can provide would be appreciated on this front. Thank you and Shana Tova.”
If you feel guilty about getting a break, think about all of the ways you can contribute your time and expertise to the community in the new year; you and your community will be the better for it.
The new year is a perfect time for a reset, to evaluate how you’re spending your time, money and energy, and change your life accordingly. If there’s something financially stressful about preparing for the holiday, take that as a sign from the Almighty that adjustments are in order.
Bethany Mandel is a columnist for the Forward.