Synagogues adjust ticket policies for High Holy Days

September 27, 2011

(RNS) The sputtering economy is fueling changes in synagogues' ticketing
policies and marketing strategies for their annual High Holy Days
services.


Synagogues typically require annual memberships or a fee to attend
services over the High Holy Days, which start Wednesday (Sept. 28) with
Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and continue through the end of Yom
Kippur, the Day of Atonement, on Oct. 8


But this year, some Jewish communities are trying new approaches to
bring in financially distressed Jews and those who feel little
connection to Jewish life.


"You're starting to see more synagogues going for the free model,"
said Rabbi Motti Seligson, a spokesman for Chabad, a traditionalist
Orthodox movement that uses Jewish holidays as an outreach to lapsed
Jews.


Tickets to High Holy Days services can cost between $100 and $200,
and annual membership for a family can top $2,000.


One Chabad congregation in Yorba Linda, Calif., mailed free High
Holy Days tickets to 2,500 families. The mailings targeted those who
likely would not attend services otherwise.


Rabbi David Eliezrie, the leader of the Yorba Linda congregation,
said his group has always done some advertising, but never before mailed
out tickets. The tickets invite families to register online for reserved
seats at High Holy Days services, free of charge.


"There's no question that the economic environment has become an
inhibitor for people to become more involved with the Jewish community,"
said Eliezrie.


A synagogue an hour north of New York City also mailed out free
tickets, and is advertising through lawn signs that say "High Holidays
On Us." A companion TV commercial features a "welcoming message" from
talk show host Larry King.


"People have been calling, people have been thanking," said Rabbi
Shmuel Gancz of the Chabad Jewish Center of Suffern, N.Y. "It's been
tremendous."


Gancz spoke of one woman who had lost a job with a six-figure salary
and wasn't able to afford a synagogue membership anymore. Receiving a
free ticket in the mail prompted her to return to the High Holy Days
services for the first time in four years.


Seligson said there has been a "spike in interest" this year in the
free High Holy Days services listed on a searchable database on
Chabad.org. But financial barriers are not the only reason Jews might
stay away from High Holy Days services, Eliezrie said.


"We're dealing here with a confluence of different issues: an
economic challenge, (and) a modern Jew who knows less about their
tradition and who doesn't feel that same kind of cultural, emotional,
historical and spiritual connection as in the past," he said.


Recognizing that "sometimes people are not very comfortable with
going to a synagogue," Rabbi Yisrael Kugel of Chabad's West Side Center
for Jewish Life is offering a free service in Manhattan's Central Park
where people can hear the shofar, a traditional ram's horn blown during
High Holy Days services.


While many of the free offerings are being hosted by Chabad centers,
they aren't the only Jewish communities that are changing their High
Holy Days business models.


The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism sponsors a program
called "Come Home for the Holidays" that offers free High Holy Days
tickets at congregations around the world to "young adults who grew up
in the Conservative Movement."


Temple Shalom, a Reform congregation in suburban Washington, has
family-oriented Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur afternoon services that
don't require tickets.


For the past several years, Temple Shalom has offered complementary
tickets to all High Holy Days services to "anyone who meets with Temple
Shalom clergy to discuss personal Jewish needs and goals."


Although High Holy Days tickets are a main source of funds for most
synagogues, Eliezrie and Seligson said that open services also can be a
financially viable path.


When fees are made optional, Seligson said, people who can afford it
might contribute even more, because they want to support "this kind of
open environment."


"The old business model is not necessarily the one that's going to
work nowadays," said Eliezrie. "We don't have membership. We just
thought we'd get rid of that whole thing."