High Holidays | Religion & Jewish Life

High Holidays are free at some shuls, and worshippers flock

WASHINGTON (Forward) — When the waiting list for High Holidays 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. So for at least three days in September, the church again will house Jewish worship with a spillover service to accommodate the roaring demand for the synagogue’s distinctive offer: free High Holidays tickets.

After services, organizers plan to hold a Rosh Hashanah kiddush for worshipers 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 Holidays services without being required to become members of the synagogue or pay dues.

Synagogue officials say 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 United States.

“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 prove the interest in this kind of new vocabulary, she says, as Sixth and I’s sanctuary is filled weekly to its capacity of about 400 for its regular Sabbath services.

The Washington synagogue is not alone. Free services are sprouting up all over as the holiday season approaches.

For some synagogues 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 as well as 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 also is 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 says 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 free High Holidays services and does not 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-Lubavitch, 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 High Holidays services will require paid membership. And while regular Sabbath services are usually open to all, congregants during the High Holidays will have to present the usher with tickets upon entering the synagogue. In many synagogues they then will be shown to their reserved seats.

In some synagogues, 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.

Sarna says synagogues can offer free 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 have been more attempts in recent years to offer free services, he said, but stressed that it is not a trend.  “Eventually you get what you pay for, and Jewish institutions in America can never be free,” Sarna said.

Those maintaining an open-door policy also may 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. As evidence that the system is working, she points to the full sanctuary during regular Sabbath services and to the fact that many participants volunteer when needed.

This article first appeared in Forward.com