Must we pay to pray?
Ask the Expert
My wife and I decided not to buy High Holy Day tickets this year because they’re so expensive. What can we do to mark the holidays at home on our own?
— Norman, Chicago
Every year as the High Holy Days approach I hear people grumbling about the price of tickets. And it’s true — at some synagogues it’s upwards of $500 a head. But why is it so expensive? It’s only a few hours, right?
First, in most synagogues, High Holy Day tickets are included in membership fees. So if you join the synagogue as a member, there is no need to pay for tickets. It’s only if you want to go without paying membership fees that your tickets are so costly.
Think about it like a membership to a gym or health club. If you only go three times a year, then yes, what you pay is a lot per visit. But if you regularly visit your gym, then the monthly fee probably breaks down to only a dollar or two per visit. And the gym needs your membership fees to pay for machines, classes, maintenance, etc.
It’s the same with a synagogue. If you only go three days a year, it does work out to be a high fee per visit. But if you want that synagogue to be around for you to visit on your three days, then the synagogue needs to collect money to make it viable. That money goes to help pay for the building, staff, rabbi, cantor, children’s programming, classes, even food for kiddush.
In addition to being places of worship, synagogues are businesses. They need to stay afloat financially if they want to be able to provide basics such as holiday and Shabbat services to their members. That said, your synagogue almost certainly offers a sliding scale of ticket prices if the price is really the only thing keeping you away. And some synagogues offer a special service for non-members with more affordable tickets.
I consulted with the executive director (who requested to remain anonymous) of a large synagogue in the Washington, DC, area about this issue, and he explained that it’s worthwhile to invest in synagogue membership. While you may think of yourself as a “limited user” of the synagogue, there really is no such thing as a one-, two-, or three-day-a-year Jew, he said.
“Even though someone may not attend services religiously, they still attend synagogues for b’nei mitzvot, weddings, funerals, and other occasions, and often call upon rabbis at times of need,” this executive director said.
That’s just a little background on why tickets can be so pricey.
If you’re definitely not interested in buying tickets, there are a number of other ways to get to services. A nearby university may have free services at Hillel on the High Holy Days. A few Hillels do charge for those who are not students, but most don’t. It’s best to call before you go.
Your local JCC also may be holding services; members may get heavy discounts on tickets. For a more traditional service, Chabad houses are known for welcoming all. For a less traditional service, try the on-line streaming High Holy Days service via the Jewish TV Network.
If you want to do something that doesn’t involve any kind of service or rabbi, I can make some other suggestions. First, you can certainly purchase a High Holy Days prayer book and pray from home. How about taking the day off from work to spend a full day volunteering for a worthy cause?
Alternately, you can go on a long reflective hike, and bring along a mahzor or some other spiritually relevant book to read. Try buying a shofar and blowing it yourself. Gather your family and friends for a festive meal, and eat the symbolic foods of Rosh Hashana, apples and honey.
There’s a Sephardic custom to do a short seder-like ritual before the Rosh Hashana meal, so you could try that even if you’re not Sephardic. Think about what has been most meaningful to you about past Rosh Hashana celebrations and try to duplicate and expand on that with your family.
Rosh Hashana ultimately is about reflecting on your past year and improving yourself for the year to come. Any way you can do that, whether or not you end up in a synagogue, is in the spirit of the holiday. Hag sameah!
For more information about Judaism and Jewish life, visit MyJewishLearning.com.