Congregation Israel, a Modern Orthodox synagogue in Springfield, always gets “a handful” of requests for High Holy Day tickets from nonmembers, according to membership committee chair Benjamin Hoffer.
But there was always a cost associated with the tickets, and anyone who wanted special dispensation had to call the rabbi or the president — an uncomfortable call on both sides. This year, things will be different.
Congregation Israel is among the 40 synagogues that have already signed up to participate in MetroPass, a community-wide program that will provide free tickets to any participating synagogue for new, unaffiliated area residents.
Conceived, developed, and administered by United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ, it’s the latest attempt to remove a hurdle faced by newcomers when moving to an unfamiliar community.
“I think there are a huge number of people in the MetroWest area who want to go but maybe don’t think about it until a week before the holidays,” said Hoffer. “They say, ‘Oh, I think I’ll go this year.’ But then they ask, ‘Where should I go?’ And it costs hundreds of dollars for tickets. And who do they call? It’s a hassle.
“This program enables people to just come and worry about all of that later.”
Participating synagogues agree to provide free tickets to anyone who meets the criteria. UJC MetroWest is administering the project and provides all the marketing and publicity.
So far, more than 50 requests have come in, and Stacey Brown, leadership development manager at UJC, expects that number to reach at least 100.
The program covers synagogues from every denomination across Morris, Essex, Sussex, and northern Union counties. At least one other region — the Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey in Union County — has adopted the program for this fall.
The MetroPass website (www.ujcnj.org/metropass) includes information about all of the participating synagogues and an easy form to fill out requesting tickets.
Temple B’nai Or — a Reform synagogue in Morristown whose religious leader, Donald Rossoff, is UJC MetroWest rabbinic cabinet chair and has helped spearhead the effort — has already received three requests. Like most synagogues, it tries to balance a welcoming attitude with a need to pay salaries and bills and meet the other costs of running a synagogue.
“Our congregation certainly prides itself on making itself available to the general community. Unfortunately, the reality is that dues keep the doors open,” said William Ferstenfeld, B’nai Or’s executive director. “We saw this [program] as an opportunity to bring new people in and introduce them to the temple. Hopefully, they will enjoy being with us for the holidays and consider joining.”
The congregation was already offering free High Holy Day tickets through its website, but Ferstenfeld thinks MetroPass sends a different message.
“It’s important to do this as one large, cohesive community,” he said. “It’s good in the way it sheds a different light on what synagogues are for. Instead of making people feel like they have to write a check, they see they can come to be part of the community.”
Congregation Beth Hatikvah, a Reconstructionist synagogue in Summit, also offers free tickets to newcomers to the community. However, synagogue leaders liked that UJC MetroWest has been placing advertisements for MetroPass in local newspapers (including NJJN) and on on-line news outlets such as The Patch and Baristanet.com and has been marketing the project through PJ Library, Morris County Connection, and JCC MetroWest.
“It was really an easy decision for us, and we’re happy to have UJC give us free advertising,” said Beth Hatikvah president Katia Segre Cohen. “We hope people who would not otherwise come to services will become engaged in the Jewish community. We think this will help because it removes a financial barrier.”
For smaller congregations, the decision to participate can be more complicated. For example, Chavurat Lamdeinu, a small, independent havura in Florham Park led by Rabbi Ruth Gais, was undecided until this week. They always welcome unaffiliated area Jews to worship with them on the holidays for a small donation of $50, making services there a relative bargain.
In an e-mail seeking a response from congregants, Gais reflected on a kind of “prisoners’ dilemma.” If Chavurat Lamdeinu joins MetroPass and “unaffiliated folks come,” she wrote, “we cannot ask them for donations. If we don’t, will we get the unaffiliated who often attend CL during the holidays because, frankly, we’re a bargain?
“We need the once-a-year donations to help meet our pretty nominal expenses.”
The minyan ultimately opted to join MetroPass. “We feel that not to join would be counter to what we stand for: community, prayer, study,” said Gais. “We will take our chances monetarily and welcome the stranger as we always have.”
Ahawas Achim B’nai Jacob and David, an Orthodox congregation in West Orange, plans to take UJC’s MetroPass one step further. Any individual or family who requests tickets through MetroPass will be paired with a volunteer member of the synagogue community. They will not only be greeted when they arrive, but will be invited (in advance) to a meal on the first evening of Rosh Hashana.
“We don’t want someone to just walk into our synagogue with MetroPass and be gone. We want to create a kesher [connection] with the shul member and that individual,” said Moshe Glick, a member of AABJ&D who heads West Orange Encounters, its outreach effort to unaffiliated Jews.
MetroPass was conceived in-house during a brainstorming meeting “on how to get new people into synagogue doors,” according to UJC’s Brown. “Synagogues are interested because it brings them potential new members, and we do all the marketing. We are in a unique position at UJC — we can cross denominational lines and offer something to synagogues that other organizations can’t.”
And, she added, “Strong synagogues and a strong federation help make a strong Jewish community.”