There’s an old joke about a boy who shows up at a synagogue on Yom Kippur. The usher tells him he can’t come in without a ticket. “But I’m not staying. I just need to talk to my mother,” the boy pleads. “Well, all right,” the usher says. “But if I catch you praying, I’m kicking you out!”
And so goes the perennial dilemma for synagogues during the High Holidays: to charge or not to charge for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services on the most sacred Jewish holidays of the year — days on which Jews who aren’t especially observant flock to local synagogues at which they may or may not be paying members.
What’s a shul to do? With only about 25 percent of Jews saying they attend synagogue once or twice a month, according to a 2013 Pew Research study, and less than half of Jews in Baltimore holding synagogue memberships, according to The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore’s 2010 Greater Baltimore Jewish Community Study, synagogues use tickets to help support the organization monetarily for the rest of the year.
Tickets for High Holiday services run the gamut from no charge or simply a request for suggested donations to about $250 for members (or even more for nonmembers). Much depends on the size of the synagogue and its affiliation.
At the modern Orthodox Moses Montefiore Anshe Emunah in Baltimore, Rabbi Yerachmiel Shapiro said the synagogue has been ticketing for High Holiday services for the past eight years, at least as long as he has been spiritual leader there.
The shul has stayed with the traditional ticket model because it works. Members and nonmembers alike pay for seats for High Holiday services, when the congregation swells from about 160 people at an average Shabbat service to roughly 750 during the High Holidays.
Annual memberships at MMAE range from $300 to $550 for individuals or families, although the shul is offering new member incentives. High Holiday seats range from $130 for members to $180 for nonmembers. New member incentives include lower first-year dues ranging from $150 to $275 for individuals, families and single-parent families with free High Holiday tickets for the first year.
But Shapiro stressed that no one is refused entry to High Holiday services.
“We never turn anybody away. That’s very, very important to us,” he said. “If somebody comes without a ticket, we will find them a place. And if somebody comes in beforehand and says they have any kind of financial need, we make sure to get them a ticket for what they can afford.”
He added, “That’s a core value of the shul. It’s not ours, it’s God’s, and we’re here to serve.”
“My soul would love to have a free everything and just depend on the kindness of people. But there are more wise people on our board who realize our shul would probably go under very quickly” — Rabbi Yerachmiel Shapiro
Shapiro also noted that much of the shul’s annual budget is realized through High Holiday seat sales as well as membership dues and a few fundraising campaigns.
“We really raise the bulk of our operating budget through the High Holiday seats, and then there are a couple of appeals,” Shapiro said. “There’s a Rosh Hashanah appeal and a Yom Kippur appeal.”
Some synagogues are struggling to keep congregants, with memberships dropping at Reform congregations and steady at Conservative congregations, while Orthodox congregations are growing in Baltimore, according to The Associated study.
“We’re very lucky,” Shapiro said. “Our membership’s been going up and our High Holiday seat sales have been going up.” MMAE’S membership is about 380 families.
Shapiro said he hasn’t heard any grumbling from congregants about ticket prices, and with dues and holiday seat sales up, he sees no reason to change the system.
“My soul would love to have a free everything and just depend on the kindness of people. But there are more wise people on our board who realize our shul would probably go under very quickly,” Shapiro said. “As long as things are going well, we’ll keep it the same.”
The Associated’s 2010 Greater Baltimore Jewish Community Study found that while cost is not a large barrier to synagogue membership for some, it is for households making less than $50,000 a year. Thirty-seven percent of those said that cost prevented them from joining a synagogue or temple. “In contrast, only 11 percent of non-Orthodox respondents with incomes between $100,000 and $150,000 and 3 percent of respondents with incomes of at least $150,000 report cost was a factor which prevented synagogue membership,” the study found.
The study concluded that strategies to increase synagogue membership in Greater Baltimore “must deal differently with non-Orthodox households of varying economic wealth.”
At the Ariel Jewish Center and Synagogue, Rabbi Velvel Belinsky said the organization has always charged a nominal fee of $18 for High Holiday services, which are held at Cheder Chabad in Park Heights.
“If somebody needs assistance, we are happy to provide them free tickets, and we also reach out to the senior centers, adult daycare centers, and we organize them coming to our services,” Belinsky said.
Belinsky said the High Holiday fees only cover the cost of administering the services and do not go to the center’s annual budget, which is completely supported through donations, not membership fees. Even without its own synagogue, Belinsky expects attendance for High Holiday services to be 400 to 500 people, about 10 times the number for weekly Shabbat services.
At Kol Halev, a Reconstructionist synagogue in Baltimore, no tickets are necessary for High Holiday services, but free registration is required for some service times and for babysitting.
Jerome Sefret has been a member at Greenspring Valley Synagogue for more than 40 years. He pays $800 annually for his membership and an additional $150 for a men’s High Holiday seat. Nonmembers pay $225. The shul has about 300 members, and Sefret says attendance probably doubles during the High Holidays.
“I don’t have a problem with that, but that’s not the final figure that you would pay,” he said of dues and tickets. There is a High Holiday appeal, an Israel Bonds appeal and smaller appeals for the building fund or maintenance fund.
In addition, throughout the year, congregants are invited to get honors during the service for which the congregant makes a pledge. During the High Holidays, Sefret pledges $125 for an honor, a little higher than at other times. He’s done it for 30 years.
When asked how he feels about contributing to his synagogue, Sefret said, “I feel good about doing it and that I can do it.”
According to The Associated study, most Baltimore Jewish households include someone who attends religious services, although infrequently. “Twenty-four percent of all respondents report that neither they nor their spouse attends Jewish religious services, 40 percent report attendance on High Holidays and special events, 15 percent report attendance more frequently but not weekly, and 21 percent report religious service attendance at least weekly.”
So with more attending High Holiday services as weekly services, synagogues can pull in more revenue beyond their regular, dues-paying members. But where did the idea of selling High Holiday seats and tickets come from?
Historically, the practice of ticketing for High Holiday services may have resulted from a confluence of events, including “shnoddering” and the “cantor craze” of the late 1800s, according to Jenna Weissman Joselit, Charles E. Smith Professor of Judaic Studies and Professor of History at the George Washington University .
Shnoddering was a standard practice in synagogues in the late 19th and early 20th centuries of making a public donation, out loud, during the service. The donations, a major source of revenue, could be for a particular honor, for a purchase or upkeep.
“You would be called up, let’s say, for an aliyah, you’re honored to say a blessing over the Torah. Somebody reads the Torah and when that portion has been concluded, the officiating clergy makes a Mi Sheberach, and he says lovely things and he blesses the family and wishes them well,” Joselit said. “At that point the honoree would say, ‘Thanks so much. In honor of this wonderful Mi Sheberach, I’m going to give [a certain amount of money].’ So there would be an announcement or some kind of demonstration.”
But making the donations publicly, interrupting the flow and solemnity of the service, fell out of favor as synagogues strove for more modernity and decorum, Joselit said. In turn, synagogues lost money.
“Because it happened every Shabbat and during the holiday, it was a hefty source of revenue,” Joselit said, adding that over time, synagogues grew, becoming “full-throttled institutions” with Hebrew schools, pastoral care and adult education.
“The running of the synagogue becomes more and more fiscally onerous,” she said. “So you have to come up with a way to match expenditures against revenue, and since there’s a demand [at the High Holidays], why not create tickets?
“Also, there was this kind of crazy moment in the late 19th century when they imported cantors from overseas who had kind of star billing, and they charged for those services,” she said. “So people were sort of accustomed to the idea of being ticketed.”
With the need for increased revenue post-shnoddering, supporting larger synagogues and ticketing for cantor concerts, Joselit said ticketing became standard practice for High Holiday services. But in recent years, tickets also serve another purpose.
“These days, tickets for security reasons are increasingly important, too,” Joselit said.
This year, Har Sinai Congregation in Owings Mills is doing away with tickets in favor of security lanyards that every attendee will wear while at High Holiday services. Attendees will bring a ticket confirmation to synagogue and a photo ID to receive a lanyard with a name tag allowing them admittance to all services.
“That way, it’s just very easy for us to spot who’s in the building and just keep an eye out,” said Monica Blum, Har Sinai temple administrator. Two police officers are also on duty for the High Holidays. “And in speaking to my colleagues around the country, this is what a lot of synagogues are doing now.”
At Har Sinai, High Holiday seats are included in the congregation’s annual membership fees, which range from $395 for individuals under 29 to more than $2,000 for a family with members age 40 and older.
“Our membership comes with open seating tickets [for High Holidays], but we also have congregants that purchase permanent sanctuary seats,” said Blum. “Those are $150; it’s reserved seating. A lot of families have had the same seat for years and years, and it’s very important to them.”
Membership at Har Sinai has been steady and is at about 315 families currently. On an average Friday evening Shabbat service, Har Sinai has roughly 75 attendees, Blum said. Those numbers will swell to between 600 and 700 for High Holiday services. Tickets for nonmembers are $250 and cover all services. Blum said many nonmembers come year after year and are welcome.
“We have a tremendous amount of space. So we open up our sanctuary at the High Holidays to add additional seating, and we’re happy to have community members join us,” she said.
People rarely show up at the door without tickets, Blum added. But if someone does, she gets as much information from the person as possible and asks for a donation to the synagogue.
“We just have to use our best judgement at that point. We don’t like to turn people away, and we rarely do,” she said. “Security-wise, we have to be really careful and really conscious.”
The synagogue invites local college students free of charge and also works with Jewish Community Services to invite people who can’t afford tickets.
“We’re happy to have everyone, but we just have to have their information ahead of time,” Blum said. “We need their names, and when they get here, they have to show an ID just like everyone else. We rarely have people who just walk in off the street.”
Security concerns are paramount at synagogues, especially following a spate of bomb threats and hate crimes at synagogues across the country and in Baltimore.
At Chizuk Amuno Congregation, Executive Director Glenn Easton said attendance at the large synagogue triples during High Holidays.
Easton said High Holiday tickets are for members and their families only. “We invite members and their relatives; we don’t open it up to the public,” he said. “We don’t have the room.”
Annual memberships include High Holiday tickets for family members and run from $490 for individuals to about $2,800 for families. Extra High Holiday tickets run from $100 to $300 for children of members, depending on age, to $700 for relatives and guests over 25. Easton said that membership in the last three years, since he has been at the synagogue, has held steady.
But one thing that has changed is that High Holiday fundraising appeals are no longer made from the pulpit. Three years ago, the decision was made that appeals only be made through campaign requests outside the service. Easton said by not interrupting the service with an appeal, donations have actually gone up.
Janet Ring of Glyndon has been a synagogue member for many years and leans more toward Conservative Judaism. But after attending a bar mitzvah at Moses Montefiore Anshe Emunah, she and her husband joined the synagogue and have been members for five years.
Although High Holiday tickets are included in the membership, Ring opts to pay extra to purchase sanctuary tickets for herself and a couple family members. She has an inside perspective on membership fees, tickets and synagogue politics, having worked for synagogues in the past.
“At another synagogue, we were paying $1,500 or $1,200 a year. We got two free tickets, but paid extra for kids over a certain age,” she said. “Not that money should be a consideration, but not everybody has the money to pay [high fees]. My feeling is if the synagogue doesn’t cost as much for dues, I can give more money freely as tzedakah. As charity, I can give more.”
Synagogues do not have an overarching administrative organization, such as an archdiocese, which owns properties or helps fund congregations. But synagogues that want to belong to an umbrella network of congregations, such as the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, pay hefty fees that may get passed onto congregants.
“I don’t have any trouble with the concept of dues, because having worked for a synagogue I know that synagogues aren’t funded by a big organization. I know that the synagogues are responsible for paying their own mortgage, for paying their upkeep, for paying their gas and electric, for paying for everything. So it’s all dues-dependent,” she said. “So when people talk about the cost of it, there is a reason. Although it’s a synagogue, it is also a business, and it has to be run responsibly.”
But Joselit wonders if ticketing, despite its utility for fundraising, may get in the way of a closer, more meaningful connection to High Holiday services.
“I think it’s all about the importance of coming together as a community, whatever that community might be,” she said. “And even if it’s only a couple of times a year, there is a weightiness to it, a kind of poignancy attached to it that the ticketing business sort of gets in the way of, sadly.”
“But,” she added, “everything related to the Jewish community is so complicated.”