Paying to pray? No, supporting as part of belonging


We’ve all heard this story, and some of us have lived it: A Jewish individual or couple, new in town or newly seeking to reconnect with the Jewish community, walks into a worship space just before the start time of a High Holidays service and starts to enter the sanctuary, only to be stopped by an usher, who asks, “Do you have a ticket?”

If the answer is no, the would-be worshiper is directed to a table in the lobby, where he or she is offered admission to the service in exchange for a stated amount of money.

How many Jews have been turned off from participation in synagogue life because this has happened?

It’s a classic recipe for alienation. The stranger may be offended by what seems to be a crass business transaction at what’s supposed to be the holiest time on the Jewish calendar. He or she may not be able to afford the amount asked for. The person staffing the table may come off as officious or unfriendly. And heaven forbid the stranger doesn’t look particularly Jewish. This doesn’t happen in our bend of the river, of course. But it happens, and it’s always a horror story when it does.

This is a time of nervousness and heightened security measures, when you don’t know what kind of nut might walk through the door. But we who gather in congregations that are outlets for our Jewish spiritual and communal impulses have a responsibility even at the High Holidays — especially at the High Holidays — to make sure every single newcomer who turns up on the doorstep is welcomed warmly and unconditionally. I’ll get to how in a moment.

First, I would like those of you reading this column who are not affiliated with a congregation to understand why most synagogues ask for donations of money from nonmembers who want to attend High Holiday services. It’s mostly to offset the greater expenses that congregations incur during the holidays. These can include space rental; additional personnel (from extra security guards to a cantor and other professional musicians); food service for a crowd several times larger than usual; printing of bulletins, prayer book supplements and memorial booklets. Keep in mind, too, that Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are the only services for which congregations ask a specific donation. For every other visit to a temple’s sanctuary during the Jewish year — every Shabbat, every festival, every commemoration — the stranger is asked for nothing but fellowship.

When you make a donation to a congregation in order to attend High Holiday services, you aren’t paying to pray. (After all, you can do that for free, anywhere.) You’re supporting the ability of that congregation to provide a spiritually meaningful, aesthetically pleasing worship experience led by people who have trained for years and are working hard to express both the gravitas and celebration of the holiday season. You’re supporting the profoundly communal nature of Judaism, making yourself part of the minyan, if only for a couple of hours. And it’s tax deductible.

The responsibility of the worship group, then, is to offer a sacred space and atmosphere that will embrace you and make you want to come back. The congregations that do this best at holiday time enlist their friendliest, warmest members to sit at the ticket table, take tickets at the door and hang out in the lobby with an eye toward spotting newbies. That’s at least three different people, all wearing big “Ask me” or “Let me help you” tags.

Collecting money from nonmembers is a much lower priority. Nonmembers who walk in without tickets should be directed smilingly to the ticket table, where they are told not that the ticket price for one service is X and for all the services is Y, but that the congregation asks nonmembers for a donation; this year, the suggested amount is Z. If the potential congregants offer a smaller donation, accept it graciously. If they say they can’t afford any donation or aren’t carrying what they need to make a transaction, hand them tickets and a stamped, addressed donation envelope, saying something along the lines of, “No problem. Here’s an envelope if you can send something later. We’re glad you can be with us for the holiday.” The odds of receiving a check? Unknown. Mitzvah points? Priceless.

During my years as a Jewish adult, I’ve been a temple board member eyeing the budget for the High Holidays, and I’ve been the gal at the ticket table. I’ve been the cantor hired for the holidays and am currently rabbi of a congregation-without-walls that needs to rent walls for the holidays. And I’ve been the stranger seeking a spiritual home for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Even when I was young and my financial resources minimal, the sense of being home was always worth supporting.

If congregations and unaffiliated Jews alike approach the High Holidays in a spirit of generosity, support and welcome, worship spaces everywhere will be filled with an extra radiance of joy and wholeness.

L’shanah tovah um’tukah tikateivu: May you be inscribed in the Book of Life for a good and sweet year. And may you find your spiritual home in 5776.

Rabbi Cantor Ellen Jaffe-Gill is rabbi of Tidewater Chavurah, based in Virginia Beach, Va. This column appeared in the Jewish News of southeastern Virginia; it is reprinted here with permission.

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