Debatable: Should We Offer Free High Holy Day Tickets to Non-Members?
by Steve Friedman and Maxine Sukenik
by Steve Friedman, past president of Central Reform Congregation in St. Louis, MO
No Tickets = No Barriers
After I moved back to St. Louis from Houston 25 years ago, I knew I didn’t want to rejoin the synagogue I’d attended growing up. In the midst of visiting different temples, I learned that I could attend High Holy Days services at Central Reform Congregation (CRC) without worrying about tickets. I was glad there was a place open to someone like me who was searching for a new spiritual home… and after I attended CRC’s High Holiday services, which were so meaningful and spiritually fulfilling, I knew I’d found one. Many others have found a home at Central Reform the same way.
In 2009, Newsweek magazine listed CRC as one of the 25 most vibrant congregations in America. Indeed, in 25 years we have grown from 30 to 750 households, and key to our growth and vibrancy is our openness. We have always welcomed people who sometimes feel marginalized, such as the LGBT community and interfaith families. And, to make sure there are no barriers to anyone needing a place to pray – including the embarrassment barrier of having to ask for a free ticket because of personal circumstance – our High Holiday services are open to all without tickets.
In order to accommodate up to 2,000 High Holy Day worshipers per service, we have had to rent large venues. To help offset this expense, we ask members and guests for donations but don’t come close to breaking even. Yet, even in these challenging economic times, we believe, on principle, that services should be open to all. Moreover, it turns out that the mitzvah of providing worship opportunities for anyone who wants to come home to Judaism has its rewards, bringing in people like me who get introduced to CRC on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, like what they see, join us, and may even become temple president.
by Maxine Sukenik, past president of Temple Chai in Long Grove, IL
The conundrum: At Temple Chai in Long Grove, IL, 1,000+ members can purchase High Holy Days tickets for their adult children and parents, but not for siblings, cousins, or childhood friends who want to pay to pray. While denying them this brief community participation may drive them further away from their spiritual roots, we must ask: Wouldn’t providing tickets for purchase encourage them to remain two-days-a-year Jews?
Living in a Jewish neighborhood, my first-generation American parents felt no need to join a synagogue. It was not until much later, when my husband, children, and I moved to a newly developing Chicago suburb and experienced anti-Semitism, that we sought out a Jewish community for my sons. Once they finished religious school, our family remained temple members; I couldn’t miss being with our community on the High Holidays.
Years later, in my retirement, I viewed a Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit and came away with questions that sent me to Torah study the very next Shabbat: “What words on these ancient pieces of parchment could be so powerful that they are still recited in Long Grove, Illinois, and what relevance could they possibly have to my life?” The more I studied, the more joy I found in my life. I gained purpose, the knowledge of why I am here. I fell in love with Jewish rituals, which offer us opportunities to reflect, renew, forgive, and celebrate the blessings that surround us. And the more I volunteered, the more I felt supported by community, in times of adversity and celebration.
Without dedicated members, Temple Chai would not exist. Even our reasonable dues are insufficient to maintain operating expenses. A High Holiday ticket program would be a disincentive to membership, threatening the very existence of our communal Jewish home. It would deprive me – who needed years before I was ready to begin my true Jewish journey – and many others of a full synagogue experience in all seasons.
This debate was originally published in Reform Judaism magazine and published on this blog in August of 2009. The original comments are included below. Please add your own and continue this ongoing conversation!