High Holy Day blues: crowds and high ticket prices

The High Holy Days — the "Days of Awe"– might just as well be called the "Days of Ouch." Thousands of unaffiliated Jews squeeze info frequently small or strange places — churches and community centers rented for the holidays — disrupting the haimish atmosphere of established congregations. Ticket prices, seemingly in tune with the Holy Days themselves, are high, costing as much as a weeks worth of groceries. Jews who have not stepped into a synagogue since last year scramble to find a welcoming community that feels like home.

The High Holy Days create new challenges for us all. Regular shul-goers must accept a synagogue atmosphere that barely resembles their weekly Shabbat services. Normal seating arrangements are disrupted, and entire communities are sometimes shifted to other places, simply to accommodate seldom-seen strangers. Observant Jews, dedicated to ongoing practice, are confronted with secular Jews seeking their annual dose of renewal. Services can feel more like performances than times of focused reflection.

Unaffiliated Jews, searching for an agreeable synagogue to join, face particularly daunting difficulties. High Holy Day services — because of the influx of secular Jews — are generally nothing like regular services, making it impossible to tell whether a visit represents a match. It's like going on a blind date when one person is on their best behavior, and the other is on their worst, except you don't know who's who. It's hard to connect with communities that are under siege by the very seekers trying to find their place. An awkward dance ensues, with regulars eyeing newcomers and wondering where they were the rest of the year, and seekers checking out the hassled regulars and vowing to never return.

One way secular Jews deal with the discomfort of entering a new synagogue is by bonding together in groups. As the High Holy Days approach, unaffiliated Jews at work, parties and cafes compare synagogues like playing cards, trying to make the best bet. What's more, ticket prices — whose high costs represents a strange mix of paying for what you get and encouraging you not to go at all — make it virtually impossible to shop around and find a shul that fits. You buy your ticket, you take your chances. Worse yet, by the time some secular Jews get their act together, the shofar is already blowing and tickets can't be had at any price.

One way to address some of these problems is for synagogues to offer an "Atonement Ticket," which would enable the bearer entry into any one of the participating shuls. This strategy would enable secular seekers the opportunity to experience different communities, to make last-minute plans, and might reduce the burden on particularly crowded synagogues. Alternatively, the Jewish community could collectively sponsor services outside the synagogues, using rabbis and educators from each of the different shuls, as a means of showcasing different styles and practices.

Most importantly, we must remember the spirit of the holidays, and keep them holy. The High Holy Days highlight some of our greatest life challenges. We must confront strangers, who make us feel crowded and disturb our sense of place. We seek community in the midst of chaos, disruption and economic cost. As with the spirit of the days themselves, these obstacles represent opportunities for growth.

One way or another, let's make room for everyone.