Roundtable: Should synagogues charge for High Holy Days?

We shouldn’t charge — but you should offer to pay

A few years ago, carpool lanes at bridges around the Bay Area changed from being free to charging a discounted toll. This presented a unique problem for those who used the casual carpool car sharing option. Whose responsibility would it be to pay the new toll?

On the one hand, the driver gets the benefit of a lower toll cost as well as a faster commute. On the other hand, he or she already bears the cost of gasoline and wear and tear, and the passengers don’t have to bear any of that cost. Shouldn’t they at least share the cost of paying the toll?

My opinion is that both are right. The driver shouldn’t charge, but the passengers should definitely offer to pay.

This may seem a strange place to begin a discussion on charging for High Holy Day tickets, but I believe it is a fitting analogy. People only have the ability to attend High Holy Day services at synagogues because members of those synagogues pay dues. There is very little fat to trim from most synagogue budgets. Our synagogue, for instance, has no budget for programming — 100 percent of the dues collected go to operate the building and pay our employees a living wage, including custodians and preschool teachers. Without the support of members, we would cease to exist.

In addition, we don’t really have enough space during the High Holy Days to accommodate anyone other than our members. Rabbi Hillel says, “do not separate yourself from the community” (Pirkei Avot 2:5).

On the other hand, that same Hillel was said to have had to climb up to the roof of the House of Study and peer in through a skylight in order to learn since he couldn’t afford the fees to attend (Talmud Yevamot 35b). He later became known for his outreach work, welcoming everyone to the Jewish people, even smart-aleck conversion candidates. He certainly would have allowed anyone who wanted to pray at his synagogue to do so. Turning someone away from wanting to pray, repent, and be with their community, even if only once a year, simply feels wrong.

Of course, all other services throughout the year, which at our synagogue includes lunch every Saturday morning, are always free, no questions asked.

So what does our synagogue actually do on the High Holy Days? We charge for tickets, since it is not fair for our members alone to bear all the costs, but it’s hardly a well kept secret that if someone shows up without a ticket, we simply let them in and hope they will make a donation later.

The bottom line is that just as a carpool driver should never require passengers to pay but the passengers should always offer, I believe a synagogue should never require anyone to pay to pray, but those who are not members should always offer to make a donation.

Rabbi Mark Bloom is the rabbi of Temple Beth Abraham in Oakland. He grew up in the Bay Area.

At open services, ‘bad Jews’ are welcome

Once I became a rabbi, I was surprised by how often people I met would say, “I’m a bad Jew.”

What did they mean? Sometimes it was a warning: “I don’t follow the Jewish rules, so don’t expect that of me.”

Often it began a conversation about how they wanted to connect with Jewish life, but they were embarrassed by a lack of knowledge, had not found Judaism meaningful, didn’t believe what they thought they should, felt judged or excluded, or, in some cases, might not be Jewish according to tradition.

What they said made sense in light of their experiences. I discovered how few resources existed to respond to their longings, grew impassioned about changing this and founded Jewish Gateways to do just that.

Open High Holy Day services are one of many activities we offer. The services are open, but not free.

What does open mean?

Our High Holy Day services are pluralistic, and all are welcome. We try to lower barriers — cost is one — that might keep wondering and wandering Jews and their families and friends from participating.

The services are outdoors, beneath an open canopy, with space nearby for children to play. We invite all into our big tent — literally.

We publicize the services using language that lets people who might feel excluded know they are welcome, expressly inviting adult children of interfaith families, people of color, LGBTQ folks, multiracial couples and families, and more.

Our services focus on the big issues the High Holy Days offer us a chance to explore: How am I spending my precious time? What changes can I make to live in greater harmony with my deepest values? Who do I need to apologize to? How can I use my gifts to improve our world?

We draw on Jewish wisdom to address these questions and connect it to people’s real lives. For example, we invite participants to anonymously write down their regrets from the past year and post them on a wall. We read one another’s words and are reminded that whether or not you know when to sit or stand, whatever you believe or don’t believe, we are all in this together.

Our services are as inclusive as possible. We created prayerbooks that include poetry and teachings from many sources. The Torah is translated as it is read aloud, to help people connect with it more directly, especially those who do not know Hebrew. All who wish — particularly people who have never done so — are invited to look inside the Torah, and to help carry it through the community.

These services, now in their seventh year, are attended by hundreds. How is all this paid for? It is definitely not free! The costs must be covered by contributions from participants. Though we do not use tickets or require donations, we let participants know that if they find the services meaningful, it is up to each to offer money and time to make them possible.

These open services are not meant to replace synagogue services, but to serve a different population. They are just one part of what our volunteer leadership and I are creating together, as a complement what is offered by synagogues and other Jewish organizations; Jewish Gateways is an experimental model, an open and inclusive community in which each individual and family can pursue a personally meaningful Jewish path.

Rabbi Bridget Wynne is the executive director of Jewish Gateways.

In San Jose, a free ride for first-timers on the holidays

For 10 years, Congregation Sinai in San Jose has proudly offered free High Holy Day tickets to anyone living in the South Bay who is joining us for the first time. For many, this first taste of the Sinai community leads to deeper involvement in our traditional, egalitarian and primarily lay-led congregation.

As a rabbi, I see the High Holy Days as a community-building opportunity. Over the course of 10 days, we experience something special and powerful. By the end of Yom Kippur, we have gone through a collective transformation that would not have been possible by ourselves.

Bringing hundreds of people together is a challenging goal. More than any other time, the High Holy Days attract the largest numbers of people to synagogues. This includes active members, members who attend a few times each year, guests who have joined us before and first-timers. Creating community among such a diverse group is not easy, but we manage to do so. Sinai has a down-to-earth, nonjudgmental and intimate vibe. Children are welcome in services, and we are willing to embrace the little bit of extra chaos this entails.

A highlight for me is the shofar service on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, when the sanctuary fills beyond seating capacity. Children come up to the bimah and crowd up against the balcony railing. Despite such a full sanctuary, the room is quiet as every ear strains to hear the sounds of the shofar.

Another special time occurs during Neilah, at the end of Yom Kippur. As the sky darkens, worshippers are invited to spend a final private moment in front of the ark while the cantor chants the prayers. A long line snakes around the side of the sanctuary as members and nonmembers take their turns in front of the ark. The holiday ends with a “Mass Blast,” in which dozens of children fill the sanctuary with the celebratory sounds of the shofar. We then distribute glow sticks and turn off the lights to celebrate the end of the holiday with a “Glow-in-the Dark” Havdalah service. Despite 25 hours of fasting, the feeling is ecstatic.

Part of me regrets that we invest so much hype into the High Holy Days. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are not ideal days to welcome newcomers. Synagogues are crowded. It is impossible to know whether the person sitting next to you is a first-timer or a member of 30 years. The services are long. And there is no Kiddush.

At Sinai, we deliberately welcome nonmembers to attend all synagogue events throughout the year. The best way to experience the Sinai community is to join us on Shabbat morning. Our congregants are friendly, open-minded and genuine. We always serve a full Kiddush lunch after services. It is not uncommon for people to still be sitting together in the social hall as late as 3 p.m. on a Shabbat afternoon.

If you live in the South Bay and do not have a place to attend High Holy Day services this year, please join us at Congregation Sinai. For security reasons, we require participants to have tickets. Visit us at or call (408) 264-8542 to reserve yours. Ask for Joelle, Sinai’s executive director. With her French accent, Joelle is so friendly on the phone that people are eager to meet her in person when they arrive at the synagogue on the holidays.

L’shanah tovah umetukah. May you have a sweet New Year.

Rabbi Josh Berkenwald has been the spiritual leader of Congregation Sinai in San Jose since 2007.

These views represent many Bay Area synagogues and organizations with creative approaches to accommodating holiday worshippers. See our listing of free and low-cost services, or contact individual synagogues to inquire about policies or membership.