illustrative photo of rows of chairs in a synagogue
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Let’s make this the year we end paid High Holiday tickets

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We’ve just celebrated our High Holidays, when Jews come together in community to ask how we can be the best we can be. We ask as individuals, and we ask as a community — indeed, all of our High Holiday prayers are worded in the plural to denote that our responsibility to be our best selves is communal.

One way we’re living up to our best selves as a community is the growing number of synagogues offering free High Holiday services, as evidenced in J.’s list of local free and low-cost services, as well as in this recent Forward story. Perhaps expensive Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur tickets are finally on their way out.

High-priced High Holiday tickets exclude many and turn off many more. Many Jews can’t afford them, and many more are perplexed that a worship service would charge an admission price well into the three digits.

Some synagogues have taken a substantial step by charging moderate two-digit prices for High Holiday services. That’s progress. But let’s eliminate prices altogether. If the rest of the year’s services are not priced, High Holiday services, of all things, should not be.

We’ve all heard of High Holiday Jews: people who are marginally committed whose main link to Jewish practice is Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. For Jews whose Jewish commitment is on life support, asking them to pay for High Holiday tickets is like stepping on the oxygen tube. Why would we do that to ourselves?

Increasingly, Jewish communities are answering that question by discontinuing this detrimental practice. I’d like to invite our Bay Area community to take that step fully, and end all priced High Holiday ticketing.

I think, in our hearts, most of us would prefer not to charge high admission prices for a worship service. In an economy as bifurcated as ours into haves and have-nots, charging a high admission fee for a worship service is wrong. All Jews should be able to worship without worrying about the impact on making ends meet that month, and without the shame of having to call the synagogue’s office to plead poverty. The availability of worship to all is a key duty of an affluent Jewish community to its people.

The conventional wisdom about High Holiday tickets is that they pay for the additional expenses incurred by conducting larger-than-usual services. But why think of these costs as an additional burden to a synagogue rather than as an important part of a Jewish community’s mission — or of the greater Bay Area Jewish community’s mission?

I was on the board of a large Reform synagogue outside the Bay Area some years ago, and I imagine that synagogue’s experience was broadly representative. With a $2 million operating budget, we made about $21,000 in High Holiday tickets each year. Those numbers have certainly increased since 2007, but revenues from tickets still represent very small fractions of existing operating budgets. If we welcome people in the door, they might stay if they have a good experience. That’s a mission-driven consideration if anything is.

To those who worry that High Holiday attendance will swell even further if tickets were free: We should have such problems! Let’s figure out how to accommodate our people so that our community can survive and be strong. By all means, require registration for these services if security or logistical concerns demand it. But let’s not sell tickets.

In the grand scheme of Jewish philanthropy, chipping in to help synagogues provide beautiful services to people who aren’t members is not such a heavy lift. For a fraction of the cost of a synagogue capital campaign, we could end High Holiday ticketing in the Bay Area once and for all. We can do this if we make it a priority. It would remove a psychological barrier, and for some an economic barrier, to Jewish affiliation and commitment.

So let’s get rid of High Holiday ticketing for good, and let’s do it now. We could be the first major metropolitan area that ends this practice. As 5784 dawns a year from now, we could look back knowing that we as a community have improved on this issue. What are we waiting for?

If you’d like to be part of a project to try to end High Holiday ticketing in the Bay Area, please write to me at [email protected]. If we organize as a group, we could get the attention of the philanthropic community for this game-changing value proposition that isn’t very costly in relation to its impact. We can end High Holiday ticketing if we come together and try.

Rabbi Jeremy D. Sher
Rabbi Jeremy D. Sher

Rabbi Jeremy Sher is a hospital chaplain in San Francisco and runs Jewish programs for the San Francisco Night Ministry. He lives in Oakland. Contact him at [email protected].