Ask the Expert: High Holy Days tickets

by and JTA August 31, 2010


Question: My wife and I decided not to buy High Holy Days tickets this year because they’re so expensive. What can we do to mark the holidays at home on our own?

— Norman, Chicago

Answer: Every year as the High Holy Days approach, I hear people grumbling about the price of tickets. And it’s true, at some synagogues it’s upwards of $500 a head. But why is it so expensive? It’s only a few hours, right?

First, in most synagogues, High Holy Days tickets are included in membership fees. So if you join the synagogue as a member, there is no need to pay for tickets. It’s only if you want to go without paying membership fees that your tickets are so costly.

Think about it like a membership to a gym or health club. If you only go three times a year, then yes, what you pay is a lot per visit. But if you regularly visit your gym, then the monthly fee probably breaks down to only a dollar or two per visit. And the gym needs your membership fees to pay for machines, classes, maintenance, etc.

It’s the same with a synagogue. If you only go three days a year, it does work out to be a high fee per visit. But if you want that synagogue to be around for you to visit on your three days, then the synagogue needs to collect money to make it viable. That money goes to help pay for the building, staff, rabbi, cantor, children’s programming, classes, even food for kiddush.

In addition to being places of worship, synagogues are businesses. They need to stay afloat financially if they want to be able to provide basics such as holiday and Shabbat services to their members. That said, your synagogue almost certainly offers a sliding scale of ticket prices if the price is really the only thing keeping you away. And some synagogues offer a special service for non-members with more affordable tickets.

I consulted with the executive director (who requested to remain anonymous) of a large synagogue in the Washington, D.C., area about this issue, and he explained that it’s worthwhile to invest in synagogue membership. While you may think of yourself as a “limited user” of the synagogue, there really is no such thing as a one- two- or three-day-a-year Jew, he argued.

“Even though someone may not attend services religiously, they still attend synagogues for b’nai mitzvah, weddings, funerals and other occasions, and often call upon rabbis at times of need,” this executive director said.

That’s just a little background on why tickets can be so pricey.

If you’re definitely not interested in buying tickets, there are a number of other ways to get to services. A nearby university might have free services at Hillel on the High Holy Days. A few Hillels do charge for those who are not students, but most don’t. It’s best to call before you go.

Your local JCC also might be holding services, and members might get heavy discounts on tickets. For a more traditional service, Chabad houses are known for welcoming all. For a less traditional service, try the online streaming High Holy Days service via the Jewish TV Network.

If you want to do something that doesn’t involve any kind of service or rabbi, I can make some other suggestions. First, you can certainly purchase a High Holy Days prayer book, or machzor, and pray from home. How about taking the day off from work to spend a full day volunteering for a worthy cause?

Alternately, you can go on a long reflective hike and bring along a machzor or some other spiritually relevant book to read. Try buying a shofar and blowing it yourself. Gather your family and friends for a festive meal, and eat the symbolic foods of Rosh Hashanah: apples and honey.

There’s a Sephardic custom to do a short Seder-like ritual before the Rosh Hashanah meal, so you could try that even if you’re not Sephardic. Think about what has been most meaningful to you about past Rosh Hashanah celebrations and try to duplicate and expand on that with your family.

Rosh Hashanah ultimately is about reflecting on your past year and improving yourself for the year to come. Any way you can do that, whether or not you end up in a synagogue, is in the spirit of the holiday. Chag sameach!

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4 thoughts on “Ask the Expert: High Holy Days tickets

  1. But what if you do not have money and need counseling from a rabbi? I am in Chicago and the only thing that stops me from going to the temple and not just on the holy days is the cost.

  2. Most synagogues will gladly offer discounts or even free tickets for people with budgetary constraints. Chabad-Lubavitch may at times be more proactively forthcoming with this assistance but most synagogues will also oblige. Just call a synagogue office or call the Rabbi directly if you want more discretion. It may be uncomfortable to ask for a discount or free tickets but do not let pride get in the way of your right to experience your heritage the way it has been for thousands of years. You need to be strong and take that step to obtain something very worthwhile for you and your family. One day, may G-d bless you to be able to help others in a similar fashion and that is part of the circle of Jewish righteousness and Tzedakah. Sometimes the best way for us to understand the value of and how to go about helping others, we must …first be the beneficiaries of the help of other. The are many rich and fulfilling aspects to all Jewish holiday experiences some of which simply cannot be duplicated by yourself at home. Some of the experiences are related to the performance of a mitzvah which is meant to be experienced or performed communally. As well if you are not very well educated in the many facets of the rituals and experiences you risk doing something incorrectly. Judaism and the Torah in many ways is practiced and experienced both communally and individually. If we were to limit practice in only one of those two ways, the experience would lose much of its authenticity. It touches on many precepts of the Torah to assist people in the way you need and it would be shameful of any synagogue not to accommodate you. If in fact they do not accommodate, please understand that it would only be an unfortunate reflection on the short sightedness of an individual and in no way would it be a reflection on the charitable precepts of Judaism. Just call another synagogue close to where you live. Happy holidays my brother! Y.B.

  3. Is there really something intrinsic to Reform, Reconstructionist, and to some extent Conservative Judaism that makes them require sticker prices both so high and so inflexible, while every Christian church and most Orthodox shulim can say, “whatever you choose to give is fine”, with no minimum or set price and no humiliating inquiry into one’s finances? “Answers” we hear–operating expenses, a high percentage of congregants who attend only for major holidays, etc.–apply just as much to Christian and Orthodox congregations. (And don’t suggest I try that “no-chicks-on-the-bimah” place. NOT my spiritual home. And don’t say “beggars can’t be choosers”; what kind of attitude is that?) There has GOT to be a better way. I’d like to hear from anyone else interested in organizing a liturgically Reform or Reconstructionist type congregation or denomination with the freewill-offering policy that works just fine for every other denomination and religion.

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