“She’s Got a Ticket to Pray–But She Really Don’t Care”

So, on the one hand, the High Holy Days probably offer synagogues the best opportunity all year to collect funds. On the other hand, these are our holiest days of the year. Should it feel like they’re about collecting funds?  Should there be elite seating for those who pay more? That’s how it was when I was a kid. The “rich” people sat in the blue cushy theater seats in the front section where they could see everything that was going on. (One donor went one better. Every year he sat on the bimah––the stage––next to the rabbi, like Jabba the Hutt on his throne.) The “poor” people sat in the way back in the stackable chairs brought out just for the occasion, with the hopes that the users would re-stack them up against the wall when the holidays were over. The services were transmitted back there via speakers, so you could never be sure if the rabbi was really at the podium or broadcasting live from Bermuda.

While I was a broke college student, the High Holy Days––which should have brought some peace to my hectic undergraduate life––brought me angst instead. Weeks ahead of time, I had to go into the office of whichever synagogue and plead my case: “Hi. I wanted to see if I could possibly get a discount on a High Holy Day ticket.” The responses I’d get would vary greatly. From private and respectful: “Don’t worry. If you can give anything, just give what you can” to being grilled like a cheese sandwich in front of the assistant rabbi, the secretary, and the UPS delivery guy: “Why can’t you buy the ticket?” “What’s your situation?” “Are you now or have you ever been a member of this synagogue?” “How about your relatives?” “Can’t your parents help?” I’d leave the office mumbling, “Well that was gross,” and go back to my dorm and take a shower. It wasn’t until after I graduated and moved to Queens that the whole pay-to-pray thing really started getting to me. I attended services at a Conservative synagogue in Forest Hills nearly every Friday night as well as social (okay,”singles”) events there.  One August my mother died, suddenly. I was so out of it, barely functioning, and not thinking about the fast-approaching High Holy Days at all. That early Rosh Hashanah morning, I headed out to services. Two men I’d never seen before–– clearly they never went to Friday night services or played singles volleyball there––asked for my ticket at the door. I told them my mother had just died and I wasn’t very organized at the moment and so I didn’t have a ticket but promised to bring a donation after the holidays. They didn’t let me in. Even though the sanctuary was currently 2/3 empty, I said: “Look, I don’t even need a seat. I’ll stand in the back.” They wouldn’t budge. After 10 agonizing minutes of my crying on the synagogue doorstep as ticket holders blew past, they reluctantly admitted me, not because it was one of the holiest days on the Jewish calendar, not out of compassion, but because the non-Jewish security guard, Stephan, came over and inadvertently vouched for me and/or made them feel stupid when he said: “Hi Lori. What’s wrong?”

Every time I kvetch about this ticket thing (which I’ve been doing like clockwork for most of my adult life), the devil’s advocates always come up with the same three defenses:

“Is what the churches do better? Passing around the collection plate?”

I wish I could give an informed answer to that but I can’t. My church experiences have been limited to: Voting in one, taking an SAT course in one, and running into St. Patrick’s Cathedral for comfort after the American Girl doll hair salon down the street creeped me out.

“The tickets are for security reasons.”

That was the mantra of the two guys manning the door at Forest Hills. Notwithstanding the fact that I’m guessing there aren’t a ton of women with kinky red hair on the suspected terrorist list, or that my incident was more than a decade before 9/11––of course security has always been an issue for synagogues everywhere––but I’ve never understood this reasoning at all: A terrorist couldn’t figure out a way to get a ticket or get inside without one? “It’s a deterrent.” Bullshit… It’s an excuse to sell tickets. If it were a deterrent, wouldn’t a $5 ticket deter as much as a $200 ticket? Has any terrorist ever said: “I wanted to attack that temple, but the ticket was too steep. I’ll save up for next year.”? Maybe on South Park.

The third defense I get for the pay-to-pray system is the most maddening:

“If we don’t charge these prices during the High Holy Days, then we wouldn’t have a synagogue.”

To this I say: If you turn people either off or away at the holiest time of the year because of money, you don’t deserve to have a synagogue.

People like to say they don’t like the pricey tickets but there are no alternatives. The Chabad movement has found an alternative, and one Reform synagogue in our area too: they charge nothing, or only a nominal amount They’ve created a welcoming spirit of community, of openness. This, I believe, inspires everyone to give as much as they can to keep the institutions afloat and thriving all year round. Sure, with email and social media they’re frequently up your electronic ass looking for donations, but at least they’re leaving the High Holy Days holy.   

When we were first moving down to North Carolina and didn’t know anybody, I contacted the only Conservative synagogue in the area to get their advice on various matters. The woman in the office was very cordial and even offered us guest passes for the High Holy Days. We went. The next year, I went to purchase tickets there and found that the price for our same family of five had suffered a slight “cost-of-praying” increase, going from zero to $700.

It’s not just paying-for-praying. I find public donations in general, and ones involving religious institutions in particular, equally as nauseating. Maybe I’m just being naive, but couldn’t we still give as enthusiastically if there wasn’t some grand acknowledgement attached to it, like the mention in the monthly bulletin or a plaque or a bench or a playground or an award or a wing or a dinner? Do the people who give $20 deserve less gratitude than those who give $20,000? Do we need a contributors’ hierarchy complete with a “Diamond Donor Club”?

That first year here, when we went to that synagogue pre-$700 ticket hike, I noticed row after row of “reserved parking” for Mr. S. Goldstein, Mr. H. Solomon, Dr. D. Horowitz etc., etc. Happy Rosh Hashanah everyone! Don’t mind the retching sounds coming from that woman walking through the reserved puking lot in the velvet dress. Maybe I’m reading too much between the yellow lines. Maybe there’s a valid reason why the hordes of peons have to wade through all of those private prime parking spots just to get to the main entrance. Maybe those spaces double as cemetery plots and poor rich Mr. Goldstein, Mr. Solomon, and Dr. Horowitz are buried between those lines. All I know is that I always trust my gut. And at that moment, my gut was saying: “I feel like throwing up.” I thought to myself: So this is why we really fast on Yom Kippur: So you won’t ruin your dress before you get to the front door.

Right now, we give whatever we can whenever we can. In money and in our time. But one day, when we have enough money to give a large donation, I pledge right here, in front of everyone, that I will give it––to those synagogues, JCCs etc who so generously embrace their entire communities. So look for our plaque: “This playground/ wing/ parking space/ community center/ bench/ dude ranch has been made possible by an obscenely enormous donation from The Anonymous Family”

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Lilith Magazine. 

4 comments on ““She’s Got a Ticket to Pray–But She Really Don’t Care”

  1. MissTrudy on

    I agree wholeheartedly. The thing is, if they’d pass a collection plate, people give what they can (or even nothing) and it’s voluntary, right? I mean, no one would be denied entry. I can’t believe what they did to you when your mother died. At the shul we go to, there are assigned seats but nobody really follows the assignations, one sort of sits in a first come, first serve basis even when full. But yes, people who can’t pay are “supposed” to sit in the back. Yet, no one is denied entry who want to attend the holidays.

  2. Stephanie on

    Passing a collection plate is a non starter though. Shabbat and holy days forbid the exchange of money. Even if everyone is breaking that law (and plenty of others) that day, doing that *inside* synagogue is a bridge too far.
    As the author notes, chabad has found another way. But it comes at a price. Those big synagogues, gold plated ark full of scrolls, etc. don’t come cheap. I was raised conservative and have happily gone to chabad for 9 years, because I like services in a modest storefront, paying what I can when I can, and knowing that nobody is ever turned away at the door because their mom died (or in my case because a hurricane hit) and they were too out of sorts to buy a holiday ticket.

  3. Lonna Kahn on

    I have always felt that if a synagogue must sell tickets in order to pay its bills it is spending too much money on itself, its buildings, its Torah decorations (golden calves).

  4. Lisa on

    GREAT ARTICLE! It’s about time we explored the “affordability” issue in depth. A good first step would be widespread sharing and discussion of fine essays like the above. (Let’s continue this conversation even though the High Holy Days have passed; planning for next Fall should start now–in matters spiritual as well as political.)

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