Few Jewish communal experiences have the drawing power of High Holy Day services, and our local congregations are gearing up for the crowds of worshippers expected next week.
While distributing holiday tickets and assigning seating is a relatively straightforward task, it appears that different synagogues have different ways of handling this process.
Some are participating in the EZ Key program, a project of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey. Through this program, synagogues in the federation’s catchment area are providing free High Holy Day tickets to people who have lived in the community for two years or less.
According to Nancy Perlman, program coordinator, some 34 synagogues are participating this year ““ up from 26 last year ““ and the host shuls, in Bergen, Hudson, and Passaic counties ““ represent all of the Jewish streams.
“We’re getting wonderful feedback,” Perlman said, noting that requests started to come in at the end of June, slacked off during the summer, and have begun to pick up once again.
Last year, the program coordinated the distribution of about 160 seats. It is hoped that more will be allotted this year.
“People are very pleased,” Perlman said, adding that she has learned from last year’s experience what questions to ask callers.
“I’m seeing people moving to this area who are looking to join synagogues and find religious schools,” she said. “It’s very rewarding – helping someone find a home.”
Elyse Frishman, rabbi of Barnert Temple in Franklin Lakes, said that if there were no need for tickets, “We would do away with them.” However, “for reasons of space and security, the synagogue does not allow walk-ins.”
“We need to know who people are and where they’re coming from,” she said, noting that people must inform the shul in advance that they will attend holiday services.
Tickets at Barnert are a benefit of membership, and members receive them for all members of their immediate family. If they need more tickets, the synagogue requests a financial contribution.
“We try to make certain that anyone who wants can come in, just for a contribution,” Frishman said. However, if someone has been coming as a guest for two years, “We expect them to join.
“We try in every way to be as welcoming as we can,” she said, “but we also recognize the importance of reciprocity. If we serve you, then you [should] reciprocate by supporting us.”
Barnert holds one community service and a junior congregation each day of the holiday. Seating is open, but nonmembers are directed to spill-off areas in the library, which houses a large video screen.
“When the service begins, if there’s room, they can come into the sanctuary,” Frishman said, adding that she goes into the library to greet the people worshipping there and the shofar is brought there during shofar blowing. In addition, Torahs are carried into the library during hakafot.
“We do what we can within the confines of the physical space to make people feel connected,” said Frishman.
At the Fair Lawn Jewish Center/Congregation B’nai Israel, too, tickets are a benefit of membership, though nonmembers may buy them for $300. If that ticket-buyer should decide later to join the shul, the cost of the ticket will be credited against dues.
According to synagogue president Linda Ayes, households with children receive two tickets, which are for the adults. Children do not require tickets. Indeed, said Ayes, single children may enter without a ticket up until they are 30.
“You pay dues, you get a ticket,” she said, adding that the tickets obtained in this way are for general seating in the synagogue ballroom. The synagogue is expecting approximately 1,200 people at High Holy Day services.
Members also may buy permanent seats in the sanctuary, labeled with their names, or they can “rent” a particular seat for the year. Those who neither buy nor rent specific seats choose ballroom seats on a first-come first-served basis.
Ayes said that egalitarian services will take place in the sanctuary/ballroom area, while non-egalitarian services will be held in the chapel, where seating is unreserved. Services for children, divided by age groups, also will be held.
On the second day of Rosh Hashanah, at 3 p.m., a family service will be held for those with young children.
“That’s open to members and nonmembers,” Ayes said. “It’s for those who may want to go to a service geared to younger people.”
In addition to hosting people who may come through the EZ Key program, Ayes said she has joined an initiative allowing students who traveled with Birthright Israel to attend at no charge, even if they are nonmembers.
Regarding people’s choice of seats, Ayes said it’s “quite interesting. We’re creatures of habit. A person who gets there early, for example, might sit in the back because they like it better there. It’s their area.”
Still, she said, she has never seen people get visibly upset when their preferred seat is taken – though “they may feel it in the pit of their stomach.”
At Teaneck’s Congregation Beth Sholom, dues do not include holiday tickets, according to its director of administration, Matthew Halpern.
“Our members understand that there’s an additional cost,” he said.
The only exceptions are people who hold a “chai” membership, an enhanced level of membership that includes two High Holy Day seats, tickets to the shul’s annual gala, and various additional benefits. This membership level must be renewed each year.
Halpern said he expects “a full house” this year. “We can accommodate about 1,200 people in seats, and we sell about 1,200,” he said, adding that the shul also provides children’s services.
Tickets are not needed for children’s services, which include Minyan Katan (through age 3), Minyan Shalom (4- to 5-year-olds), Minyan Gesher (grades 1-3), Minyan Sha’ar (grades 4-5), and Sababa (grades 6-7 – Rosh Hashanah Day 1 and Yom Kippur only).
Halpern has fielded calls about EZ Key, and he said he expects even more people to call for reservations through that program.
Beth Sholom does not sell permanent seats, he said, adding that while there is no upper limit for how many tickets a family can order, the highest number has been about 12.
The synagogue holds three services simultaneously. Those in the sanctuary and the auditorium are parallel minyamin.
“It’s the exact same service,” he said. “The rabbi and chazzan pairings flip-flop at different times,” as they do during Yom Kippur. A third service, Minyan Koleinu, is characterized by the heavy use of participatory melodies.
“The tickets are the same price no matter which minyan you choose,” Halpern said, but attendees have to decide where they prefer to daven in advance. Seats are assigned in the auditorium and sanctuary, though not in the Koleinu minyan.
“We do our best not to turn anyone away,” he said. “While we don’t set aside extra seats, if someone approaches us with a financial consideration, we try to figure out an appropriate arrangement,” whether for a member or a non-member. “The idea is to give people an opportunity to be in a warm, supportive, Jewish environment, especially during the High Holy Days.”
While congregants generally are content with their seats, sometimes “you need to educate people,” Halpern said, explaining that last year, the configuration of the auditorium was changed so that a bimah with risers could be placed on the floor “to make a more inclusive environment.”
As a result, some seats were moved around “and some people didn’t like it.”
“It’s a big jigsaw puzzle, and we try to accommodate every request as it comes in,” Halpern said. “I think people appreciate the work that goes into it. When the building is full, there’s a great energy that comes from being together. At the end of the day, when the chagim are over, we succeeded in doing all we can to make sure it was a meaningful and enjoyable yom tov for everybody.”