Synagogues are opening their doors.
But are they cutting their pockets?
With the High Holy Days approaching, more than two dozen synagogues are participating in a program to entice newcomers to the community with free tickets to services.
The program, dubbed EZ Key, is coordinated by the Synagogue Leadership Initiative of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey.
“We want to lower the barrier to people who want to try out a synagogue for the High Holy Days and raise the profile of synagogues in the area,” said Lisa Harris Glass, director of the synagogue initiative.
The program is for people who have lived in the community for two years or less. By visiting the federation’s web site at http://www.jfnnj.org/holidaytickets, newcomers can sign up for tickets at their choice of participating congregations, or be matched up with a suitable congregation.
“It’s a one-shot offering,” said Glass, explaining that EZ Key is meant to introduce worshipers to a congregation, not to replace synagogue membership.
Rabbis of participating congregations are enthusiastic about the program.
“We’re very excited about it,” said Rabbi Elyse Frishman of Barnert Temple in Franklin Lakes. “I love the idea of welcoming people in, particularly people new in the community.
“Philosophically, I’m of two bents. On one hand, it’s critical for people to support synagogues financially. In doing so, you benefit from belonging to a synagogue.
“On the other hand, there are many, many Jews who don’t understand that. They have such negative baggage that they carry about what a synagogue is. And they also have a sense of expectation that when it comes time for the High Holy Days, they feel they should be able to walk into a synagogue and take advantage of its services.
“Both are right,” she said, adding, “It saddens me that anyone would feel alienated from a congregation because they couldn’t afford it.”
Rabbi Ilan Glazer, spiritual leader of Temple Beth El of North Bergen, agrees that EZ Key “is a fantastic idea.”
“We certainly need to do more to make ourselves more marketable and outreach-oriented than we are. EZ Key is a way to get people in the door.”
Rabbi Neal Borovitz of Temple Avodat Shalom in River Edge said, “EZ Key is an admission on the part of our community that the cost, real and perceived, of Jewish affiliation may be a barrier for less committed Jewish families, including interfaith families, to even seek out a synagogue.”
“Reaching out to unconnected Jews irrespective of the reason for their lack of affiliation is critical for both the institutions of our Jewish community and equally important for the unaffiliated Jews,” he said.
The United Synagogue of Hoboken has chosen not to participate, said Rabbi Robert Scheinberg. “We experience something like 25 to 30 percent turnover in our membership every year, which makes it hard for us to do a lot of giving things away for free for people who are new,” he said.
At the same time, “If someone wants to come and the recommended donation exceeds what they can do, we’re delighted to receive a donation of any amount.”
One issue for the congregation is capacity. The sanctuary holds 500 and tickets are needed to ensure that people are not turned away.
In part because the synagogue cannot serve everyone who might want to come to High Holy Days services, and in part to provide “some High Holy Day experiences that would be open to everyone with no tickets required,” the United Synagogue is holding services in what might be considered off-peak time slots.
“That includes an additional public shofar blowing on Rosh Hashanah afternoon, and an additional Yizkor on Yom Kippur afternoon,” he said.
At least one congregation, Temple Emanuel of North Jersey in Franklin Lakes, is participating in EZ Key with free tickets, but also providing a service for which tickets are not required. Family services for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur will supplement the traditional egalitarian services led the rabbi and cantor in the main sanctuary. The family services are scheduled to last no more than 90 minutes, and are designed “to be engaging and meaningful to children from ages 4 and up, as well as to adults with limited Hebrew reading skills.”
At least one area pulpit rabbi, however, is unhappy with the thrust toward low-cost entryways to synagogue life.
“Synagogues depend on High Holy Days ticket sales to keep the lights on in their buildings throughout the year,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “We need to be educating people about the importance of contributing to a shul’s upkeep, not encouraging them to look around for the cheapest option.”