The Jewish Center of Teaneck is trying something new for the new year: It’s not selling tickets to High Holy Day services.
“At the time of year when people are open to possibilities religiously, we should be open to them,” said the congregation’s Rabbi Lawrence Zierler. “When people are in the mood for discovery, you need to maximize the opportunities for them to discover and connect.”
For many if not most synagogues, the High Holy Days are the times of maximum attendance – and the opportunity for maximum revenue.
For Jonathan Sarna, professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University, High Holy Day tickets are “the price we pay for church-state separation. If the government funded religious institutions, as in, say, Germany, tickets would be much cheaper or free.”
But with the weakening of connections to the Jewish community among younger generations, there has been a growing push toward outreach – encouraging Jews to enter the Jewish community – and toward making synagogues and other Jewish institutions more welcoming.
“The perception was that people were demanding places to pray. That was the way you got them to ante up. It was a question of supply and demand,” Zierler said.
“In my mind that’s false economy.”
At its heyday, the Jewish Center was Teaneck’s largest congregation, and it was Conservative. In recent years, it has wrestled with an aging membership and affiliated with the Orthodox Union.
“When you consider the paradigm shift where so many people are consumers and not joiners, more and more places are deciding that this is not when you hit them hard,” Zierler said.
“I want this to be a warm and fuzzy time for people, where they entertain possibilities, where they say, ‘This is a synagogue worth trying.'”
At the nearby Congregation Netivot Shalom, President Michael Rogovin’s response to the Jewish Center’s free worship is “it would be wonderful if every synagogue could do that.”
But his shul, like most, cannot afford it. “Our ticket sales and holiday appeals provide a large portion of the funds we need to run educational and youth programs throughout the year, as well as cover basic synagogue expenses,” he said.
At the same time, despite selling tickets, “we don’t turn away anybody who wishes to daven with us.”
Lisa Harris Glass, who directs the Synagogue Leadership Initiative at the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, said that offering free High Holy Day seats “is a great thing to do – if you can do it.”
She said the need for revenue is only one reason synagogues charge for tickets.
The other is limited capacity. With most members showing up for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and with many bringing along visiting family members, “they have pretty full houses,” she said.
That’s one of the considerations synagogues take into account when working with Glass on the EZ-Key program, which offers free tickets to newcomers to the community.
“There are places that limit the number of tickets they can give out through EZ-Key because they don’t have the room to take 20 or 30 extra people,” she said.
Last year, 165 tickets were given out through EZ-Key, Glass said. This year, 34 synagogues from all denominations are taking part in EZ-Key. To sign up, go to jfnnj.org/holidaytickets. With Rosh Hashanah falling during the first week in September this year, Glass emphasizes that now is the time to start planning for the High Holy Days.
“Generally, you look up the Tuesday after Labor Day and say ‘What am I cooking for Rosh Hashanah?’ You can’t do that this year,” she said.
Though EZ-Key tickets are free, there still is the need for tickets, for both security and planning purposes.
That’s true at the Teaneck Jewish Center as well, where reservations will enable the synagogue to plan for child care and security.
Zierler said the new policy is formalizing what had until now been unofficial.
“We’ve been very generous in the past and never turned anybody away for not having made the necessary arrangements,” he said. “Now we want to put that policy up in lights.”
He said he hopes that he can attract young people who have never committed to synagogue membership. “They get caught for the High Holy Days and go to their parents. The message we want to get out is that you can stay at home, and you can bring your parents.”
He thinks that a free, positive experience for the High Holy Days will bring in support later on.
“We have to adjust our expectations of the first encounter,” he said.