Pay to Pray?

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When I was a kid attending services at Temple Emanuel, I was fascinated by the concept of synagogues charging money for High Holiday services. A synagogue selling tickets to pray? Even members had to pay? I couldn’t wrap my head around it at the time. To be honest, it didn’t feel quite right to me.

Now that I’m older, I understand, of course, the reasons that we pay for tickets to High Holiday services. But the subject still gets debated anew every year, and increasingly these days, as traditional affiliation wanes and younger congregations try to attract younger people and those who are new to observance.


This week, Susan Ingram tackles the subject in her cover story on page 50. While it might seem to some that bringing a transaction into the holiest time of the year goes against the sanctity of the services, Jenna Weissman Joselit, professor of Judaic studies and history at George Washington University, explained to Ingram that paid tickets actually came about as a way to preserve the sacredness of services. They also came about as fundraising practices and strategies evolved. The idea of tickets became especially useful in the late 19th century, when synagogues began to bring in “star” cantors from overseas to do High Holiday services. Such events also brought in crowds.

Today, High Holiday services are the most well-attended services all year. Synagogues that can barely make a minyan on some weekends see many unfamiliar faces at this time of year, but they welcome them all. It makes sense, in my opinion, to ask the people who rely on shuls for just a few days a year to contribute something for that service. The synagogues provide a great service in welcoming so many into their houses of worship to take part in prayer, reflection and repentance, so contributing to these institutions only helps them fulfill their community obligations.


Of course, not all services are paid events. These days, tickets range from free to hundreds of dollars. For those congregations that do charge, however, synagogue officials say that High Holiday tickets are essential, as they are one of their most abundant sources of revenue, especially with membership numbers at non- Orthodox congregations across the country either shrinking or remaining stagnant.

But whatever you choose to do for the High Holidays — whether you are a ticket-holder, are attending a free service or have some alternate plans — I wish you all L’Shana Tovah.

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