Selling tickets for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services has always felt intrinsically wrong to me. It doesn’t matter if the synagogue says they won’t turn someone away. To me that is irrelevant. The fact is the inference (of selling tickets) ALONE makes those people who can’t afford to buy them feel inferior. It’s a shanda and should NEVER be done. Dammit! We’re such hypocrates! This is a holiday we are to think about the wrongs we’ve done to others and to apologize to them. It’s a holiday about admitting our transgressions and fixing it.
Making money off of a Holy day where we are to spend our time in self-reflection and soul checking (chesbone nefesh)…a Holy day where we are to reach out and apologize to those we hurt during the year…and it being a Holy time we are to ask G-d to inscribe us in the book of life…Selling tickets contradicts the meaning of the day especially when it hurts those unable to pay to pray. The entire money-making thing feels like the corporate mentality of how can we profit at every single turn even if it’s not nice. Oh hell, some synagogues sell seating and aliyot to make more money on the high holidays. There is nothing more ridiculous than to come to services and be forced to sit in folding chairs in the way back because someone paid to sit in the comfortable seats. And there’s nothing more asinine than to show up to services, to sit in the back and then to see all of the paid seats are empty because those folks like to make an entrance halfway through the service.
Listen, I understand a synagogue needs money to survive. But here’s the thing, folks. Selling tickets isolates those who can’t afford it. Synagogue members say a person won’t be turned away but in reality they are being turned away. Putting other Jews in a situation where they have to choose to say, “I can’t afford it” (which is embarrassing) OR to choose to stay at home is just wrong. The entire ideology of selling tickets sends a message to those of us who are less fortunate financially. That message is if you can’t pay then you aren’t welcomed. Period.
Here’s the thing. Maybe a synagogue only wants those who can pay. OK, then. Just say so. Stop hiding behind a righteous persona of accepting anyone and be honest. Of course I’d feel that would be very wrong and against any of my Jewish beliefs BUT at least it would be truthful.
Listen, I really do understand a synagogue needs to make money. I get it. It needs money to sustain itself. It takes money to grow. However, never ever should the way it is done turn another Jew away. On one hand we say the high holidays are about checking one’s soul and apologizing to those we wronged but on the other hand we show such a lack of respect to those less fortunate when we use tickets for the high holidays. It’s OK as long as we apologize? I think not. Making money should never come before treating others the way we want to be treated ourselves. The corporate world has capitalized on making the most money it can by exploiting situations and people. I choose to “exploit” in a much more productive and creative way that doesn’t keep my people and their families from the very purpose of our synagogue…to come and pray. Creating new methods and new ideas (never thought up) is the direction synagogues need to go. Those methods need to be INCLUSIVE and NEVER exclusive.
When I was a little girl my family and I lived in Atlanta, GA. We attended the only conservative synagogue which was 45 minutes from our house. The fact that my dad was basically a dead beat and my mom supported me and my sister off a secretary’s salary, I don’t know how in the hell she was able to give us the Jewish education that was so important to her.
I attended Hebrew school 2 days a week and Sunday school. I remember feeling different. Most of the kids in my religious school classes were from families whose vacations cost more than what my mom was making in a month. I knew our status was way below the others but our mom didn’t care. It was important to her we got our Jewish education and she did everything in her power to make it happen. It was also very important to my mom that we attended services…especially the high holiday services.
Now let me explain. The synagogue we attended had so many people who attended it was customary to have to park at least a mile away (on a good year). Sometimes even farther. There were so many people when we got inside the sanctuary we often had to sit in folding chairs so far from the bimah we’d have to watch services on a TV. The families who paid a lot of money got to sit in the comfortable seats with an actual live view of the bimah.
One more thing. I have to tell you a little something about my mom before I continue. She grew up in Birmingham, Alabama from 1930 to 1960. She was raised by a nanny and frequently vacationed with her aunt and uncle (who was the CEO of the Gillette company in Canada). I’m certain my mom hated not being able to provide the same opportunities to her children as she was given. Of course excluding the nanny for obvious reasons. Regardless, she always kept her head held high for her kids. And no matter what…if she was being treated unfairly, she never hesitated standing up against the injustice (even if it meant it would expose her own misfortunes and cause her embarrassment).
Ok, so back to when my family attended the synagogue in Atlanta. I remember as early as 5 years old knowing that the selling of high holiday tickets was more of a status thing rather than a feeling of supporting the synagogue. Yes, it supported the place but when it evolved to buying prime seating and buying aliyot, it grew into something much more evil. I could see it in the behavior and demeanor of the congregants. They felt power and had no regards for others. Even so, I ignored it. I loved going to synagogue during the high holidays…the mixed smells of perfumes, the smells of the Challot, hearing Cantor Goodfriend belt out a prayer and hearing the shofar being blown was exciting. As a kid the high holidays were a special time.
Having said that every year from the age of five to eleven the high holidays were tainted by one thing. I dreaded getting through the entrance of the synagogue where all of the ticket Nazi’s sat at these long tables. They were typically women and each of them had a thick packet of paper stapled together. On each sheet were lists and lists of names of the people who had paid. Now, maybe you’re thinking that my parents should have prearranged things so entering would be easier and less traumatic for me as a child. Well, they tried. My mom about a month before the holidays would contact the synagogue to tell them we couldn’t afford a ticket. She did that with hopes to get our name on the ticket Nazi list. During one conversation I remember hearing my mom talking on the phone about it. I remember the look on her face when she had to admit she couldn’t pay…I could see from my mom’s expression on her face the difficulty it was to tell a stranger why she couldn’t afford buying a high holiday ticket. And I particularly remember my mom having to say, “No, I can’t even pay you a little bit of money.” I was assuming the person on the other end was trying to negotiate some kind of payment from my mom because then my mom said, “If I pay you $100 then I won’t be able to feed my family.” Y’all, my mom was always level-headed. She never exaggerated. So, I knew she meant what she was saying. When my mom hung up the phone that time I remember she sarcastically kept saying to herself, “And we say we never turn anyone away due to lack of paying.” I am guessing my mom had hoped by making that call it would reduce any embarrassment we would have at the entrance with the ticket Nazi’s. Better to embarrass herself with one person on the phone rather than with a crowd of people as we wait in line to get into the synagogue.
The stress and the pain it caused my mom has stayed with me. She was a woman who wasn’t afraid to work hard but life always seemed to get in the way of her success. Seeing the pain it caused her I swore when I grew up I would NEVER support any congregation who sold tickets…because I could never be a part of an organization that would treat others the way my mom was treated. I feel strongly it sets up situations that go against every teaching of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. To me that alone is reason enough to stop it. In my mind the money received from selling tickets is tainted and worthless as long as we hurt people in the process.
If money is what is needed, then it’s time congregations looked to a new model. It’s no longer the lucrative days of the 1950’s and 1960’s when so many congregations were growing exponentially. Congregants gave money even when they couldn’t pay to repair their homes. The social expectations were different back then. There was a lot of pressure for families to give. Today, many understand we have to put our families first in regards to their every day needs. As much as we want our synagogues to flourish as they once did, we can no longer justify putting our family’s basic needs second. And frankly, we no longer are bound by the same social pressures as we once were. And yet I find it interesting that we are running our synagogues as if we still lived in the 1950’s. Good or bad those days are long gone. We can no longer rely just on our membership to make a profit. Today, we have to work smarter by creating a more sustainable cash flow. Smaller towns have fluctuating members especially when there isn’t a lot of industry to bring new people into the community. It’s time to stop expending so much energy on looking for new members in such a way it feels more like desperation. Religion is a personal choice and each have their own needs and wants. Judaism is not a missionary religion and so folks are often turned off when approached. Here’s the thing. Even in the corporate world businesses no longer rely on their “walk through the door” customers. It’s time to create a new model and one that isn’t filled with corporate jargon that only turns people away. It’s time to create a new environment which allows the synagogues to be approachable and welcoming.
AND SO, just a week away from the new year I ask my fellow Jews to think about the message that selling tickets sends. I challenge them to find other ways (than to sell tickets) so that the synagogues reflect the true spirit of the holidays. Of course complacently is easier and often it can feel safer. I get it. But if we are to grow and better ourselves, then we must step out into unchartered territory. Let’s not lose sight we are NOT only a “business” but we are also a place of worship. There is no doubt it’s imperative to assure money making BUT it’s never excusable to do it in such a way where it is soul breaking.
On that note I wish EVERYONE L’Shana tova, tikatevu…may this year be filled with sweetness, love and the ability to think beyond what has always been.