>My Response to the Answer Offered by the NJJN "Expert" in "Must we pay to pray?"

>The following appeared in the New Jersey Jewish News on August 18th. It struck a cord with me and… well let me share some thoughts with you after “reprinting” the original article…

Must we pay to pray?

Ask the Expert

Special to NJJN
August 18, 2010

My wife and I decided not to buy High Holy Day tickets this year because they’re so expensive. What can we do to mark the holidays at home on our own?

— Norman, Chicago

The “Expert’s” Response…

Every year as the High Holy Days approach I hear people grumbling about the price of tickets. And it’s true — at some synagogues it’s upwards of $500 a head. But why is it so expensive? It’s only a few hours, right?

First, in most synagogues, High Holy Day tickets are included in membership fees. So if you join the synagogue as a member, there is no need to pay for tickets. It’s only if you want to go without paying membership fees that your tickets are so costly.

Think about it like a membership to a gym or health club. If you only go three times a year, then yes, what you pay is a lot per visit. But if you regularly visit your gym, then the monthly fee probably breaks down to only a dollar or two per visit. And the gym needs your membership fees to pay for machines, classes, maintenance, etc.

It’s the same with a synagogue. If you only go three days a year, it does work out to be a high fee per visit. But if you want that synagogue to be around for you to visit on your three days, then the synagogue needs to collect money to make it viable. That money goes to help pay for the building, staff, rabbi, cantor, children’s programming, classes, even food for kiddush.

In addition to being places of worship, synagogues are businesses. They need to stay afloat financially if they want to be able to provide basics such as holiday and Shabbat services to their members. That said, your synagogue almost certainly offers a sliding scale of ticket prices if the price is really the only thing keeping you away. And some synagogues offer a special service for non-members with more affordable tickets.

I consulted with the executive director (who requested to remain anonymous) of a large synagogue in the Washington, DC, area about this issue, and he explained that it’s worthwhile to invest in synagogue membership. While you may think of yourself as a “limited user” of the synagogue, there really is no such thing as a one-, two-, or three-day-a-year Jew, he said.

“Even though someone may not attend services religiously, they still attend synagogues for b’nei mitzvot, weddings, funerals, and other occasions, and often call upon rabbis at times of need,” this executive director said.

That’s just a little background on why tickets can be so pricey.

If you’re definitely not interested in buying tickets, there are a number of other ways to get to services. A nearby university may have free services at Hillel on the High Holy Days. A few Hillels do charge for those who are not students, but most don’t. It’s best to call before you go.

Your local JCC also may be holding services; members may get heavy discounts on tickets. For a more traditional service, Chabad houses are known for welcoming all. For a less traditional service, try the on-line streaming High Holy Days service via the Jewish TV Network.

If you want to do something that doesn’t involve any kind of service or rabbi, I can make some other suggestions. First, you can certainly purchase a High Holy Days prayer book and pray from home. How about taking the day off from work to spend a full day volunteering for a worthy cause?

Alternately, you can go on a long reflective hike, and bring along a mahzor or some other spiritually relevant book to read. Try buying a shofar and blowing it yourself. Gather your family and friends for a festive meal, and eat the symbolic foods of Rosh Hashana, apples and honey.

There’s a Sephardic custom to do a short seder-like ritual before the Rosh Hashana meal, so you could try that even if you’re not Sephardic. Think about what has been most meaningful to you about past Rosh Hashana celebrations and try to duplicate and expand on that with your family.

Rosh Hashana ultimately is about reflecting on your past year and improving yourself for the year to come. Any way you can do that, whether or not you end up in a synagogue, is in the spirit of the holiday. Hag sameah!

So that was the article that appeared in the Jewish News. I read this and shook my head. I wasn’t shaking my head because of Norman from Chicago’s question. He has every right to ask such a question and, if he is not going to belong to a synagogue it is good that he is still looking for alternative ways to connect to his Judaism. No, I shook my head because the so-called “expert” missed an opportunity to help Norman see the bigger picture. He bought right into Norman’s “fee-for service” mindset and a teachable moment was lost.

The “expert” used the analogy of a gym membership when answering Norman from Chicago. Belonging to a gym is a good thing… if you go. And yes, if you go regularly to the gym the “per visit” cost is quite inexpensive while if you only go three times a year the cost per visit is exorbitant.

The same actually goes for Netflix. Get the membership that gives you three DVDs at a time and, so long as you are constantly watching movies and immediately returning them, the price PER DVD is quite low. If, however, you are like me and forget to send the DVDs back once you watch them the price per DVD goes up significantly.

After a while I realized what bothered me. You see the expert has a
good point BUT IT IS THE WRONG ANALOGY. It is the wrong analogy because by using it the “Expert” bought right into Norman’s “fee-for service” mindset. It is the wrong analogy because belonging to a gym and having a Netflix subscription is all about you and you alone while being part of the Jewish community is about you, and me and every other member of the community, past, present and future. It is the wrong analogy because involvement in a synagogue community is about helping to support the on-going existence of the Jewish people and, as such, it extends far beyond the walls of the specific synagogue one supports.

So if using a gym membership is the wrong analogy what’s the right one?

To my mind the right analogy is Public education. That’s right, a far better (but still imperfect) analogy would be the responsibility of paying local taxes to support public education.

If Norman has children who went to public school their K-12th grade education was not paid for directly by Norman. No, it was paid for by the entire community whose property taxes largely went to pay for the educational infrastructure of his Chicago neighborhood. And once Norman’s kids were through High School Norman continued to pay local taxes and support the school system. He and his family are no longer deriving direct benefit from the dollars they put into education but just as they had benefitted from the support of others now it was their turn to return the favor, or more accurately, the obligation to do so.

Similarly Elana and I don’t have children. That means that, as adults, we have never directly benefitted from our support of the local school system. That doesn’t mean we should have been exempt from supporting public education. After all, when we were kids we both attended public schools. Now as adults it is our turn to make sure other kids get the same benefit.

That’s what it means to be part of a community. That’s what social responsibility is all about. You do your part and others do theirs. Sometimes you are the beneficiary and sometimes others are. Regardless, you do your part.

Two households that strike close to home in this regard are my parents and my in-laws. Long after Elana and her brother Rob were out of the house Mark and Debbie were members of Temple Shalom in Aberdeen. They rarely went and, in fact, when they did go to synagogue for the last 18 years it was more likely TSTI that they attended than their synagogue. Still, they remained members of Temple Shalom. Why? Because they believe in supporting the Jewish community and they understand that the foundation of the Jewish community is the synagogue. Moreover they felt strongly that the synagogue had been there when Elana and Rob were kids and they wanted to make sure that other families would have the same now that their kids are growing up. In fact they only left Temple Shalom when they moved north seven years ago to be closer to us. Now they belong to a little synagogue in South Orange. 🙂

The same can be said for my parents. We grew up at Temple Sinai in Summit. Long after my sister Martha and I were out of the house my parents maintained their membership even though ever since I first came to TSTI when they attend synagogue they come here. They never USED Temple Sinai but they still supported it.

That’s what it means to be part of a community. That’s what Jewish responsibility is all about. You do your part and others do theirs. Sometimes you are the beneficiary and sometimes others are. Regardless, you do you part.

A few years ago my parents left Temple Sinai. They left, but only to join TSTI.

Norman from Chicago opened the door for the “Expert” to teach this lesson on responsibility and commitment. Would it have changed Norman’s mind? I doubt it. But at least it would not have reinforced the mindset that the synagogue is only about what I as an individual receive at this moment.

Two final points that the “Expert” could have made to Norman from Chicago.

The first is that with his individualistic mindset Norman will never have something that long-time TSTI members Harriet and Everett Felper understand and share with their family and everyone who knows them. Harriet and Everett celebrated their 60th anniversary on August 6th. They had family and friends gather for dinner and then they abruptly ended their meal. Why? Because everyone then walked down the hall and into the chapel for services. The Felpers wanted to celebrate their milestone anniversary surrounded by family, surrounded by friends and surrounded by the larger community. They understood that while their 60th anniversary was about them, it was not ONLY about them. Their kids were all there. And all but one of their grandchildren were there to help bless them. Where was the missing grandchild? She was attended Crane Lake Camp… one of our Reform Jewish summer camps. Clearly the Felpers have planted the seed of commitment. They know it isn’t just about them and they have done their part to ensure that Judaism is here generations from now.

In answering Norman from Chicago the “Expert” could have pointed to people like Harriet and Everett. There are a lot of them in this community. There are a lot of them in every community.

One final lesson the “Expert” could have shared with Norman from Chicago. It comes from a friend of my mother-in-law’s who, when speaking about supporting her synagogue said, “I may not be religious. I may not go to synagogue a lot. but my synagogue has a fair share approach. No one is ever turned away because of financial need. I belong to a synagogue and always will because even if I don’t go I want to make sure others can.”

I hope that Norman and his wife, whoever they are, have a sweet new year. And I do know this, whether they are at home or somewhere else for the holidays when the look in the machzor, the high holy day prayerbook, they’ll find that the majority of the prayers are n the plural. Why? Because while belonging to a gym and having a Netflix subscription is all about you and you alone while being part of the Jewish community is about you, and me and every other member of the community, past, present and future.


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