Sunday, September 21, 2014

Can You Go to Synagogue on the High Holidays Without a Ticket?

Well, sure. However, your mileage may vary whether you get in the door, whether you have a seat, or whether people are jerks to you. (All of the below applies to synagogues in any movement - orthodox, conservative, and reform.)

I don't like that shuls charge exorbitant amounts for "tickets" for the High Holydays. I like more Jewish people doing more Jewish things. So while I wish people attended synagogue more often, I'm glad they come any time. However, I'm not the treasurer of a shul (or any other shul position of leadership, baruch Hashem). 

Here's why shuls charge $100 or more (and sometimes much more) to attend synagogue on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur:
  • Limit the number of people who attend. Most shuls just cannot hold as many people as would like to come. The fire marshall puts a limit on how many people can safely be in the building, and there are only so many seats. Many shuls expand the seating for the chagim, but demand usually still exceeds supply.
  • Likewise, know how many people will be attending. They have to plan, ya know?
  • It's a great fundraising opportunity for the shul. Some shuls bring in more for the chagim than their normal membership funds. 
  • I can't guarantee anyone actually thinks this, but it sounds a bit like a sin tax: "You only come to shul twice a year? How nice, that'll be $300. That's almost the price for a full year of membership, but how would you know? Your poor grandmother is rolling over in her grave."
  • Keep in mind that the reform movement only holds one day of Rosh Hashanah, so your ticket may not "go as far" in those congregations. That may matter to you.

But some shuls (mostly Chabads, but not all Chabad houses) don't charge anything. Like me, their mission is to see Jewish people doing Jewish things. It's in line with their mission statement to make if affordable to attend shul for the chagim.

What if you're already a member of the shul? Shuls differ as to whether the congregant's membership fees cover tickets. Most will still ask you to pay in addition to membership fees. (Remember: fundraising.) 

How do you find a place to daven? Try these:
  • High Holidays Directory
  • Chabad High Holidays Services Directory
  • Google "High Holidays service in *town*"
Remember to arrive early to get a machzor with English (or your preferred translation). You should be able to find siddurim in Russian, French, or Spanish at many shuls.

But here's the real question: what happens if you can't afford that exorbitant price? As I see it, you have a couple of options:
  • Stay home and mope
  • Stay home and daven
  • Try to crash the party
  • Shul shop for a place with cheaper (or free!) tickets
  • Ask for a reduced-price ticket
  • Ask for a free ticket
  • Ask around whether a family has an "extra" ticket (usually a child away at college)
All shuls should be willing to negotiate a price, and many will allow students and other low-income people attend for free. I don't recommend crashing the party. I've tried it too many times (hello, pride and ego), and it's blown up in my face almost every time, regardless of movement. A woman working the door accused me of lying about having a free student ticket reserved because my name somehow got left off the list. People have accused me of sitting in "their" seat. Sometimes seats were assigned and I didn't realize it. Some people have asked me whether I paid full price to attend. Door people have treated me less than respectfully for having reduced or free tickets. People are almost always really cranky and rude on Yom Kippur because of fasting (irony much?), and that leads to seat fights and backbiting. I hope your luck is far better than mine. It seems that the chagim are always a time of "character building" for me, whether I seek it out or not.

All that said, don't let me discourage you from seeking a free or reduced price ticket, even if you're not halachically Jewish (yet). The shuls are almost always kind and respectful, and the ones who aren't are committing an aveirah and will get their punishment sooner or later. My experiences are usually extreme because I'm a Murphy's Law Monstrosity. But I also let myself be intimidated by the high prices, and I didn't even try to attend shul during the chagim for the first several years I was in the community. (Shuls are much better today about advertising their willingness to negotiate prices.) The experience would leave a bad taste in my mouth and affect my relationship with Judaism and with the shul for months. Don't let that happen to you. Learn from my mistakes.

It's best to daven with a congregation, but if you can't for whatever reason (injury, pride in poverty, sickness), don't let it ruin your holiday, as I have many times. Make it the best it can be with the resources you have, and make sure you spend some time celebrating with other people. There's always next year unless Moshiach comes.


  1. Thanks for your article. I was just debating the same thing. The prices are hefty.

  2. An option that will obviously not work for anyone who is Orthodox is livestreaming services. Many Reform and some Conservative shuls livestream their services over the Internet, and one can watch for free.

  3. Technically, if you're Conservative, you shouldn't be livestreaming services, either. Though if the alternative is just going to work as usual, livestreaming is obviously preferable!

    And while this is a bit late for Rosh Hashanah, if anyone is in the Frankfurt/Rhein-Main area and needs a place to go for Yom Kippur, the Frankfurt Egalitärer Minjan was only asking €30 for tickets. No one was checking last week, and I can't imagine that anyone would turn you away if you didn't have one. Obviously, this isn't going to work if you're Orthodox, but if you're Reform or Conservative and need a place to daven, come on over- these guys sing the roof off the place, if nothing else.

  4. My Reform shul has a Day 2 service... I don't think you can generalize that to the entire movement.

    Our tickets are free for members, significantly reduced for parents/siblings/adult children over 25, and a little less reduced for friends and others.

    1. Your shul is very unusual. Perhaps that is a new trend as reform becomes more traditional, but the Reform Movement's ruling to only celebrate one day of Rosh Hashanah was a very big deal back in the day. It's a very well-known ruling. Here's some more background from the Reform Movement's website:

  5. My shul is also Reform and is also does two days of services, you just do not have to attend both days. We have one service erev Rosh Hashanah, four services on day one, and two services on day two. The second day services are open to anyone who does not have a ticket so are open to the entire community. You also can livestream it if you desire and it is archived. Almost every Reform shul I know does two days, although I know one that is a VERY small group, and they only do second day, not first day. There is no ticket required for that group, only cost is if you are going to eat there.

    Reform has the freedom to only do one day if we desire, we are not mandated to.

    So I agree that you cannot generalize to the movement and really that rabbi shouldn't have been generalizing either. It's like saying Reform Jews don't study Torah, or don't keep kosher, or pray three times a day, or read from the Torah three times a week (my shul actually has the rabbis do Shabbat and congregants and Orthodox friends do Monday and Thursday at 7 am), or anything else that is the typical generalization of Reform.

  6. Another Reform Jew with two day services. I find it hard to believe that two unusual Reform Jews read your blog and comment on it. We have one erev Rosh Hashanah, four on day one, two on day two. The second day is open to everyone including those who do not have a ticket. Two day Reform services is much more common than you think. I don't know any shul (Reform or otherwise) that doesn't offer something on day two. There is one shul who only offers on day two and that does not require tickets at all. For mine, tickets are free for members and single members get a bonus ticket. It's easy to get a ticket if you can't afford one, you can usher and get a free ticket, ask a rabbi for one, or just come on the free day.

    Generalization is wrong even when a rabbi does it and it is worse when he puts that in public like that so others can be misinformed. Reform has the freedom to only celebrate one day, it's not mandatory just like we can do two days of Shavuot, or eight of Pesach, or eight of Sukkot. Generalizing like that is the reason that people think that no Reform Jew keeps kosher, that Reform doesn't pray three times a day, that Reform knows nothing about tzitzit or tefillin, and that we only have services on Shabbat (my shul has services Monday and Thursday for Torah reading but they are not run by the rabbis)

  7. "People are almost always really cranky and rude on Yom Kippur because of fasting (irony much?), and that leads to seat fights and backbiting. I hope your luck is far better than mine."

    My luck is far better than yours, and has been so for a long time. Fasting makes people cranky, but sincere prayer and the gravity of the day are more than enough to compensate in any synagogue that I've been to.

    It may be less luck than simple position - with some synagogues simply not having the means of others - which should lead to more understanding from those lucky enough to go (irony much)?