Thursday, September 10, 2015

Why the Huge Difference in Prices for High Holiday Tickets??

A friend asked an excellent question that has probably occurred to many of you: "Why is the local reform shul charging $200 for holiday tickets, but the Chabad is only charging $25 and that includes a meal??" 

This contrast doesn't always exist, but it exists in much of America, especially smaller Jewish communities where there is only one or two synagogues of each movement. Your mileage can and will vary, sometimes even year-to-year in the same community!

Basically, this difference is a function of two different factors:
  • Supply and demand
  • In the specific shul's opinion, what's the purpose of selling tickets for the chagim?
Somehow, this turned into an economics lecture. Enjoy.

The Economics of the Chagim

Supply and demand is the easy part to figure out for each community. 

Demand is really high for seats on the High Holydays. People make disparaging remarks about "the one day a year Jew," but it's really a 2 or 3 days a year, and that's not really a nice thing to say about people anyway. You don't know their reasons. Eyes on your own plate, people. Yom Kippur is coming. 

Movement Differences

Demand may vary widely based on the movement of the individual shul and the other available options in the community. 

The house will be packed at every reform and conservative synagogue because people are more familiar with those movements and probably feel less intimidated going there if they think they're clueless (plus there's lots of English). I can't speak to attendance at reconstructionist and renewal congregations, but the average Jew-on-the-street may not know what they are or even that they exist. However, I have a feeling they pack the room just fine. 

I have had a reform temple try to turn me away on Rosh Hashanah because I had a free ticket and they were close to capacity but people were still lining up to buy tickets at the last minute. (Worse, the lady accused me of lying about having a free ticket because my name wasn't where it was supposed to be! She made me walk over half a mile back to my car - yes, that's how many people came - to get my student ID. Don't worry, other reform shuls have been very kind to me, so this was obviously one crazy doorlady.) 

The orthodox congregations have less demand because less people walk in off the street into an orthodox service. And those who do are usually orthodox people traveling or people more familiar with orthodox practice. There's a higher bar for familiarity and knowledge just to walk in the door (or so people think). Most orthodox shuls know the Holydays will include people who are less familiar with orthodox davening and practice, and they will make an effort to be user-friendly, such as calling out page numbers frequently (and you can ask them to call them out if they don't - all will be glad to comply, in my experience). Remember - they're human. If you need or want something to help you understand, ask. It probably just didn't occur to them. 

Very large orthodox communities may be more "business-as-usual" than the small communities who know they will get visitors. One group that makes large efforts to be user-friendly (especially on holidays) is Chabad, so every Chabad house should be very user-friendly because that's part of their mission: outreach to Jews who may be less knowledgeable about tradition [here is a link to find a service near you]. Other kiruv organizations have the same approach, such as Aish [I couldn't find a similar directory on Aish's site]. These are the two largest English-speaking kiruv organizations, but there may be other organizations near you doing a "beginner's service" or other user-friendly services, and not all of those are kiruv.

[An important sidenote: you should know that kiruv can have a dark side and is not always a positive experience. There are bad apples out there: manipulation, emotional abuse, financial abuse, outright lies, controlling behavior, cultish behavior, and heaven knows what else. You can check out the blog Stop Kiruv Now to learn more about these issues. Be an informed consumer because you are a consumer even in the religious context.]

Depending on how many synagogues of each type you have in your town, that will affect supply and demand a great deal. If there's only one of each type of shul (especially reform and conservative congregations), know that demand will often far outstrip supply.

Why Is Demand So High?

The most common reasons people go to synagogue at this time of year (but not the rest of the year) aren't the most positive: guilt, family pressure, loneliness, needing to belong to something bigger than yourself, shame for not attending more often, social expectation. Of course, these reasons don't apply to everyone walking in that door, and you shouldn't assume it about anyone. As marketers have known for decades, negative emotions sell more than positive emotions, and at higher prices. Think of how ashamed you can feel when you see weight loss ads (if you're overweight like most of us). Sex sells, but shame and guilt sell better.

Worse, every shul only holds so many human beings before the Fire Marshall gets upset and starts issuing tickets. Most shuls have expansion plans for the chagim; for instance, opening a folding wall to the social hall and extending the seating all the way from the front to the back of the building. The views may not be very good in the "nosebleed" section, but it works well enough for most visitors. After all, most people aren't there to daven. Many people come to see and be seen (if talking and conspicuous consumption ruin your davening, you may want to avoid shuls with this problem - ask around). In any shul, if unobstructed views and quiet matter to you, don't be late. Even better, be early and sit near the front. Jews are known to be a talkative people, but those people usually don't sit near the front.

The Math

Since there are only so many seats, the classic formulation of supply and demand kicks in: how high is the market willing to pay for a limited number of seats? The most practical answer for a shul is to charge the highest amount of money people are willing to pay to fill (close to) all the seats.

When Philosophy Trumps Economics

But that's where philosophy and purpose kick in. Just because that's the "practical" and economist-approved answer doesn't mean that those are the factors a synagogue considers important. 

Many shuls do take the economist's view, especially liberal congregations where demand far exceeds supply. High Holiday ticket sales are often the largest "fundraiser" of the year for congregations in all movements. It's silly to turn down that kind of money if people are willing to pay it. After all, the rabbi has to eat, and the lights have to stay on year-round. They're nonprofits, and the economy has not been kind to nonprofits for several years now. From this perspective, I feel pretty bad for the people who come once a year since they basically subsidize the cost for those who attend year-round. Being a cynic, you could compare that to a government sin tax

Some shuls don't have the demand to justify high prices, particularly mainstream orthodox shuls. In those communities, there are few non-members who will attend their services. In that case, the majority of the people buying tickets will be the people who already pay high shul membership fees. Some congregations include tickets (or a limited number of them) with each membership, but most don't. It's still often the largest "fundraiser" of the year for these communities, and you'll find that most community members view it as an internal fundraiser of sorts. 

But even oodles of "free money" (that you don't have to work for by marketing or fundraising) isn't a key motivator for many orthodox shuls, especially kiruv congregations. It would be nice to have that money, but their key metric for the High Holydays is "how many people came in the door and were exposed to our message?" This is outreach, folks! Whatever it takes (depending on the talents of the leadership) can include gimmicks, themes, gifts, reduced prices, free tickets, meals, parties, "sexy" or controversial topics, you name it. You need the highest number in the door so that you have the best likelihood of finding at least one person who "gets" your message. It's the same reason I hear so many radio ads for free tickets to "an awesome free workshop to teach you my super secret method of investing in New Jersey real estate to become a millionaire!" In a way, these people want to teach you to be a spiritual millionaire, in the most serious sense. Not everyone is receptive to that message, so you have to get high volume to be more likely to reach your "ideal customer." So the economist hasn't totally been thrown out with the bathwater ;) 

As you can see, since demand is usually so high in the liberal communities, this discussion doesn't even happen for them. From the overwhelming request for tickets, how would a reform shul decide who are the "right people" to get in the door? Often, everyone coming in the door is already an "ideal customer" for the reform and conservative congregations. The trick is to give such a good service that they keep coming the rest of the year! Increasing year-round membership is where the priority is for most of those shuls, and that's completely in line with their philosophy and their audience.

And That's All She Wrote

...And that is why there are usually highly disparate ticket prices for the High Holydays. 

Looked at from the economist's perspective, it's clear that the synagogues aren't out to get you or simply make a quick buck. Often, market forces and philosophy are driving the decision (or did forty years ago when the decision was first made and has been inertia ever since).

Is the price difference fair? To the consumer who wants total freedom of choice, not really. (You socialist! This is Amurica, and we support unrestrained capitalism!) But for people who are eager or simply willing to attend a kiruv organization, the deal can be pretty fantastic. And you can always try to attend your preferred shul, regardless of the financial cost by asking if you qualify for free or reduced tickets. (And you can always try your luck getting in without buying a ticket.)

Remember: there are always reduced price and free tickets available, even if they "forget" to mention it! Always ask if you're in a tough financial situation. I didn't attend High Holiday services for the first several years I was in the community because my orthodox congregation failed to mention this in their emails and bulletins that published information about ticket sales. I felt unwelcomed and intimidated (and quite ashamed of my inability to pay). Every year, I stayed away from the community for another month or two after the chagim because of these feelings (I can't say I was conscious of that tendency until much later). My relationship with the High Holydays has never been very good, probably because of these early experiences (especially that traumatic one with the reform shul!). Thankfully, most congregations have corrected these errors in the Age of Internet Shaming, but mistakes are always possible. Fallible human beings, usually volunteers, are in charge. Be patient. Be kind. Give people the benefit of the doubt. 

I hope you have a fabulous Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, no matter where or how you spend it! Chag sameach! 

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