An Experience Worth the Price of Admission

When it came time to talk about the high price of High Holiday tickets, The Jewish Journal thought there would be no better person to chat with than Ron Wolfson. He’s spent more than 28 years with the University of Judaism (UJ), both as dean of the school of education and director of the UJ’s Whizin Center for the Jewish Future, studying Jewish ritual and the place it plays in everyday life (he’s even written a series of four books on the subject called “The Art of Jewish Living.”)

Wolfson is also a co-founder of Synagogue 2000, a national, interdenominational project that’s working to help synagogues beef up their role as spiritual centers through prayer, study and social justice.

So what is his expert opinion when it comes to those $100 and $150 price tags on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur seats? Are the charges really necessary? Is the cost too high?

Wolfson’s take: looking at the issue in these terms misses the point. The controversy over High Holiday tickets isn’t about the rights and wrongs of paying to pray, or about marginalizing people who can’t afford the “high price tag on Jewish life,” as he calls it. What the ticket debate is about, at its heart, is securing the future of the synagogue as a center of Jewish life.

Jewish Journal: Why do synagogues charge for High Holiday tickets?

Ron Wolfson: The basic reason is that it’s a good time of the year to solidify membership. Synagogues could not survive without in some way linking membership to the High Holiday experience. It’s a huge motivation for people to sign on the dotted line, if you will — to make their annual commitment to synagogue life, to synagogue membership.

What’s unfortunate about it — and I think any rabbi in town would agree with this — is that nobody likes the idea of “charging” for High Holiday tickets. But that’s not what’s going on here. What’s going on is that people want to be in a synagogue on Rosh Hashanah and on Yom Kippur, and there’s such a demand for seating that most synagogues need some way to manage it. And that’s where the ticket idea comes in.

JJ: The tickets we’re talking about here are sold to people who aren’t synagogue members, right? Or do some synagogues also require members to pay?

RW: Most synagogues distribute tickets for the High Holidays because it’s a way to manage the crowd. At Valley Beth Shalom, which is my synagogue, my guess is that there are going to be at least 5,000 people going to services. So they, and most major synagogues, will use tickets in order to assign seating and manage the crowds — for members and for nonmembers. There are other synagogues for whom this is anathema. For them, it’s first come, first served. Which is much more egalitarian on the surface of it, I guess. But then, you know, there’s a challenge.

JJ: Someone who’s a regular could end up running a little late and not get a seat.

RW: That’s right. And your regulars, who are giving the bulk of the financial support, I think do deserve to have a place to sit. [Laughs] Forget about a good place to sit.

I don’t think anybody likes the system. I really don’t. I think that it’s just a fact of life. There routinely are critics who come into the synagogues and say, you see, this is what I don’t like about synagogues. But that’s really unfair, because the synagogue is wide open for any spiritual seeker — member or nonmember — to come to services, most of the time.

JJ: How many people is it in Los Angeles who are unaffiliated, who’d be looking for a seat on the High Holidays? Do you have an estimate?

RW: My understanding is that well under 20 percent of the Jews of Los Angeles belong to a synagogue. It could be under 15 percent. Nationally, it’s a little higher, but Los Angeles is a place where a lot of Jews don’t belong to synagogues, or any Jewish institution.

There are large numbers of people who don’t make a commitment to any Jewish organization, and that’s the big challenge for us. There’s a huge number of people who seek out a synagogue for the High Holidays, and they either end up at the overflow services that some of the synagogues offer to nonmembers, or they go to services run by independent contractors — cantors and rabbis who hire a hall and offer services, no membership required to come, all you have to do is buy a ticket at a very low fee. It’s a way for people to fulfill their High Holiday needs. But I would prefer that people join a synagogue. I think they’re missing out on the opportunity to connect with a sacred community.

JJ: I was reading an interview about ticket sales with a synagogue administrator in a different city who referred to unaffiliated people who buy High Holiday tickets as “people who don’t want to take the time to commit, who don’t want to have the soul to commit, who simply want to use the synagogue as a drive-through window for their own needs.”

RW: I think it’s true. And I think it’s unfortunate, because I think those people are missing an opportunity to have a deeper connection to what we would call a kehillah kedoshah [a sacred community]. Actually, I think that this is true not just for the High Holidays, but also when people use the synagogue as a fee-for-service operation.

That’s not how you build sacred communities. There needs to be a deeper relationship built, which says when I pay dues to a synagogue or when I get engaged through a High Holiday service, I’m there to try to find a spiritual home — and not just to satisfy my needs for the moment. I think the synagogues want to do that with their members, but we have to change the culture of expectation of the relationship between the members and potential members and the synagogue itself.

JJ: How do the High Holidays fit into changing that culture?

RW: I think it’s an opportunity to say to synagogue members and potential members that we love you being with us today, but don’t forget that as much as this is a spiritual high moment in the Jewish calendar, it’s only one of many high moments.

We’re here all the time. We’re here for Shabbat. We’re here for the other holidays. We’re here for adult education. We’re here for social justice projects. We’re here to be a healing place for you when you’re in need of comfort and in need of support.

At Temple Israel of Hollywood, which is one of the Synagogue 2000 pilot sites in Los Angeles, they did something remarkable last year to send this message to the people who are coming just once or twice a year. They knew that they’d have hundreds of people lined up trying to get in to Rosh Hashanah services, so they went out on the street on Hollywood Boulevard and instead of letting the people just stand there, they spread out through the line. They sang songs and they served apples and honey, the traditional Rosh Hashanah treat. It was all an attempt to diffuse the uncomfortableness of waiting to get into the service. Greeting people and welcoming people is the first step in creating a warmer, sacred community.

JJ: What kind of results did they get in terms of people coming back?

RW: People loved it. They loved it.