August 22, 2019

If you seat them, they will come

Twice a year, many synagogues find themselves dealing with a wonderful but very practical problem: how to handle the huge numbers of people who show up for the High Holy Days and don’t fit in the sanctuary.

For some, the answer involves reserved seating or alternative services held elsewhere. Others leave their temple en masse for a larger temporary home where everyone can celebrate Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur together.

At congregations like Stephen S. Wise Temple in Bel Air, which counts 3,000 households as members, it’s a matter of simple mathematics. Its sanctuary can hold 1,200 people, and that’s not nearly enough for those who wish to pray during the holiest days on the Jewish calendar.

To deal with the issue, the Reform congregation offers services at four different locations: the sanctuary, another hall on campus, the Skirball Cultural Center and the Bel Air Presbyterian Church. For congregants, the question is where to go.

“It’s on a first-come, first-served basis,” said Ariana West, director of communications. “You get your tickets early, you get the chance to go wherever you want to go first.”

Seats themselves, though, are not reserved, and the services are basically the same in substance, although one is designated a family service, she said. Clergy rotate among the venues.

“No matter what location you’re at, you get to hear from each of our rabbis,” West said.

Valley Beth Shalom in Encino has chosen an alternative strategy. Instead of simultaneous services at multiple venues, it offers multiple services at its own site throughout the day.

“It means a lot to us to have the community together at the High Holidays,” said Bart Pachino, executive director. “Thankfully, we can facilitate a large number of people at our campus.”

The main sanctuary and an attached social hall can seat 1,300 people, and a second social hall can accommodate another 1,000. Still, two seatings in the main sanctuary are necessary to meet the needs of this 1,600-family Conservative shul, which offers family and Sephardic services as well.

Making that happen isn’t easy, especially because seats for all services are assigned.

“People get to keep their seats or improve seats as the years go by,” Pachino said. “You get a ticket with a specific seat number, so, from that standpoint, it’s like going to a concert or a ball game.”

Placement is not based on how much a member contributes to the temple, financially or otherwise, he said, but the seating committee does try to work with people’s preferences.

“We spend the last 60 days obviously having our members pay their dues and work through the seating issues with volunteers who work for hundreds of hours during this time frame,” Pachino said.

Sinai Temple in Westwood uses a mix of alternative services and reserved seating to deal with spillover crowds during the High Holy Days. The 1,950-family Conservative congregation has five on-site venues to accommodate everyone.

Traditional services take place in its 2,000-seat sanctuary, as well as in another 865-seat room that was called into duty a few years ago due to demand, according to Howard Lesner, executive director.

These seats, which are determined at the time someone becomes a member, all are reserved. The cost depends on the seat’s location — whether it is in the back, middle or front of the room. Lesner declined to provide further financial details.

For all the other members attending High Holy Days services — and there may be another couple of thousand at any time — there are three alternative open services. There is a Torah-in-the-round that features music, a family minyan that is more lay led with no music, and another with musician Craig Taubman and a band.

“People can pick and choose among the unreserved venues for what kind of service they want,” Lesner said. “It works because it gives people choice.”

The downside, of course, is that you never know for sure how many people may show up for each one. Consider the Torah-in-the-round service, which has been increasingly popular.

“Literally 100 people last year couldn’t get into the room because of seating,” Lesner said. This year it has been moved to a different venue to fit everyone.

For some temples worried about squishing and squeezing congregants during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Ohr HaTorah has a solution: move. This independent congregation based in West Los Angeles relocates its entire congregation to a larger space, in this case the Wilshire Ebell Theatre.

“It’s our second home,” said Meirav Finley, executive director. “There’s a very festive, great, communal feeling.”

The 250-family congregation is unable to fit everyone into its current building for the High Holy Days, so the 1,270-seat theater is perfect, she said, even though there are some noticeable differences.

“It is a huge room, and there is a huge stage,” Finley said.

There are practical issues, too.

“For example, the cantors face the congregation, so they face the audience. Here in our shul, the cantors face the ark,” Finley said.

Temple Akiba in Culver City spends the holidays at Veterans Memorial Auditorium, which has 1,400 seats, far outnumbering the 400 in the synagogue’s sanctuary. The 330-household Reform temple brings a portable, folding ark as well as its Torahs. A set designer decorates the stage, draping the front and providing flowers.

“You know you’re not in the synagogue, but you know you’re there for a service,” said Carol Sales, temple administrator.

To maintain control over the environment, Temple Akiba rents out other rooms in the facility as well. That way it’s quiet, Sales said, and there won’t be a repeat of a past Yom Kippur where there was food from another event and fasting congregants could smell it during services.

This is not to say, however, that Temple Akiba’s sanctuary sits empty during the High Holy Days. Quite the opposite — it is filled by Congregation N’Vay Shalom. Based in Hancock Park, that transdenominational synagogue of 30 families does not have its own building.

“We do bar and bat mitzvahs in people’s homes or in the big social halls of private clubs or hotels, so we’re very used to being the old-fashioned traveling community. We feel very comfortable creating spiritual space wherever we go,” Cantor Eva Robbins said.

However, she added, gathering at Temple Akiba for the High Holy Days is special.

“It is a wonderful feeling to be in an established sanctuary with a beautiful ark. It sort of raises the level of just feeling much more grand.”

Congregation Kol Ami, a Reform congregation in West Hollywood, also holds High Holy Day services at another religious institution, but in this case, it’s a church. With a sanctuary that can accommodate about 220 people, far fewer than the 750 or 800 who might show up for Kol Nidre, it had to do something.

“We couldn’t even do triple services and fit everybody in,” Rabbi Denise L. Eger said.

So the temple reached a deal to gather at Immanuel Presbyterian Church, which shares Kol Ami’s progressive values and has proven to be an affordable partner. As for the church’s Gothic architecture and large image of Jesus, it’s gotten easier to deal with over the years, Eger said.

“God has a heart of many rooms, and that heart and soul is what we try to focus on, especially in these days of repentance,” she said, then paused.

“But we did need a space for all the people.”