Synagogues Should Be More Welcoming

One New Year evokes another. We Jews like to pride ourselves on the differences between the secular New Year celebrations that have just ended and our religious New Year in the fall. The meaningless blare of tinseled horns versus the shofar blasts calling us to prayer; the excessive drinking versus the sanctification of holiday wine; the crowds in Times Square versus the crowds on their way to the synagogue. 

Ah, but in that last comparison lies one of the perpetual problems of our religious New Year: finding a synagogue to attend. For people who hold memberships in synagogues that is not an issue. But more than half the Jews in America have no synagogue affiliation. Come the holidays, a good proportion of those non-affiliated people wish to attend services. Since a majority of synagogues demand tickets for High Holy Day seats, the nonaffiliated must find a way to get them. But many synagogues do not sell tickets just for the holidays. They sell memberships, which include holiday tickets. What is a person to do if he or she does not want to join a synagogue, but wants to attend holiday services?

A few years ago, in a hilarious episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” the comedian Larry David bought scalpers’ tickets to his congregation’s High Holy Day services, and was kicked out when his subterfuge was discovered. Nothing that dramatic happened to a friend of mine who wished to attend services last year, but he also had an unpleasant experience with a large congregation.

My friend, who moved to Westchester several years ago, is not a regular shul-goer, but had always gone to High Holy Day services in the city. In his first year in the suburbs, he called a large local Conservative congregation — his denominational preference — and was told that he could have tickets that year at a nominal fee, but if he wished to attend the following year he would have to join the congregation. He was out of the country the following year, so when he returned the year after that, he phoned to ask if he might pay a more substantial fee for his seats this time but not yet become a congregation member. He had not made up his mind about membership. The response he received was a snappish, “You cannot come here again without joining,” and a loud click of the receiver. One or two other large synagogues in his area also informed him in no uncertain terms that he had to be a member to get tickets.

Put off by those responses he called the local Chabad office, ordinarily a sect foreign to his liberal religious and social outlooks. The rabbi who answered the phone greeted him cordially and invited him to attend all the holiday services with no payment. When he did, he received a warm welcome from the rabbi and his assistant. And when he became ill and did not show up for Yom Kippur, the rabbi later called his home to inquire after him. Although my friend missed the more intellectual atmosphere of a Conservative synagogue, he enjoyed the enthusiasm and inclusiveness of the Chabad service. Needlessly to say, he sent an unsolicited check to Chabad after the holidays. It was the money he had offered to pay for tickets to the large suburban synagogue.

Now, don’t misunderstand. I am not promoting Chabad here. To me, that organization appears cult-like, with its mysticism, messianism, and adulation of the Rebbe. I resent its refusal to recognize non-Orthodox movements and its lack of egalitarianism. Moreover, I understand the policies of Conservative, Reform, and Modern Orthodox synagogues that require membership as the price for High Holy Day seats. Congregations need to support their year-round activities: pay their clergy, fund youth and adult education programs, maintain their buildings, and so on. Chabad raises money worldwide (much of it from non-Orthodox Jews); individual synagogues in other denominations rely on members to sustain them. Besides, most congregations have lower dues for young people starting out and others who cannot afford to pay in full.

Yet the problem remains, and mainstream synagogues should take note of Chabad’s welcoming approach.

No matter how vigorously we may shake our heads at “three days a year” Jews, many American Jews still fit that category. Insisting that such people become synagogue members serves only to push them away. Had my friend been permitted to pay for his tickets, and had the rabbi and congregants made him feel welcome, at some point he might have joined their congregation. If not joined, then donated to it, beyond the cost of tickets. As it is, he has turned his back on Conservative congregations in his area.

Luckily there’s time before next fall for synagogues to rethink some of their policies, add flexibility, reach out to the unaffiliated, and then take more pride than ever in what a religious New Year really means.

Francine Klagsbrun’s latest book is “The Fourth Commandment: Remember the Sabbath Day.” She is currently writing a biography of Golda Meir.

About the Author
Francine Klagsbrun, a Jewish Week columnist, is the author of more than a dozen books, among them Voices of Wisdom: Jewish Ideals and Ethics for Everyday Living. She was the editor of the best-selling Free To Be You and Me, produced by Marlo Thomas and the Ms. Foundation. Her newest work is an in-depth biography of Golda Meir to be published in September 2017 by Schocken Books.