The High Holidays are here, and so is shul-shopping, that time-honored ritual whereby Jews who don’t belong to a synagogue — or those unhappy with their current choice — check out congregations they may deign to join.
Synagogues know that, which is why some are abandoning their usual high-priced ticket schemes to offer free seats to those they hope will be future members.
Oh, there’s also the notion that it’s the right thing to do.
Chabad is famous for offering free seats for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur — always on college campuses, often in community-based Chabad Centers, and sometimes at non-Chabad shuls with Lubavitch rabbis, like Congregation B’nai Abraham in Center City Philadelphia.
B’nai Abraham has been offering free tickets to its “user friendly” holiday services for more than a decade, says Rabbi Yochanan Goldman:
We think any Jew should be able to worship on the high holidays with other Jews at no charge…Of course, we never say no to donations and hope you’ll want to become a member in the future, but there is no hard sell. We just want you to have a place to experience the high holidays and do not want anything to stand in your way.
Congregation Beth Ahm, a Conservative shul in Windsor, Conn., is one of a growing number of non-Chabad synagogues offering free holiday seats to Jews who do not belong to another synagogue.
Most common are shuls offering free access to “family services,” or “beginner services." Free seats are also often available at congregations created specifically for unaffiliated Jews, like Kol Haneshamah on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
The Conservative movement has 300 member shuls committed to offering free High Holiday seats to young alumni of movement programs. Check out their weirdly cheesy YouTube video.
Some Jewish papers publish lists of free services in their communities, including the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles.
A newer twist is community-wide programs for free or heavily discounted High Holiday seats at a wide variety of local synagogues. These are usually coordinated by a Jewish federation or Jewish community center.
In Berkeley, Calif., the two-year-old Shul Passport allows unaffiliated Jews to attend services at “each of Berkeley’s warm, welcoming shuls” from Renewal to Orthodox, for one (negotiable) price.
In Boston, the Ticket Match program run by the Combined Jewish Philanthropies offers free or discounted holiday seats to unaffiliated Jews at 80 local synagogues, but you have to be under the age of 35.
And in central New Jersey, the United Jewish Communities of MetroWest N.J. is offering a MetroPass, which gives free access to High Holiday services for Jews who are new to the community and who are not currently members of a synagogue. More than 45 synagogues are taking part in the first year of this program.
Here’s what one happy camper has to say about it:
That’s the kind of welcome that warms my unaffiliated Jewish heart… Although historically, Jews are wandering resilient, it’s certainly nice to have a spiritual "home".
Do you know of any more last-minute free High Holiday options? Post ‘em below.