Somehow my family always sits towards the back on the High Holy Days. And we usually arrive a few minutes before the start of Worship. We sit on the least comfortable of the 3 types of chairs. This year, I was thankful that there was a cushion – a small one, though. Better than those uncomfortable white ones.
On Yom Kippur, as we came in the police officers and ushers greeted us at the door with big smiles. No one asked for the tickets which I made sure were in my coat pocket, just in case. Maybe they were profiling – if you had on nice, clean clothes (coat and tie for me, skirt and a dress for my wife and daughter), you received the same warm smiles that we received and a “Happy New Year”.
The sanctuary seats 800. And there are two sessions of a family service with 400 at each happening that morning. As we approached the Torah Service, the main sanctuary became a little crowded with people standing on the side scanning for seats.
I recognized some people sitting in the sanctuary who were no longer “paying congregants” who had either come with friends or on their own to hear the last High Holy Day sermon of Rabbi Steven Kushner, who will be retiring in June after 38 years at Temple Ner Tamid.
There were several congregants standing on the side who didn’t have seats. You could say it’s their fault for coming late. But they have tickets, and I assume paid up on their synagogue annual commitments. Shouldn’t that mean something?
I thought of Rabbi Avi Olitzky’s recent article decrying that tickets are only about generating income and are not very welcoming. I have also written about my own association with tickets to entertainment – plays, concerts, sporting events.
I am all for having the High Holy Days, like every Shabbat throughout the year, being open to everyone. But how do you balance on the High Holy Days being sure the expectations are met of congregants who fund the synagogue year after year with being warm and welcoming to the public?
To do this, you also need to be at a physical location where there are enough seats to accommodate everyone, congregants who pay fulfill their financial commitments as well as anyone from the general community who wants to be a part of the High Holy Day Community.
There needs to be buy-in by everyone in terms of this High Holy Day Welcoming Philosophy. Send out a message that there are plenty of seats, and that everyone – congregants and anyone in the community who wants to come and pray with us – is welcome.
It might also be a subtle way to hint to congregants to come on time.
I have always thought that having a shortage of seats on the High Holy Days is a good problem to have. Like double sessions of Religious School.
What you are doing to encourage and engage those who join you on the High Holy Days to become more active, and at some point, to become congregants, needs to also be part of a larger plan. It is great that High Holy Day Worship is open to anyone and everyone. But in order to build community, the relationship needs to extend beyond the High Holy Days.
If you don’t want to have open High Holy Days, then maybe Rabbi Olitzky’s premise about a synagogue’s financial gain is correct. Synagogues shouldn’t just be about money. But there does have to be some deference to the paying customers. As there is also the reality that bills have to be paid.