No More Tickets for High Holy Days!!

The conversation at the last Religious Living Committee was quite interesting.

A brand new member had shared her dismay at having to pay for babysitting at High Holy Day Worship. She shared with the chairperson that her concern was that there was no extra charge for the Youth Group Service or for the Special Family Service. Why should there be a charge for babysitting?

This led to a discussion about whether there should be High Holy Day Tickets at all.  Why not open High Holy Day worship to anyone who wants to join us, members and non-members?

Our rabbi, Steven Kushner, introduced this discussion. It is a point of view he has been raising for several years, but with not a whole lot of receptivity.  I would like to think that the Religious Living Committee is a friendlier environment for this conversation than the synagogue’s Board of Trustees.

At Temple Ner Tamid, members receive tickets for the adults in the family up to age 26. Anyone can attend worship on Rosh Hashanah evening, family Services, Rosh Hashanah second day, Yizkor, and the afternoon and evening services on Yom Kippur. So it is more of an open door policy when it is known that seats are available. Additional tickets for family members are available at $200 per ticket.

A lot is happening here.  Apparently, former members are somehow acquiring tickets from friends and neighbors. Or perhaps the ushers at the door are not really checking who has tickets.

Maybe it is a combination of these things happening, and other stuff we are not aware of.

One observation ties in with much that we all have been reading about dues. People don’t want to pay the full amount, whatever it is.  Especially if they perceive a need to use the synagogue for just three days a year. There is still a connection to the synagogue, albeit for a very finite period of time. We find ourselves in a consumer-oriented world. And for many, synagogue membership is a commodity.

$2300 – or whatever amount dues are in any community – just doesn’t cut it for maybe 20 total hours of worship and contemplation.

There were some interesting comments made by those at this meeting. The board would be concerned with the streams of income from ticket sales, and perhaps babysitting ($18 per child per service).

Two other neighboring synagogues have an open door policy on the High Holy Days for non-members. Maybe we have to do this to remain competitive.

What will this do for attendance at the main service? Will there be enough seats? What will the members who are already paying full dues think? Especially if they come in to High Holy Day Worship and can’t find a seat.

For me, High Holy Worship is a gateway for engagement. We shouldn’t be looking at these three days as a freestanding component of the calendar.

Rather, how can we use these three days to give people a taste what it means to be a part of a Sacred Community?

How can we make the worship meaningful?

How can we create community?

Serving the paying customers, those who pay dues is important. But thinking about how to engage people from the first night of Rosh Hashanah to Selichot about twelve months later should really be our primary goal.

If we focus on that, and not on the streams of income from High Holy Day Worship, people won’t be so focused on thinking about the amount of dues they are paying, and whether it is worth it.


14 Comments on “No More Tickets for High Holy Days!!

    • Harry,

      Thank you for writing. Many synagogues do have a cemetery, and being able to be buried there is a privilege. I have a hunch as people who stop being members as their kids have had their Bar or Bat Mitzvah or have gone off to college, are not really thinking about this aspect of life, and or synagogue membership.



  1. For the past 2 years Temple Shalom in Louisville, KY has not had HHD tickets … the services are open to anyone who wants to attend. Results are mixed. Apparently some of the other Synagogues in town encourage non-dues payers to attend our services – my guess is so that their services have more seating for dues payers. Our revenue has decreased – voluntary giving is not equal to what the ticket prices had brought in. My main concern is safety – when we gave out tickets we know who could attend the HHD services, but now anyone can, even someone who might not wish our community well.

    • Hi John,

      How nice to hear form you. I hope things are going well for you and your family.

      Security is always a concern. Maybe everyone still has to register in some way so you know who is coming into the building. Finding another stream of income is important. If being open to the entire community is important to the leadership, board members and others with the financial means need to insure that the synagogue has sufficient funds to take the place of what may be lost from ticket income. It is great to provide a such an important community service. Paying for it, and everything else is just as important.



  2. Actually—judging the tenor of a congregation by attending high holiday services can be very misleading. High holiday services represent the most atypical days of the year—days which are not duplicated during the rest of the year.

    Better for a prospective member to attend a variety of events at the congregation–lectures, services, social events, etc. to really get an accurate impression of the place.

    I really do not understand why people attend just high holiday services and never come back until the next year. Wouldn’t it be better if they just didn’t bother? They couldn’t possibly understand the meaning and purpose of the synagogue from going two or three days per year.

    • Hi Richard,

      Thanks for writing. You raise some important questions. I think that the fact that people come on the High Holy Days is important and a statement that being part of a community is important to them. Perhaps it is out of obligation to their parents, or to set an example for their children. Synagogues also have to make the worship and programming experiences meaningful in order for people to want to come back.

      Thanks again.



  3. 1. So she would pay a baby-sitter to got out for the evening so she wouldn’t be disturbed having to take care of the baby, but she doesn’t think she should pay for the holiest days so she and those around her wouldn’t be distrubed by the baby. Definately a case of “her cake and eat it, too.” Oh, and the argument about parents not paying for the events for the older children – probably part of the religious school cirricula and thereby covered by religious school dues … or such activities are participatory learning occasions offered to those children by the religous school but not offered for children who cannot participate and are not generally thought of as being able to process the events and thereby learn from them. Definitely “the cake . . .”

    2. I’ll take your income problem and raise you an income problem with a purpose schism! While someone has to keep an eye on the budget, I don’t think it should be the focus of our community.

    Of course everyone should pay their dues – It hurts my heart that I am in the set of members that cannot. (I try to make up by giving of my skills and time.) But we have many members who have the wherewithal and just choose not to pay the full amount of their dues. I guess their reasoning is like the one in your blog: I only use it three days a year, why should I pay for more than those three days? Here’s the easy answers are: Because the payment you make ensures the temple/community is there when you need it, that the rabbi is available when you need him/her, and that the temple (community) are there when your children and grandchildren need it (and history shows that someday they will). Above that, they should pay their full dues because God told them to – there is nothing more to be said. But the real answer is a question: Why are you at temple only three days a year?

    • Hi Anita,

      Many thanks for writing. You have asked some important questions.The question of babysitting is always interesting. One person who has 3 young children felt it was important for people to pay for babysitting for the reasons you have raised- you pay for a sitter on a Saturday night – and that it is a way to insure people will use babysitting as their was a financial obligation made to the people who were working. The other side of this argument, which many people agreed was a valid concern, was that there is a special service for families with children in religious school, and for teenagers, why was babysitting the only thing people had to pay extra for? Shouldn’t young families be encouraged to attend?

      If everyone felt like you and I do about being part of a synagogue community, paying dues wouldn’t be such a concern. The fact is people don’t feel how we feel, and being able to pay for staff, the lights, and all of the other stuff is a concern.

      Thanks again for sharing.



  4. In my presidency, our Rabbi at the time required we say that we gave out “seating cards” not tickets for HHDays. One year we announced non-members and guests should “pay what they could or wished to pay” but also provided them with a card that had written suggestions for levels of donating. Donations from non-members and guests were not impressive that year and we almost ran out of seats. Many members complained about the crowd leaving them to sit only in the back. We modified that plan for the coming year again. Ushers arrived early and marked off enough of the front rows to cover all membership and then escorted visitors (non-members) to the rows toward the back. Each of these two groups had color coded “seating cards.” This year we heard complaints from the visitors and guests that yes, they were welcomed to attend but then made to sit only in the “back of the bus” as a worshipper. Sigh.

    Given our strong desire to be welcoming we now settled on (1) open seating for all with no saving of seats for large groups walking in late and, (2) a donation card is given with fixed levels for guests but across the bottom it says “Students and active service men and women are welcomed at no charge” as well as “No one is turned away for inability to pay. Please call our office for further information about seating cards.”

    So far, no one is upset by this plan, the crowd is still quite healthy in size and donations are trending up a bit.

    • Dianne,

      How nice to hear from you. I hope you are doing well.

      My parents told me about a synagogue in Florida that they went to once on Shabbat. It was open to everyone. But if you were not a member, you were asked to take food from a different table at the Oneg Shabbat. Being welcoming to everyone at all times is important as you do want them to come back.

      You offer an important solution to the opening the High Holy Days to the community. Thanks so much for sharing.



  5. David, This blogpost is very worthwhile and addresses many of the significant issues that inform congregational dues and High Holy Day fee policies. I’m intrigued, however, that you ignored what I believe to be the single greatest factor/driver in these discussions, namely, how to generate revenue sufficient to fund the community’s budget. Except for synagogues where limited space is a serious issue, my guess is that most congregational boards would be delighted to divorce High Holy Days from dues and fees but they have not found a more reliable way to bring in the bucks they need to operate. Some, as you know, rely on pulpit solicitations and claim success with that. Some, as you know, take the enormous leap of requesting “free will” membership offerings from all and have made that work. In the end, the challenge is finding a way to fund the programs, services and staff that a community wants in a way that is consistent and coherent. If not through “gate” fees (to either membership or services or both), then what?

    • Hi Peter,

      Thanks for writing. I think synagogue leaders need to spend more time figuring out how they are going to raise the necessary funds to do what they want to do each year. There is a strong reliance on dues. They send out invoices and hope for the best. And the trend has been, due to the economy and other factors, more and more people are not paying full dues. A chunk of the budgeted income is for fundraising. Oftentimes it is just a line item in the budget with no real game plan as to how the money will be raised. The last question you raise, “finding a way to fund the programs, services, and staff that a community wants in a way that is consistent and coherent” is key to everything.

      Having many balls in the air in terms of income streams – dues, High Holy Day Appeal, planned giving, a comprehensive endowment campaign – the reality is that all of this should be happening at the same time to plan for the future. The costs of maintaining a synagogue as well as the costs of synagogue membership are only going up . If we don’t figure this out, the “millenials” -young people in college and in their 20s today will have absolutely no interest in being a part of a synagogue because they won’t be able to afford it.



  6. At our Temple we experimented with free HHD tickets, as well as an $18 first year membership. We did require that people sign up for tickets in advance, and people who just came were asked to sign in and show ID. That allayed the security concerns. Attendance did pick up a little, but not what we hoped for, and donations dropped. members resented that we were giving away something that they held precious, and the new people mostly didn’t turn into members.

    We decided that people value what they pay for. So offering things for free, or very low cost, (literally) devalued them.

    This year we offered tickets for $180 and included a first year membership with the tickets. Sales were good, attendance up, and we’ll see if the “new members” stick. Worth saying that we also have a new Cantor, so the new pricing isn’t the only factor. But people weren’t turned off by the $180 price,and the regular members were happier with the policy.

    We do offer free babysitting. I have noticed that the parents and kids go back and forth from the Sanctuary to the classroom where the sitter is, and I like that.

    That said, one of the ideas we are batting around is that the millennials tend to like to pay as they go. They seem to look at everything in terms of Return On Investment (ROI). We boomers hate to be “nickle and dimed” but the young families now seem to prefer that approach. They live in a very uncertain world, change jobs constantly, by Ikea furniture and throw it away each time they move, which is often. Why would they invest in brick and mortor institution that they might (are likely to) move away from? So, they want to pay directly for what they receive. Payment is also in the form of time and, more importantly, time with their children. So,the argument goes, we need to have high quality events (not programs) and then charge for them. We aren’t doing this fully yet, but it seems to where the trend is headed.

    And that is where our HHD ticket policy came from and is going…

    • Hi Eric,

      Thanks for sharing this. This is a great case study that would be great to be shared with other synagogues with congregants of different ages. It sounds like you have a great approach and the leadership is comfortable with that.

      I hope you will continue to share what happens moving forward.



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