There’s an old joke about a boy who shows up at a synagogue on Yom Kippur. The usher tells him he can’t come in without a ticket. “But I’m not staying. I just need to talk to my mother,” the boy pleads. “Well, all right,” the usher says. “But if I catch you praying, I’m kicking you out!”
The somewhat irreverent joke speaks to the common practice that many synagogues have of charging for entry on the High Holidays, the most sacred Jewish days of the year — days on which Jews who aren’t especially observant flock to local synagogues in large numbers. A synagogue that has trouble getting a minyan on weekends suddenly sees its pews swell with unfamiliar faces come Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
All new congregants are welcome, of course, but it can put a strain on even the largest shul. And given that only about 25 percent of Jews say they attend synagogue once or twice a month, according to a 2013 Pew Research study, many synagogues rely on High Holiday tickets to support operations for the rest of the year.
But where did the idea of selling High Holiday seats and tickets come from?
Historically, the practice of ticketing for High Holiday services may have resulted from a confluence of events, including “shnuddering” and the “cantor craze” of the late 1800s, according to Jenna Weissman Joselit, professor of Judaic studies and history at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.
Shnuddering was a standard practice in synagogues in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It involved making a public donation, out loud, during the service. The donations could be to honor a particular congregant, for a purchase or for general upkeep.
“You would be called up, let’s say, for an aliyah, (when) you’re honored to say a blessing over the Torah,” Joselit said. “Somebody reads the Torah and when that portion has been concluded, the officiating clergy makes a Mi Sheberach, and he says lovely things and he blesses the family and wishes them well. At that point, the honoree would say, ‘Thanks so much. In honor of this wonderful Mi Sheberach, I’m going to give [a certain amount of money].’ So there would be an announcement or some kind of demonstration.”
But making the donations publicly, interrupting the flow and solemnity of the service, fell out of favor as synagogues strove for more modernity and decorum, Joselit said. In turn, synagogues lost money.
“Because it happened every Shabbat and during the holiday, it was a hefty source of revenue,” Joselit said, adding that over time, synagogues grew into “full-throttled institutions” with Hebrew schools, pastoral care and adult education.
“The running of the synagogue becomes more and more fiscally onerous, so you have to come up with a way to match expenditures against revenue,” she said. “And since there’s a demand [at the High Holidays], why not create tickets?
“Also, there was this kind of crazy moment in the late 19th century when they imported cantors from overseas who had kind of star billing, and they charged for those services,” she said. “So people were sort of accustomed to the idea of being ticketed.”
With the need for funds to support increasingly multifaceted institutions, Joselit said ticketing became standard practice for High Holiday services. But in recent years, tickets have also served another purpose.
“These days, tickets for security reasons are increasingly important, too,” Joselit said.
In addition, synagogues do not have an overarching administrative organization, such as an archdiocese, which owns properties or helps fund congregations. But synagogues that want to belong to an umbrella network of congregations, such as the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, pay hefty fees that may get passed onto congregants.
Joselit sometimes wonders if ticketing, despite its utility, might compromise the sanctity of the High Holidays.
“I think it’s all about the importance of coming together as a community, whatever that community might be,” she said. “And even if it’s only a couple of times a year, there is a weightiness to it, a kind of poignancy attached to it that the ticketing business sort of gets in the way of, sadly. But everything related to the Jewish community is so complicated.” JN
Susan Ingram is a staff writer for the Baltimore Jewish Times, a Jewish News-affiliated publication.