(RNS) Within a short drive from her suburban New York home, Lisa Sharp has her pick of synagogues. But she is not interested in spending thousands of dollars to join a congregation, and in recent years, she has opted against paying to attend holiday worship services.
Sharp understands that synagogues have bills to pay, too, but charging up to $500 admission for non-members gives another reason to stay home, she said.
If not for the online service Sharp found last year, broadcast from an Ohio synagogue to her laptop, she would probably skip Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, the major Jewish holidays starting at sundown Sept. 8 and 17 this year.
“Now I found a service that doesn’t exclude me geographically, it doesn’t exclude me for being in an interfaith family, and it doesn’t exclude me because of the cost,” Sharp said.
Given the high cost of synagogue dues, kosher groceries, day school tuition and summer camp fees, holiday ticket pricing is a minor problem, said Jack Wertheimer, a Jewish Theological Seminary professor who has chronicled American Judaism’s “affordability crisis” for Commentary magazine.
But for the growing number of unaffiliated Jews, especially those with a Gentile spouse who can’t comprehend a pay-to-pray system, the sticker shock conflicts with efforts to get them more involved in religious life.
The recession has prompted more groups to lower or get rid of admission fees, a practice championed by independent minyanim—worship communities—and the ultra-Orthodox Chabad Lubavitch movement.
Chabad offers free worship services by keeping its operating costs low, with its rabbis and their wives taking on multiple roles, said Motti Seligson, a Chabad spokesman. Once they feel welcomed, many people contribute more voluntarily than they would have spent in admission fees, he said.
“The idea is to lower the bars to engagement,” he said.
Rabbi Yitzchak Rosenbaum, associate director at the National Jewish Outreach Program said his group advises synagogues to offer some free holiday services, even if they are shorter “beginner” versions at off-peak times.
Congregations could also recruit volunteers and reconsider the size and use of their buildings, rather than rely on ticket sales to bridge budget shortfalls, he said.
“It’s a tough business,” he said. “This isn’t a new problem, it’s just been exacerbated by the recession. Large synagogues have fixed expenses, but you have to be creative.”
Technology has created some new opportunities, such as the broadcast that Sharp’s family now watches at OurJewishCommunity.org, streamed live from the nondenominational Congregation Beth Adam in suburban Cincinnati.
The service, which makes use of Facebook and Twitter and omits references to God, may not appeal to traditionalists—but that’s the point, said Rabbi Laura A. Baum.
“The Jewish community is good at pushing people away, but we are reaching out to people and welcoming them in,” she said, adding that the audience also includes troops stationed abroad and scattered families.
The synagogue has never charged for High Holiday services in its 30 years, although it does have about 300 members who pay $775 in annual dues. The congregation would love to get rid of dues, Baum added, but couldn’t pay its bills without them.
Even the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in Manhattan, founded based on a philosophy of voluntary contributions, began charging members in the 1980s, with non-member tickets for holiday services priced at $300 this month.
“We never turn people away due to an inability to pay, but we have to meet a budget,” said Sandra Divack Moss, the synagogue’s executive director.
In light of the economic downturn, dozens of Midwestern congregations, including her own Orthodox shul near Kansas City, have made a point of offering free Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services this month, said Mara Strom Sachs, author of the Kosher On A Budget blog.
“I would hate to think that tickets caused anyone who wanted to be part of a community on the High Holidays to feel alienated,” she said. “No one should ever feel financially excluded from participating actively in Jewish life.”
Sharp hasn’t donated any money to Congregation Beth Adam, but she is contributing website development expertise and shares its education materials with her daughters. These may seem like small steps, but Sharp and her family weren’t involved with any Jewish activities until they started watching the services online last year.
“Synagogues need to step away from the way they’ve always done things, and find new ways to engage the Jewish community,” she said. “If people are inclined to become more involved, (eliminating the costs) would help.”
Wertheimer argues that synagogues have already come a long way, partly motivated by the recession, to ensure there are affordable options available for people who want to worship with them on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
Reaching out to reluctant worshipers is admirable, but economically, the focus needs to be on reducing the massive costs of Jewish education and community activities, he said.
“There are all kinds of efforts being made to make it possible for people who are not affiliated to attend High Holy Day services,” he said. “I don’t think there’s really a crisis, in this regard.”