Usually I do not encourage people to circulate my writing beyond the usual distribution list. This is an exception. I would love to see this column find its way to every Jew you know.
The subject is non-member attendance at High Holy Day services. And just to be clear, I will refrain from advocating synagogue membership (though I do) and address instead the thousands of Jews whose yearnings to join in prayer with others emerges primarily at this time of year. This is practical advice, not philosophy.
I am prompted by an angry email I received from a young man who called our synagogue a few days before Rosh HaShanah wanting to come to Yom Kippur services. He spoke with someone in charge – a very gentle and accommodating person – and wound up feeling angry and frustrated. As I attempted to recreate the situation (he has yet to return my conciliatory phone call), I realized that, as "Cool Hand Luke" famously said, "what we have here is a failure to communicate."
Our congregation does not "sell tickets" to holiday services. There are three reasons. First of all, services are not an entertainment event. Second, we are blessed with a membership that pretty much fills our facility. And third, unfortunately, we need to be much more concerned with security than we would like.
However, we do try to accommodate everyone we can (including providing space for newcomers who have made other contacts in the community), especially if they take the time to make a connection with us outside of the request for the few days of attendance. And so I offer these words of guidance to people who find themselves in need of a place to worship – next year. (I also want to make clear that the caller who prompted this column does not need all of this advice – just some of it.)
1) Please be honest. I can't tell you how many times someone has told me they are new to the area, and "new" turns out to be three years. If you have been going back to your parents' shul for all these years and now find yourself unable to do so, just say it. "New" expires after about six months. Similarly, do not claim membership in an out-of-town synagogue if you are not actually a current member. We always extend hospitality to those away from home, but we do confirm the claim. New arrivals in town are almost always welcomed as guests.
2) Don't say, "I am thinking of joining the synagogue, but I want to try it out first." If you are serious about joining, you have had ample opportunity to check it out more than a week ahead of time. And if your circumstances prevent you from attending during the year, take the time to explain your situation rather than your intention.
3) Ask the right questions. At our synagogue, "Do you sell tickets for the High Holy Days?" gets a negative answer. The question, "Is it possible to attend services?" begins a conversation.
4) Save your outrage for constructive purposes. It astounds me how furious people get when they are "denied the right to pray." Let's be frank – you are not angry at us, you are angry at yourself for feeling like a supplicant. Our policies are not meant to punish you personally, nor even unaffiliated Jews as a group. And we are not angry at you for being unattached to a synagogue. But the truth is that anger is unlikely to score you a seat.
5) Please listen carefully. Of course we will ask you to join the synagogue, and of course it is expensive. But this is neither blackmail nor extortion; we have a community, not a fee-for-service provider. If we are not the right place for you, no one gains by your being a stranger in the crowd. If we are the right place, we want you to be fully enfranchised. We never turn anyone away from membership for inability to pay dues; we do sometimes deny membership to people who are able but unwilling to pay their dues. However, there are congregations with room to spare and a policy of "selling tickets." If we direct you there, it is to help you and them, not to chase you away.
6) When all else fails, speak with the rabbi. I, like most of my colleagues, am a very soft touch. That's not to say I am easy, but I can sometimes be more flexible. Bear in mind that your last-minute realization that Rosh HaShanah is tomorrow may make contacting me more difficult. Plan ahead for next year.
My advice presumes that the desire our callers express to pray with the community are genuine. And I also presume that, all things being equal, our callers would indeed prefer to be part of a community, not just two- or three-day-a-year participants. God hears prayers the rest of the year as well, and the refreshments are better than on Yom Kippur. Join us.