High Holy Days: Synagogues Help Struggling Families With Free Tickets To Services

09/29/2011 09:03 am ET | Updated Nov 29, 2011

As families strapped for cash evaluate their budgets this Jewish holiday season, synagogues are rethinking how they collect funds and maintain their membership.

Some synagogues are addressing the needs of struggling families by offering free tickets to attend services during the High Holy Days, which begin Sept. 28 with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.

"There's been a lot of conversation about doing away with the whole dues issue and letting people really give what they want to give," Miriam Van Raalte, temple administrator at Temple Beth Tikvah in Fullerton, Calif., told the Huffington Post. "There's a lot of thought that we could do a whole lot better financially if we just leave it open."

But since tickets and dues are a major source of funding, synagogues have to look elsewhere for fiscal support.

"Synagogues are not like the churches," Van Raalte said. "We don't have a central organization where we can get funding."

Synagogues rely on money from members, much of which comes during the high holiday season, to fund programs and pay building costs.

"I have people say 'I'm a Jew. I shouldn't have to pay to pray,' " Rabbi Rick Sherwin, of Congregation Beth Am in Longwood, Fla. told the Orlando Sentinel. "It's not paying to pray. It's paying for air conditioning, lights and staff and clergy."

Van Raalte's temple makes arrangements so that those individuals suffering from financial hardship can remain members, ranging from family sponsorship to reduced fees. The synagogue has relied on the generosity of others within the community who have the means to give, and has never turned away anyone who can't afford to pay dues.

"We do this on an honor system," Van Raalte said. "We find that those who cannot participate fully one year might have circumstances that change and they help to support those that helped them in the past."

Her synagogue has not only been fortunate enough to maintain its membership, but it was also able to build a new school building. The $3 million project was funded completely by private donations, Van Raalte said.

She feels successful membership retention and donation lies in the ability to master a spiritual marketing system where synagogues offer both programs Jews can't get elsewhere in the community in addition to activities they can get outside of their religious community. Beth Tikvah, for example, offers yoga classes on Monday mornings.

The temple isn't alone in its attempts to find innovative ways to encourage worship and participation as a means to find funding.

“The old business model is not necessarily the one that’s going to work nowadays,” Rabbi David Eliezrie, the leader of the Yorba Linda congregation in Calif., told the Washington Post. “We don’t have membership. We just thought we’d get rid of that whole thing.”

But Van Raalte points out, that despite adjusting to change, synagogues remain committed to the goal of fostering a sense of community and offering a spiritual home regardless of individual economic status.

"People who stay away because of financial reasons, I can only imagine that they feel alone," she said. "Take the first step, let us know you're there and we will meet you more than half way."

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