Ask the Expert: Why are High Holiday tickets so expensive?

Affordable alternatives inside and outside the synagogue.

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Question: My wife and I decided not to buy High Holiday tickets this year because they’re so expensive. What can we do to mark the holidays at home, on our own?
–Norman, Chicago

Answer: Every year as the High Holidays approach I hear people grumbling about the price of tickets. And it’s true, at some synagogues it’s upwards of $500 a head. But why is it so expensive? It’s only a few hours, right?

First of all, in most synagogues, High Holiday tickets are included in membership fees. So, if you join the synagogue as a member, there’s no need to pay for tickets. It’s only if you want to go without paying membership fees that your tickets are so costly. Think about it like a membership to a gym, or health club. If you only go three times a year, then yes, what you pay is a lot per visit. But if you regularly visit your gym, then the monthly fee probably breaks down to only a dollar or two per visit. And the gym needs your membership fees to pay for machines, classes, maintenance, etc.

It’s the same with a synagogue. If you only go three days a year, it does work out to be a high fee per visit. But if you want that synagogue to be around for you to visit on your three days, then the synagogue needs to collect money to make it viable. That money goes to help pay for the building, staff, rabbi, cantor, children’s programming, classes, even food for Kiddush. Synagogues are businesses, in addition to being places of worship. They need to stay afloat financially if they want to be able to provide basics like holiday and Shabbat services to their members. That said, your synagogue almost certainly offers a sliding scale of ticket prices if the price is really the only thing keeping you away. And some synagogues offer a special service for non-members, with more affordable tickets.

rosh hashana shofar etcI consulted with the executive director (who requested to remain anonymous) of a large synagogue in the Washington DC area about this issue, and he explained that it’s worthwhile to invest in synagogue membership. While you may think of yourself as a “limited user” of the synagogue, there is really no such thing as a one-, two- or three-day-a-year Jew he argued: “Even though someone may not attend services ‘religiously’ they still attend synagogues for b’nai mitzvah, weddings, funerals, and other occasions and often call upon rabbis at times of need.”

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