Ask the Expert: High Holiday Tickets

Why are they so expensive, and what are some alternative?

Print this page Print this page

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

the expertAnswer:
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.

I consulted with the executive director (who requested to remain anonymous) of a large synagogue in the 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."

So, that was just a little background on why tickets can be so pricey. If you're definitely not interested in buying tickets, there are a number of other ways to get to services. If there's a university near you, you may be able to attend services at Hillel for free on the high holidays. A few Hillels do charge for those who are not students, but most don't. It's best to call before you go. Your local JCC may also be holding services, and if you're a member, you may get a heavy discount on tickets there. For a more traditional service, Chabad houses are known for welcoming anyone and everyone. For a less traditional service, try the online streaming High Holiday service via the Jewish TV Network.

However, if you want to do something that doesn't involve any kind of service or rabbi, I can make some other suggestions. First of all, you can certainly purchase a mahzor and pray from home, if you'd like. How about taking the day off work to spend a full day volunteering for a worthy cause? Alternately, you can go on a long reflective hike, and bring along a mahzor or some other spiritually relevant book to read. Try buying a shofar and blowing it yourself. Gather your family and friends for a festive meal, and eat the symbolic foods of Rosh Hashanah, apples and honey. There's a Sephardic custom to do a short seder-like ritual before the Rosh Hashanah meal, so you could try that even if you're not Sephardic. Think about what has been most meaningful to you about past Rosh Hashanah celebrations, and try to duplicate and expand on that with your family.

Ultimately Rosh Hashanah is about reflecting on your past year, and improving yourself for the year to come. Any way you can do that, whether or not you end up in a synagogue, is in the spirit of the holiday. Chag sameach!

Have a question for the Expert? Ask away!