Pay to Pray?

Shuls accommodate the financially strapped while some offer free Holiday services to all.


For countless local families still reeling from the recession, job losses, pay cuts and Michigan’s high unemployment rate, paying for synagogue membership or High Holiday tickets is simply not in the budget.

Various congregations across Metro Detroit share the same response: No one will be turned away because of inability to pay. But, the mere fact that paid membership or purchased tickets are required to attend services for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur may be intimidating enough to send some people searching for other alternatives.

“I can’t tell you how frustrated I am. I can go to any synagogue in my area on any given Shabbat to pray, but when it comes to High Holidays, I need tickets,” wrote one anonymous poster on Aish.com, a division of Aish HaTorah, a network of Jewish educational centers across the world. The organization was founded by members of the Orthodox community, but anyone, regardless of synagogue affiliation or level of observance, can participate.“Some congregations are not even selling tickets,” the post continued. “It seems to be spiritually wrong to require ‘membership’ in order to fulfill a mitzvah. Christian places of worship do not have this policy.”

The online complaint prompted a flurry of additional comments from people across the country.

“The well-off can afford the price, and those who can’t afford a seat can beg for one. But what about those of us in the middle?” another person posted. “We don’t ask for charity, yet we can’t afford the prices they’re asking.”

Someone else wrote: “Sadly, this is indeed a turnoff for many who are not familiar with synagogue policies. It leaves people with a bad taste for synagogues and Judaism in general.”

Prices Vary

Aish Huntington Woods, the local Aish HaTorah chapter, provides free High Holiday services, but suggests a $50 donation per family. Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield charges $250 for each adult with a family member who is a member of the synagogue, $350 for anyone else.

“Of course, if someone needs financial help, we make it work,” says Rabbi Joseph Krakoff. “We have a significant number of families in need of financial assistance when it comes to dues, scholarships for camp/day school/religious school and we do everything we can to meet their needs. We never turn a family away because they cannot afford to pay full dues. Thankfully, we also have families who are paying additional dues or premium dues in order to help families in need.”

Shaarey Zedek, like Temple Israel in West Bloomfield, now has a program where first year dues are voluntary, and new members can pick the amount they will pay the first year or pay nothing at all. They also offer a free one-year membership for high school graduates and college students and couples who get married at Shaarey Zedek or convert to Judaism there. Temple Israel also gives newlyweds a free one-year membership.

“We have an unsubsidized dues amount, and we also work on a fair share system,” explains Rabbi Jennifer Kaluzny. “This means that you pay in accordance with your ability.

“Our goal is that finances should never be an obstacle to anyone wishing to affiliate with a synagogue. We do not sell High Holiday tickets; they’re a benefit of membership. But, if someone calls and requests tickets for their children or siblings, or even guests from college, we always try to accommodate them.”

This year, the policy changed at Congregation T’chiyah, a Reconstructionist synagogue in Oak Park. For the first time in 34 years, non-members will be charged $180 for all Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services. In the past, anyone could attend for free.

“If a congregation opens its doors to everyone free-of-charge, there becomes a disincentive to affiliate as members and pay annual dues,” says Rabbi Jason Miller. “That would jeopardize the congregation’s financial health. It’s just unfair to the paying members whose dues and charitable gifts sustain the congregation.”

Payment-Free Tradition

This year marks the 90th year the Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue in Detroit has provided free High Holiday services to the community. The tradition began in 1921 when the synagogue was founded.

Membership dues were always optional and continue to be minimal ($75-$100 per year). The basic cost of maintaining the building was underwritten by a memorial society established in memory of Isaac Agree.

“Attendance at our High Holiday services has ranged from 1,000 in the late 1980s and early 1990s to 500 in recent years,” says Martin Herman of Detroit, president of the Downtown Synagogue. “For many years, I believe the Downtown Synagogue was the only place in Metropolitan Detroit to offer free services.”

The last remaining Conservative synagogue in the city is housed in a four-story building on Griswold Street that’s in serious need of repair. A successful $25,000 fundraising campaign earlier this year helped restore the building’s colorful windows. But, in spite of everything, the ticket-free tradition continues. This year, services will be held free of charge at the Holocaust Memorial Center in Farmington Hills. Participants are encouraged to arrive early to get seats in the main sanctuary area. Donations are welcome.

“Since our sanctuary can seat only about 75, our services have been held at many different venues from the Veterans Memorial Building, to Cobo Hall to the Rackham Building in Detroit,” Herman explains. “More recently, we’ve moved to a number of suburban locations from the Millenium Centre [the old Northland Theatre] to the Plaza Hotel [the old Michigan Inn], to the Southfield Centre for the Arts [the old B’nai David]. We might well be considered the prototype of the ‘wandering Jew.’”

Chabad at Tel Twelve also will offer High Holiday services free of charge this year in Southfield. At press time, the location had not yet been announced. It will be available online (see web address below).

“This is our first year holding High Holiday services,” says Rabbi Bentzion Geisinsky. “There are many different philosophies and tastes concerning arranging these services. Some feel they must be held in a physically grand fashion, while others feel a humble atmosphere is more conducive to prayer.

“Obviously, one is more costly than the other. We at Chabad at Tel-Twelve would like to offer those who would prefer a more intimate atmosphere to join us at no cost. We believe every Jew deserves to feel comfortable during services. There should be an option for attending services on the High Holidays gratis, and we are proud to be one place that offers that.”

To learn more about the various dates and times free High Holiday services will be held in Metro Detroit, go to: ChabadTelTwelve.com, downtownsynagogue.org or aishinthewoods.com.