As a rabbi, I find myself in a bit of a bind when it comes to the question of synagogue membership and the High Holidays. On one hand, I’d never want to turn anyone away who wants to pray at the holidays–who would? And we don’t–non-members can still purchase tickets at my synagogue, and we always make sure that even those are discounted for anyone who can’t afford them.
So why charge fees at all? Well, besides the obvious point about synagogues’ needing to pay the bills, which Rabbi Grossman points out, there’s the additional issue of community. In short, simply purchasing–or not purchasing–High Holiday tickets reinforces a consumer à la carte mentality: Pay for what you want, leave the rest.
This is great when it comes to cell phones–I just signed on for a new plan, and it was great to select only the options I wanted and not to be charged for services I don’t need. But unlike a cell phone plan, a relationship with a community isn’t–or at least shouldn’t be–utilitarian.
Can you imagine a membership plan that included High Holiday tickets plus entrance to another holiday of the member’s choice, two pastoral meetings with the rabbi, coffee at kiddush but no Danish, and no more than one life-cycle event per year? True, you might pay less, because you only purchase what you use, but you lose much more–a sense of belonging, of emotional connection, of expansiveness, of knowing you have a stake in something and that it has a stake in you in return.
Organizations that promote no-membership High Holidays may have found a great outreach tool and capitalize on resentment against membership dues that are justly criticized as too high. But by encouraging a consumer approach to Judaism–shop for the best bargain, never make more of an emotional commitment than you have to–they may be doing the Jewish community a grave disservice.