A person I love called to ask if their adult son could attend Rosh Hashanah services and how much that single ticket would cost. I began wondering about the first time a synagogue decided to sell tickets to High Holiday services. That decision transformed the spiritual relationship into in a business transaction. Joni Mitchell understood the difficulty of this situation – it is as if they took all the trees, put them in a tree museum and charged a dollar and a half just to see ‘em!
The rabbis and cantors, and musicians and singers and Torah readers preparing for Rosh Hashanah offer their communities a chance to reboot their lives through prayer and song. Those attending might have a different perspective. Some “congregants” are inspired by the music, the meaning, and the majesty of a prayer service. Others think that Bruce Springsteen can inspire them just as well.
The August blues descend upon those service leaders. The 2021 version of the August blues combines the anxiety of selling spirituality, with the need to offer “hybrid” services, in person and online. In addition, there is the “competition.” Whether on basic cable or a live streaming service, anyone can watch services. You can enjoy sermons by gifted orators and hear melodies from incomparable singers. Perhaps you have thought: “Why should I pay for tickets when I already have the internet?”
If the High Holiday experience is to be sustained then the price of your ticket has to offer an experience that is appealing and meaningful. Gathering, whether virtual or in person, should be as compelling as attending a sporting event with your favorite team. You could watch the reruns on the late news but there is nothing as thrilling as sitting in the stands and watching your team score. (Rarely do fans complain as much about the many boring pauses in the game as they rave about the scoring).
I’ve rarely met a person as enthusiastic about attending High Holidays at a synagogue as arriving at a Springsteen concert or a playoff game. Yet, the single sales tickets for High Holidays are often more expensive!
I am not asking if your High Holiday experience is worth the price of the ticket. That would be falling into the failed business paradigm of Jewish communal life. The question I’d prefer to ask, is this: Will you give me the opportunity to connect your yearnings, hopes, and fears with a Jewish tradition that offers a beautiful, meaningful, and inspirational approach to life?
I don’t want to pave paradise and sell tickets to see the remaining trees. I want to offer inspiration to the community. I want to encourage people to engage in a process of self-improvement as a quest for Godliness. I want you to appreciate the forest and enjoy the trees.
The challenge of High Holiday Services is to deliver spiritual connections to satisfy your soul. The way Jews participate in the High Holiday experience of repentance and renewal is evolving. We will speak new words. We will select inspiring melodies. We will procure new conversations.
If we change too quickly, then we will lose the aspect of the High Holiday experience that feels authentic. If we change too slowly, eventually most everyone will stay home to watch what’s on cable.
If clergy provides truly stimulating and fulfilling experiences, then the task of Judaism is more likely to be fulfilled. We know that the paradigm must change, at least so that the ticket sales become gifts of the heart.
Rabbi Evan J. Krame