The synagogue today | Should young families have to pay to pray

Have you heard the one about the young Jewish couple who have a kid while living in a big city and find themselves searching for community around the High Holy Days?

You know, the couple who decide to pony up for synagogue membership at a large congregation in their city and then subsequently become involved through its preschool, sisterhood and holiday events?

Adina Kay-Gross

They bask in the warm glow of baking challah and attending Tot Shabbat services. They introduce their kids — first the one kid, then two — to more Judaism in five years than either of them had been exposed to in the last 25. And they enjoy it! Never before had they yearned for Jewish connection and yet here they are, singing the prayers, making Jewish friends, teaching their kids Hebrew.

Then, as the creep of kindergarten approaches, they feel the need to find a new home in the suburbs. As a consequence, they leave their big warm city shul and head east (or in this case, north).

Do you know what happens next in this all-too-familiar-tale?

With their two tots in tow, they feel lonely around the High Holy Days. So they call up their old friends at the big, warm city synagogue and inquire about tickets for services. But because they are no longer dues-paying members, they are told there are no seats for them this year. Shanah tovah.

And so, we are left to assume that this formerly engaged young family of four will spend Rosh Hashanah not at synagogue with their community but at home, alone, or maybe even at McDonald’s. Who knows?

If you haven’t heard this story, you most likely know similar stories. Stories in which monetary, proprietary, yuck-etary issues got in the way of what Judaism and holiday worship is all about — community.

Sure, I’m being melodramatic. And yes, the family I mention above could easily seek out a congregation near where they now live and possibly pay a few hundred dollars to sit with a community they don’t yet know. But chances are this family won’t. Chances are that this experience will sour the family on synagogue worship for quite some time and truthfully, who could blame them?

The notion of paying for High Holy Day tickets is an old practice and yes, in many ways necessary for a synagogue to keep its lights on. According to conventional wisdom, because there’s a rabbi and cantor who need to be paid, a building that needs to be heated and cooled, booklets to print up and Kiddush wine to order, then this sort of tithe is necessary.

Yes, many synagogues have sliding scales for ticket prices or will offer special community services — held at off-hour times during the holidays — for those who don’t want to pay but do want to pray.

And yet, I’m here to argue that our community isn’t doing enough to welcome in the young, who are just trying to connect, without strings attached. So we turn them away.

There are five words that the Jewish establishment must remember when thinking about how to engage young people: Meet Them Where They Are.

To wit: Invited by a friend, I recently took my kids to a PJ Library event at a synagogue in our new town. These Jewish-themed activities for young kids are open to the community. So off we went on a Friday afternoon, my twin toddlers and I, to read a story, do an art project, bake challah.

The girls had fun. The challah they “baked” actually tasted good. Everyone was incredibly friendly, hands were outstretched, introductions were made, the young rabbi of the congregation came to visit, took photos, made introductions, helped his own kid color on a challah cover. We enjoyed.

Fast forward not even a week. I’m at home. My kids are upstairs napping. The mail arrives. I run to catch the carrier before he slams our mailbox cover, setting off a domino effect of barking dog and kids awakened too soon. Top of the mail pile? An envelope addressed to my children. Not in the handwriting of their grandmothers.

I check the return address: It’s from the shul we had just visited for the challah-baking extravaganza. I open the envelope. Inside is a letter to my kids thanking them for coming to the PJ Library event and two High Holy Day tickets, one for me and one for my husband, along with an invitation to join the congregation at Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services as guests of the synagogue. No fee required, no RSVP necessary, no literature on synagogue membership. No “pay for pray.” Just a warm and welcoming gesture from an established community to a new family in town. It was so simple, so menschy and so right.

I don’t have a lot of time on my hands these days. Raising my kids has sapped me and my husband of basically all the juice we might have otherwise put toward community building. We feel around in the dark for old friends, make tentative plans, frequent neighborhood parks, try to catch a PJ Library event when we can. But honestly, we’re mostly focused on keeping it together.

“These are the lost years,” a veteran parent told me not long ago, as she spied me chasing my girls down the hall of the local JCC.

I’d rather not think of them as lost, but these are not easy years, though I know they are precious and will pass by too quickly. In my heart, I want to build a Jewish presence in my kids’ lives. In my reality, I’m lucky if I can bathe them regularly without passing out from exhaustion.

The Talmud teaches kol yisrael arevim zeh le zeh, which basically translates as “all of Israel is responsible for one another.” This synagogue took responsibility for my family. And it didn’t take much. They sent a note in the mail. They made it easy for us. They let us know they wanted us around.

Temple trustees, board members, presidents and staff: During this High Holy Day season, if you find yourself in a position to open your doors to the young and unmoored, do so!

Don’t send bulletin after bulletin to a ream of addresses that mean nothing but wasted paper. Identify a family; throw two tickets in the mail. Include a schedule of child-care hours at the temple. Make it easy. They will come. And it will be sweet.

Shanah tovah!

Adina Kay-Gross
, a contributing editor for Kveller, is a writing consultant at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute for Religion and teaches at Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women. This article was provided by JTA.