I have attended occasional services at various synagogues throughout the area ever since moving here about five years ago, mostly for holidays or events. I have every intention of eventually joining a synagogue because I want to send my future children to religious school. Of course, that stage in my life is at least another few years away. In the meantime, I'd still like to be part of a synagogue community on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. '
I'm lucky that here in Philly there's a program to provide young adults in my exact position with free High Holiday tickets, but it's not meant to be used for the same synagogue year after year. At this point, I've found a synagogue I would like to attend a second time but I feel bad asking to continue as just a High Holiday "guest."
What's your take on whether this is an acceptable thing to do? If the synagogue agrees, how much should I donate for the tickets? Whenever I've asked a synagogue employee, she's told me that I should give whatever I'm comfortable with because the shul won't turn anyone away. That's nice, but it doesn't help me. Theoretically, I could afford to pay for a membership — I just can't see spending several hundred dollars in annual dues for something I won't use more than twice a year. At the same time, I want to give a generous donation so that the synagogue will still be around when I can make the time to be an active member.
Growing up in a small town, I’d never heard of High Holiday tickets, and the idea, when I first encountered it, made me cringe. How could someone charge a Jew to celebrate their Judaism? As I grew up, got used to the realities of the community and became a Jewish professional myself, I understood that Jewish institutions are only able to function because people pay for them. I don’t think anyone should be turned away from services, but I also don’t think anyone should take for granted the Jewish institutions from which they benefit.
You’re on the right track in acknowledging your responsibility towards these institutions, and you’re right that while the High Holiday ticket program is wonderful (and one that I help to organize through the Grad Network), it is not meant to enable someone to attend the same synagogue year after year for free. Rather, the program is designed to help people find a synagogue where they’re comfortable and encourage increased involvement in that community, perhaps including membership.
I’m glad you’ve found a synagogue that you want to attend for a second set of holidays, but given that you know synagogue membership is in your future, I’m not sure why you wouldn’t just join now. It’s a lot easier to make friends and become integrated into a place before you have to run after your kids during services. Joining now may also give you a sense of belonging that could actually help you transition into parenthood. Additionally, you’ll have the opportunity to get to know the synagogue from a more complete life cycle perspective. (For full disclosure, I am not a synagogue member myself, so the irony of this advice is not lost on me. I am, however, involved and financially invested in several other community institutions, and I do believe I’ve put my money, and my time, where my mouth is.)
Many synagogues offer young adult membership pricing. Others offer rates specifically for families without kids. Some even specify a rate just for High Holiday tickets. Some synagogues are so ecstatically excited by the idea of new members in their 20s and 30s that they would be open to the idea of creating a rate that works for you. If you’re really opposed to membership before kids, I would consider a donation of $180, assuming you’re attending services for two days of Rosh Hashanah and one day of Yom Kippur with another person.
Happy New Year, and be well,