In the middle decades of the 20th century, they were called "mushroom synagogues." They popped up in the waning days of summer to provide High Holiday services, then disappeared at the conclusion of Yom Kippur.
Today, "mushroom synagogues" are again in vogue -- but with a critical difference. Where once they were organized mainly by entrepreneurs who saw an opportunity to make a quick buck, today quite a few of them announce, or even advertise, that attendance is free.
Two related factors have driven the seasonal demand for these services in recent years. One is that American congregations rely on a dues model to sustain themselves financially. Because there is more demand for High Holiday services than for other synagogue services or programs, congregations have been able to leverage a package deal: no membership, no High Holidays seats.
The second related factor is that relatively large numbers of American Jews are not affiliated with synagogues. In the late 1950s, at the peak of synagogue affiliation, an estimated 60 percent of Jewish families belonged to synagogues. But by the beginning of this century, according to the most optimistic reckoning, that figure had dropped into the 40-percent range.
Demographic surveys have found that synagogue membership is associated with income. Therefore, it is not surprising that the recent economic downturn has exacerbated the membership gap. Congregations have lost members who have fallen on hard times. The pattern is reminiscent of the Great Depression, which has been described by historians as a religious Depression as well as an economic one.
What are non-affiliated Jews to do if they wish to attend High Holiday services? One response to the economic realities has been a call for synagogues to eliminate their "pay-to-pray" policies altogether. Churches, after all, charge no membership dues. They support their activities through voluntary giving -- plate-passing, tithing or other types of offerings.
Why, some Jews ask, should synagogues maintain a heavy-handed, materialistic bar to participation precisely on the most sacred days of the Jewish calendar?
The simple answer is that congregations require funds to keep their doors open year-round. Also, over the past 20 years, most congregations have instituted stratified dues scales: Most synagogues have lower fees for younger people just starting their careers; most offer reduced dues for widows and widowers, divorced people and singles; most are responsive to those who have financial difficulties.
Apparently, however, many Jews find it demeaning to ask for such financial accommodations and do not do so. For different reasons, others resist the idea of paying even token amounts to help defray the costs of running religious institutions.
Some synagogues have adopted a more radical approach. Rather than charge a flat fee for a package of services, they have instituted a "fee-for-services" system. In this business model, the synagogue is envisioned not as an overarching community offering its members a comprehensive range of activities but as a department store in which Jews can select those services that appeal to them and take no responsibility for supporting the other departments.
The other solution to the pay-to-pray dilemma, increasingly adopted by congregations and "freelancers," is to offer High Holiday seats at low or no cost. Most Chabad centers follow one approach or the other. And quite a few mainstream congregations in recent years have set aside some seats for distribution at no charge. The altruistic reason for such a policy is to provide places for those who cannot afford payment. The more strategic reason is to draw newcomers to the synagogue in the hope that when they have the means, they will join.
These High Holiday arrangements have considerably eased the pain of the pay-to-pray blues often heard at this season of the Jewish calendar. At their best, however, synagogues are religious communities offering rich benefits for members prepared to pay in the currency of sustained commitment. Most such communities now offer low-cost or, as one advertisement puts it, "free, walk-in High Holidays services for those who are searching."
But as the slogan implies, the lunch is not really free, at least in a moral sense. Those who avail themselves of such opportunities have an obligation to be actively "searching," not passively expecting service. Synagogues should not be spiritual department stores or transient, once-a-year gathering places.
Jack Wertheimer is a professor of American Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary. This article was first published by Jewish Ideas Daily (www.jewishideasdaily.com ).