How People Do Money: The High Holidays

Ben-Stiller-Bar-Mitzvah Keeping the FaithPerhaps the less Jewish-y people have noticed that the more Jewish-y people are saying “Happy new year”? That’s because it is once again Rosh Hashanah, a lunar calendar holiday that usually falls in September and coincides nicely with the beginning of school. Happy birthday, world! Time to hit the books.

This is a pleasant holiday: we get to miss class, eat apples and honey, and challah with raisins, and various kinds of cake. I had a donut this morning when I got back from services and it felt almost, like, spiritual. We don’t have to hear horror stories about people trying to kill us. Services go on forever and ever, it’s true, but pretty much guaranteed, when you doze off, someone blows the shofar and you jolt upright again. As a teenager, when I got bored, I’d sneak off to the synagogue library and reread Exodus or Marjorie Morningstar. One time my family drove home without me because no one thought to check the stacks.

So, good food, mini-break from school right out of the gate, and you get to hear someone blowing a ram’s horn like it’s 2500 years ago: what’s the problem? Money. Especially for us X-ennials / members of Generation Catalano, the issue becomes, how or what do you pay for High Holiday tickets. Because yes, it costs to go to services: it has to, so that synagogues can keep the lights on. Even factoring in that dough, rabbis still have to make a traditional “appeal” during the high holidays where they petition for more from the people who crowd the pews once a year.

Even understanding that, though, it can feel weird, because mixing money with spirituality seems so strange. Can’t, you know, God provide? What’s even weirder is that tickets are often sold as a High Holidays package covering four major sequential events, of which most semi- / non-religious people only celebrate the first two. As with a typical cable package, you can’t bargain the provider down saying, “Listen, I just want to duck in for a couple hours while I’m fasting on Yom Kippur. Can I get a discount?” Buying the ticket package may be the “right” thing to do — for yourselves, for your fretting grandma who loves you — but it’s often not cost-effective.

When Ben and I were in our twenties, we tried a couple of different things. We found one shul that hosted a second no-fee service next door at the Y. (It was so packed we could hardly get in or hear what was going on.) We sought out a pay-as-you-will sort of pop-up congregation of young people that didn’t have its own building and met in the rented basement of a church. (Fun! Lots of dancing.) We accompanied my parents to their suburban DC shul because parents are often so grateful that their kids still care about religious stuff as 20-somethings that they’ll happily buy the extra tickets. My Jewish Learning has some similar advice:

If there’s a university near you, you may be able to attend services at Hillel for free on the high holidays. A few Hillels do charge for those who are not students, but most don’t. It’s best to call before you go. Your local JCC may also be holding services, and if you’re a member, you may get a heavy discount on tickets there. For a more traditional service, Chabad houses are known for welcoming anyone and everyone. For a less traditional service, try the online streaming High Holiday service via the Jewish TV Network. 

Our long-term solution, though, was to find a shul we liked in our area and join. It felt pretty strange to do this grown up, expensive thing and become members of a synagogue; it might be the most mature thing I’ve ever done, including buying an apartment and having a baby. On the plus side, high holiday tickets are now free! And it’s still cheaper than tithing.



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