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Recession prompts plans to lower high costs of the High Holidays

Associated Press Modified: September 1, 2010 at 2:59 pm •  Published: September 1, 2010

(RNS) Within a short drive from her suburban New York home, Lisa Sharp has her pick of synagogues. But she is not interested in spending thousands of dollars to join a congregation, and in recent years, she has opted against paying to attend holiday worship services.

Sharp understands that synagogues have bills to pay, too, but charging up to $500 admission for non-members gives another reason to stay home, she said.

If not for the online service Sharp found last year, broadcast from an Ohio synagogue to her laptop, she would probably skip Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, the major Jewish holidays starting at sundown Sept. 8 and 17 this year.

''Now I found a service that doesn't exclude me geographically, it doesn't exclude me for being in an interfaith family, and it doesn't exclude me because of the cost," Sharp said.

Given the high cost of synagogue dues, kosher groceries, day school tuition and summer camp fees, holiday ticket pricing is a minor problem, said Jack Wertheimer, a Jewish Theological Seminary professor who has chronicled American Judaism's "affordability crisis" for Commentary magazine.

But for the growing number of unaffiliated Jews, especially those with a Gentile spouse who can't comprehend a pay-to-pray system, the sticker shock conflicts with efforts to get them more involved in religious life.

The recession has prompted more groups to lower or get rid of admission fees, a practice championed by independent minyanim — worship communities — and the ultra-Orthodox Chabad Lubavitch movement.

Chabad offers free worship services by keeping its operating costs low, with its rabbis and their wives taking on multiple roles, said Motti Seligson, a Chabad spokesman. Once they feel welcomed, many people contribute more voluntarily than they would have spent in admission fees, he said.

''The idea is to lower the bars to engagement," he said.

Rabbi Yitzchak Rosenbaum, associate director at the National Jewish Outreach Program said his group advises synagogues to offer some free holiday services, even if they are shorter "beginner" versions at off-peak times.

Congregations could also recruit volunteers and reconsider the size and use of their buildings, rather than rely on ticket sales to bridge budget shortfalls, he said.

''It's a tough business," he said. "This isn't a new problem, it's just been exacerbated by the recession. Large synagogues have fixed expenses, but you have to be creative."

Technology has created some new opportunities, such as the broadcast that Sharp's family now watches at, streamed live from the nondenominational Congregation Beth Adam in suburban Cincinnati.

The service, which makes use of Facebook and Twitter and omits references to God, may not appeal to traditionalists — but that's the point, said Rabbi Laura A. Baum.

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