This is not your father’s synagogue, or your mother’s temple.
In trying to attract new members, Montgomery County’s Jewish congregations are challenging some long-held customs, such as requiring tickets to attend the High Holidays services.
The Jewish High Holidays began Wednesday. After Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year, which is today, there are the “Ten Days of Awe,” ending with the holiest of all Jewish holidays, Yom Kippur, or the “Day of Atonement.”
Traditionally, only congregation members in good standing — whose dues have been paid — are permitted to buy tickets to the holiday services. Tickets can cost hundreds of dollars. Traditionally, synagogues have charged several set amounts for dues — families, single adults, seniors, young adults — which often run in the thousands. If members could not afford payment, synagogues often reduced or eliminated fees. A new system has emerged, especially among reform congregations, in which members pay a percentage — usually between one and two percent — of their salaries.
Because of the recession and demographic trends, many synagogues have had fewer members, with many hoping to pay less, according to eJewish Philanthropy, an online community and magazine.
Temple Shalom in Chevy Chase has been experimenting with innovative ways to reach out to a broader community. The reform congregation launched www.jwash.net, a website that streams services live, including High Holiday services, and plays Jewish music the rest of the time.
“There are people who can’t get out of their houses,” said Leslie Rubin, the membership chairwoman at Temple Shalom. “It’s another way for people to participate.”
The temple also offers free Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur services open to the public, something once unheard of, Rubin said.
“It gives people an opportunity to come to services and participate,” Rubin said. “We’re trying to think outside the box.”
Another example of that type of thinking is what the temple calls the “Gift of Membership,” a one-year program for new members to join and not pay dues until July 2014.
Several dozen people and families have joined through the program, Rubin said, and another dozen or so have expressed interest.
The Interfaith Families Project, which meets in Kensington and Silver Spring, suggests families donate $180 to attend High Holiday services, but no tickets are required. The Interfaith Families Project is an independent community of interfaith families that celebrates both Jewish and Christian traditions.
But it is not just the more liberal, reform congregations that are exploring new methods. Congregation Har Shalom in Potomac, a conservative synagogue, also offers free family services open to the public during the High Holidays — a multigenerational service called “Dor L’Dor,” which is appropriate for families with children, and a “Gan” service for pre-K through first-grade students and their parents or grandparents.
“Just so that people can get a sense of that our congregation is about,” said Gary Simms, Har Shalom’s executive director. “We’re figuring out ways we can be as inclusive as possible.”
For B’nai Israel Congregation, a conservative synagogue in Rockville, streamlining the High Holidays process was a way to be more welcoming. This past year, the synagogue changed its policy so any member in good standing was automatically entitled to seats during the High Holidays — no tickets necessary.
“High Holidays is part of synagogue life, not separate,” said Larry Trope, B’nai Israel’s executive director. “We offer an inclusive community all year round.”