I posted this years ago, in a different forum; it's on my mind again these days, although I am no longer in the shul rabbinate.
Seen on Jewish Jokes:
The rabbi is speaking to his lower East Side congregation and he says, "with Hashem's help we shall walk but first, we must crawl." The congregation replies to the rabbi with exclamations of "ahmein Rabbi, im yirtze Hashem we shall crawl."
The rabbi then says, "And soon we will, run but before we can run, with Hashem’s help, we must first walk.” Again, the pious members of the minyan all reply, "im yirtze Hashem, we shall walk."
The rabbi then works himself into a rhetorical frenzy as he exclaims, “And we shall reach the promised land. Hashem shall provide but first we must run.” The ecstatic congregation gleefully shouts back “Ahmein rabbi, we shall run. Im yirtze Hashem, we shall run."
The rabbi concludes his sermon by stating, "And we will reach that promised land if you dig deep into your hearts and checkbooks and make a generous pledge to the building fund!!" The congregation then replies, “Crawl Rabbi, crawl. Im yirtze Hashem, we shall crawl."
At the start of Kol Nidrei on Yom Kippur night we say אנו מתירין להתפלל עם העברינים, “We permit prayer with those who have sinned.” The tradition goes back to ancient times, when people who sinned grievously were cast out of the community; these people were welcomed back for the Day of Atonement. It’s a wonderful concept, marred only by the little fact that - in official policy - we only welcome in people who can afford tickets. Junk bond kings and options manipulators? Come on in! Pious people who can’t pay? Fuggedaboudit!
I once knew a priest who, when told that Jews needed to get tickets to attend shul services, thought it was a joke. His church is straining to get people in the door, not to lock them out!
Of course, in my shuls anyone with a tale of woe could evade the cost of membership or a guest seat by coming to the soft touch rabbi. And, in truth, even paying didn’t have to be that expensive; people could become members and pay what they could afford, making appropriate arrangements with the shul finance committee. So it’s not really as bad as it sounds.
But BOY does it sound bad. All the anti-Jewish cliches come to mind: cheap, penny-grabbing, you name it. Want to come pray for Divine forgiveness? Sure, just join our synagogue. Or, prove you’re a member elsewhere and fork over some change for a guest seat. Frankly, it makes me want to flip over the table of the money-changers, if I didn’t think that might lead to Crusades a millenium later. I didn’t charge families even for time-consuming things like teaching bar mitzvah leining and handling funerals/weddings, because I couldn’t stand the idea that people in need of religious services should go broke paying for them.
But: Paying for Judaism is old news, as old as Jewish communities and the half-shekel collection. The Gemara (Yoma 35b) tells of the great Hillel being locked out of the beis medrash [Study Hall] because he couldn’t afford the entry fee! What has been the justification all these centuries?
I think we haven’t looked at dues and tickets as charging for a religious service; we’ve looked at it as supporting the community. If no one pays, who’s going to cover the utility bills? The mortgage? The repair bill for the roof? The kiddush costs (especially high on Yom Kippur, of course)? The exorbitant salary that paid for my Lamborghini, second home and twice-annual vacation? We charge for tickets as a way of enforcing community on each citizen, whether he’s ready for areivus or not.
But times they are a-changin’ in two major ways:
1. Post 19th century Europe we no longer have an all-encompassing, self-governing Jewish community. There is no king granting the Jewish council the right of self-government and self-taxation. Civil marriage is readily available (outside of Israel, a topic for another time), and ex-communication in our communities is a joke. Shul boards are taking a long time to catch up with reality, but no one really must join the Jewish community anymore unless they want to. So you can’t impose a fee like this; people just opt out.
2. Second, Chabad and the breakaways have changed the way the game is played. Armed with granted dollars to launch their institutions, with funds and discounts to cover much of their programming, Chabad opts not to rely on dues. Small breakaway synagogues don’t charge either, since their costs are low and what they really need is attendance. The result is that synagogues selling tickets lose a lot of people to the free Chabad or breakaway down the block.
So I’m of the feeling that ticket fees are going to go the way of the babirusa in a generation or so, if that long. Perhaps they’ll be replaced by some new fundraiser. Perhaps they’ll be replaced by community philanthropists who want to see free services for all who desire it. Or perhaps they’ll just cut the rabbi’s salary. Stay tuned!