When Rabbi Mathew Hoffman of the Jewish Flame, an outreach organization, put an advertisement in the Pennysaver magazine for his free High Holy Day services, he got an unexpected response.
“A Jewish woman called up, and said she didn’t have food to eat,” said Rabbi Hoffman, who will be leading the group’s Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur services beginning next week in New Rochelle. “My wife cleaned out her freezer and got donations from a neighbor and ran right over with a care package.”
Over the next few weeks, even those who manage to put dinner on the table each night might be unable to shell out the sometimes $500-plus for tickets to High Holy Day services, due largely to the staying power of the recession. There are many more-affordable services as well, with tickets as cheap as $50. But for a growing number of synagogues and organizations — in the New York area and beyond — the price tag for the holidays reads $0.
“The times are so hard for a lot of people,” said Adena Berkowitz, founder of Kol HaNeshamah, which runs free services in Manhattan. “For many it is difficult for them to pay… people don’t want to feel in any way pointed out that they couldn’t afford to be anywhere else.” This year Berkowitz anticipates a larger crowd than last fall, when they hosted approximately 300 people at each service, held at the Stephen Gaynor School on the Upper West Side.
Many of the free services are new over the past few years, but the Wall Street Synagogue has been running them for the past 18, starting when “there was no other place that did that,” said Rabbi Meyer Hager. “We were the first ones that started this,” said Rabbi Hager, but today, there are many other groups that offer complimentary services. These days, said Rabbi Hager, they still see a steady crowd of more than 150 people, but feel that others might be going elsewhere.
And just as last year, Rabbi Hoffman is seeing an increase in attendance at the Jewish Flame services — and a decrease in donations. “Our hearts go out to these people,” said Rabbi Hoffman. “We never give pressure on anybody to give a dime … I once said, ‘We saved our money for a rainy day and now it’s pouring.’ Well it’s been pouring for two years now.”
Though the Jewish Flame services have been running for many years, “we’re seeing a shift in the kind of people who were coming,” said Rabbi Hoffman. Previously it was people who were seeking a different type of service than the ones offered at synagogues. Now, he said, it’s clear that many people are coming who can’t afford synagogue services, though they are embarrassed to admit it.
“We turn down money if it’s clear to me they can’t afford it,” the rabbi said.
Most of the providers of free services encourage or require people to make reservations, to better estimate the number of attendees. But at Ohel Ayalah, which runs services in Manhattan and Brooklyn, most of the seats are first come, first served.
“Our mission is to make sure there are availabilities for walk-ins,” said Lisa Green, project director at Ohel Ayalah. “It’s the people who don’t make reservations or have plans that fall through — we want to make sure that those people can wake up in the morning and decide to go to services.”
At each of their services, only 100 of the approximately 250 available seats can be reserved in advance. And though those reservations only opened on Aug. 30, people were writing in weeks in advance, nervous that the spaces would fill up. “We do see a steady increase every year,” said Green. “People hear about us and read about our services, and bring more and more of their friends.”
And though Ohel Ayalah hopes to open additional locations in the future, for now it’s happy with its overflowing rooms. “Many more people show up than we have seats available — those people are more than happy to stand or sit on the floor,” said Green. “We always have more prayer books on hand than seats.”
And ultimately, she said, “they’re just happy to have a place where they can go last minute and still be welcomed.”
Check out "Where the Seats are Free" for listings.