As the High Holidays begin this evening with Rosh Hashana, several Jewish groups have found a way to hit two concerns of modern Judaism with a single prayer service. Or rather, a singles prayer service, a low-cost one.
Judaism has been looking for ways to bring more of its own back to the fold after a disaffection during the past couple of decades with synagogue membership. Single people are even less likely to join synagogues, which tend to be family-oriented.
Yet without membership, Jews are largely cut off from prayer services on the two days of the year they most want to go, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, because most synagogues charge about $200 per ticket for non-members.
Enter Orange County's Jewish Community Center, as well as a handful of rabbis in Los Angeles who are offering services to singles for $35 and under, complete with a break-the-fast meal at the conclusion of Yom Kippur.
The services also take aim at another issue troubling American Jews: the numbers who marry outside the religion.
The rabbis conducting the services are unabashed, in fact quite gleeful, about using the High Holidays to make shiddoch--do a little matchmaking.
"I'm helping to protect an endangered species," said Rabbi Shlomo Schwartz, who offers free High Holiday services for singles. "I want my brothers and sisters to stay in the family."
In fact, rabbis say, their low-cost services have gotten so successful at drawing Jewish singles that Gentile women have started showing up, fasting all day through solemn Yom Kippur for a chance to break bread at sundown with eligible Jewish men.
Rosh Hashana, or the Jewish New Year, is celebrated from sundown today to sundown Monday and starts the days of repentance for Jews in which they reexamine their deeds of the past year. The period of introspection ends Sept. 30 with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, spent in fasting and prayer.
Even for largely nonobservant Jews who seldom show up at synagogues, these two most holy of days generally exert a strong pull to attend services. Sanctuaries that fill a fifth of their seats for the usual Friday night Sabbath service can count on overflowing audiences at this time of year.
Partly as a fund-raiser and partly to keep the crowds down to what they can legally seat, most synagogues charge heavily for non-members to attend services on the two holidays. Members get their tickets for free, but usually pay upward of $1,000 a year to belong.
Jewish singles are often left isolated by the system. Many find it difficult to pony up the price of membership. And synagogues tend to revolve around families. In fact, one of their biggest draws for membership is that parents who want a Jewish education for their children usually must join a synagogue to gain access to its Hebrew school.
"Many singles feel isolated during the High Holidays and feel they have no place to go," said Selma Sladek, director of adult services at the Orange County Jewish Community Center in Costa Mesa. "Our purpose is to say to singles that they have a place in the Jewish community, a surrogate home."
Indeed, some rabbis see the High Holidays as their chance to imbue unaffiliated Jews with new interest in their religion. But with the steep price tags, the challenge is getting them in the door.
Hence the low-cost services, often held in the administrative offices of Jewish organizations or in rented hotel rooms.
"All people should be welcomed in all synagogues and temples regardless of their marital status or their ability to pay," said Rabbi Boruch Cunin, West Coast director of the Orthodox Chabad organization. He predicts attendance of about 1,000 people--most of them single--for the free service at the Chabad House in Westwood.
"Tickets are for ballgames, not services," he said.
Mainstream synagogues defend their practices, saying it's reasonable to charge, considering the extra labor and planning involved in High Holiday services, not to mention the year-round costs that members are paying.
"We ask for what is a fairly modest contribution compared to what our members pay," said Rabbi Michael Mayersohn of Temple Beth David of Orange County in Westminister, which is charging $200 per ticket (that covers services for both holidays).
"If you want to pray in a building with air-conditioning and maintenance staff, those expenses must be covered," he said, dismissing grumblings about ticket prices. "The High Holidays are the one time when we can expect people to support us."
But Schwartz, director of the nonprofit Chai Center in Mar Vista, is concerned that charging single people to pray may turn away many unaffiliated Jews for good.
Nevertheless, Schwartz says, the High Holidays are more about romance than religion. With that in mind, Schwartz follows his free High Holy Day services with a singles party at the Westin Hotel at Los Angeles International Airport. And he cares more about attendance at the party than at the services. He is expecting more than 1,000 people at this year's party.
"Most Jews marry other Jews by accident," he said. "We're here to orchestrate the accident."
Some Jewish leaders are concerned by the numbers of Jews who are assimilating through intermarriage.
"There irrefutably is a great fear in the Jewish community that we'll be shrinking demographically because we're intermarrying and also that we may not be having enough kids," said Dr. Pini Herman, research coordinator for the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.
Schwartz says that he is nettled by the growing numbers of non-Jews who attend his services to scope out a potential mate.
"It happens all the time, and I explain to them it's the opposite of our goal," he said. He doesn't throw them out--but he won't add them to the mailing list.
* TV AND TEMPLE: A Warner Bros. executive finds time to volunteer as a cantor at a West L.A. synagogue. B3