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  • Writer's pictureRabbi Michael Barclay

‘If She Couldn’t Pay, She Couldn’t Pray’

Updated: Dec 23, 2021

As a Jew in his early 30s,I have had many different experiences of beauty and pain during the Ten Days of Awe, ranging from the first time I started to really understand the implications of being on trial for my life, to the first Yizkor after my father’s death. Yet last year, I experienced something that made me feel more emotion than I can remember ever having at this time, and, unfortunately, the feeling was that of anger toward other Jews.

A friend of mine had not been to services during Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur for many years, mainly because she felt that most temples were filled with hypocrites who were not really present in prayer. Rather, they seemed to be there out of a sense of guilt or a desire to “network” with other congregants. She had prayed with Native Americans and Africans, yet she was disconnected from her original faith. An out-of-work actress who was financially strapped at the time, she came to me last year with the desire to attend services. Although she couldn’t really afford the tickets, she told me that she would be willing to do menial labor or secretarial working exchange for being allowed to come pray before the Torah on these High Holy Days. She claimed that after many years of being away from her tradition and tribe, she would like to reconnect to her roots and start to experience again the beauty of Judaism. I referred her to a synagogue that I respect, and she called and requested to come to services. She was told that she would not be allowed to come and pray unless she could immediately pay $150 for tickets. If she couldn’t pay, she couldn’t pray.

She called me back, angry, upset and humiliated. Obviously, if she had the money, she would have been happy to donate it. But she was told by the person at the synagogue that it was the mandate handed down by the board of directors and that there was no other alternative. She conveyed to me her frustration, and this interaction merely reinforced her pain and discomfort with her own tradition. An opportunity to bring a Jewish woman back to her tradition was wasted, and, even more, she felt antipathy to her own roots and the ways the culture expressed itself.

I understand that there are important financial needs in every synagogue. The cost of the rabbis and staff, building up keep, hall rental for the special celebrations, and other facilities and services provided are extremely expensive. Like any organization, it is a process of love to be on the board of directors and a difficult job at best. Balancing the books and making sure that ends meet are always tough, and even tougher when all too many Jews are involved with their synagogue only for the High Holy Days, weddings, bar mitzvahs and funerals. But throughout the financial trials that we experience, it is imperative that we do not forget why we are involved with the synagogue in the first place, what it really means to be a Jew, and what our responsibilities are to each other.

“Do not treat others in a way that you would not want to be treated. This is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary. ”If you did not have the funds to go to services but still wanted to go pray, you would never want to be humiliated and made to feel shame for wanting to come to the synagogue. The Torah was given to all of us, and it cannot be stressed too much that we should all help each other out in times of need. In our wealth and complacence, we have forgotten that we always need to bind together, that we need to welcome each other into our homes and hearts, that we must take care of each other. If it is a mitzvah to welcome guests to our homes on Shabbat, how much more important is it to welcome Jews back to synagogue on the Shabbat of Shabbats, Yom Kippur?

We all have many friends who are Jewish but who have no relationship with their culture whatsoever. They have denied their roots and do not even come to the High Holy Days. They have no guilt about this, for, consistently, they feel that the Jewish community turned its back on them, and that this forced them to reject the tradition and culture.

When someone like this has a desire to come back to the culture, this desire should be treated as a delicate spark and be used to ignite a fire of passion and love for our beautiful heritage. This year, welcome these brothers and sisters. Encourage them to come and daven with other Jews. Realize that they might use any excuse not to.

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