Tourist Tip #331 / Going to Synagogue in Israel on Yom Kippur

In contrast to the norm elsewhere, Israelis don't usually pay for the privilege of praying in shul.

Years ago, when I was a high school student in New York, my Israeli grandma came for a few months' stay, part of which overlapped with the High Holy Days. Like good New York Jews, my parents ordered and paid for synagogue tickets for our entire family well before the holidays – much to granny's bemusement. "In Israel," she protested, "you don't have to pay to go to synagogue on Yom Kippur!" She ended her lament with a sigh: "Only in America"

That was true in her time, and to a lesser extent remains true today. If you want to hear "Kol Nidre" or the blowing of the shofar on the Day of Atonement and you show up at one of the many synagogues across Israel, it is highly unlikely you'll be asked to pay to get in. In some cases, you may not have to pay but may have to make do with standing-room only.

Generally, though, the bottom line is: It is almost unheard of for visitors who want to pray in an Israeli synagogue to be turned away at the door.

That's not to say that no Israeli synagogue charges for High Holy Day services – some do, and the prices could range from NIS 100 for an individual to NIS 1,500 for a family at some of the bigger, more established or more popular synagogues. If you want the best seat in house, near the cantor or the Torah ark, you might also have to "make a donation." (After all, in Israel and abroad, synagogues' annual budgets largely come from the membership fees they collect.)

In recent years, religious organizations like Tzohar as well as the Chabad and Conservative movements have set up hundreds of ad hoc houses of worship across Israel. These sites openly embrace visitors and guests, and aim to make the Jewish holidays accessible to every Jew, secular or religious – at no cost. To find the closest of these near you, check the groups' websites or call to find out.

The best advice we can offer, dear tourist, is not to ask too many questions (especially a she'elat kitbag like, "Do I have to pay to get in?") Instead, tap into your inner Israeli, dress appropriately for the holiday, join the worshippers descending on your local-area synagogue and pretend like you belong. Finally, let the atoning begin! Hatimah tovah!

Yair Ettinger contributed to this tip.
 

Moti Milrod
Emil Salman