Heritage Florida Jewish News - Central Florida's Independent Jewish Voice

By David Bornstein
The Good Word 

Holidays in the hot seat


For years during the High Holidays my family sat with my mother (of blessed memory) near the front of our synagogue. If you knew her you knew her generosity, and she cut no corners with either her family or shul. She was always a “dues plus” member, someone who gave more than the required dues for membership, and so she had cushy reserved seats near the front on the left hand side. The view was great. We were surrounded by our friends, and close to the bimah. It was immersive, and wonderful.

Three years ago she passed away, and when she left us so did our seats. Honestly, it was the last thing on my mind until our first holidays without her, when we took our place in chairs in the rear of the synagogue. 

Now I have to admit, that year I started sinning even before Yom Kippur concluded. I felt sorry for myself. Pitiable, in fact. Our synagogue—Congregation Ohev Shalom—has a beautiful, still new-feeling building. The main sanctuary seats about 500 people partially in the round with a towering ceiling and an awe-inspiring Star of David built out of warm wood 30 feet above, a ring of spectacular fused glass that casts light and rainbows on the congregation, and comfortable benches. During the holidays wall panels come down, opening the seating up to more than 1400, virtually all of which fills. I know the stats well. I was project manager of the building’s construction. But one thing I had never taken into consideration, especially since I sat near the front for so many years, was what it would feel like to sit in the back, cut off from many of our friends, under a lower ceiling in temporary chairs. It felt, well it felt like we were in the cheap seats. Second class. Less special. Impoverished.

I know. I know. Boohoo. Little David Sad Sack. The truth is, though, it was never like that at all. No one in our shul is ever cheapened or made to feel less than, at least as far as I know, and we surely weren’t. But I felt that way nonetheless, especially in comparison to our years with my mother in the front. I wanted to complain. I wanted to find a soapbox, get on my “high horse” and make an issue out of us vs. them, the well-off vs. those who couldn’t or didn’t pay for better seats. I started thinking about alternatives to this “pay for play” system. But I didn’t see the whole picture. Today, I’m beginning to see more.

For synagogues to survive they need members to step up and pay more, subsidizing others who are less able. I get that. What I wanted was to see a more flexible system, one in which people “earned” their seats in a variety of ways. Maybe if people put in a certain number of volunteer hours at the synagogue they could be offered seats. Maybe the dues-plus members could invite other congregants to sit with them, or even give up their seats occasionally for others. Maybe there could be random seat assignments for regular members, or a section of the main sanctuary could be held for open seating. 

I’m proud to say our synagogue has beaten me to the punch. First, our rabbi makes it a point to invite everyone up to the front if seats are open because of holiday no-shows. Nice. Then the committee that oversees holiday seating has taken it several steps further than I imagined. The entire left section of benches in the main sanctuary are left open for anyone. And interspersed and scattered throughout the dues-plus members’ sections are seats saved for anyone who comes to services in time to get them. Open, egalitarian, first-come first served, unrestricted, unbiased, and class-free. It’s a wonderful, unspoken, and ultimately fair solution. Kudos to those who put it in place.

So now I’m passing the thought along to every synagogue in Central Florida. Maybe you already have solutions in place. Perhaps your seating is open, or you have systems that balance out service with dollars, or some other great ideas that account for everyone in your congregation. If you do, bravo. And if you don’t, think about how you could be more inclusive next year so there’s no such thing as good seats or cheap seats or being in the hot seat anymore.

And that’s the good word.


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