It's that time of the year again, when the wail of the shofar is about to rise, signaling the start of the Jewish New Year and putting you, if you're a good but fair-weather Jew who doesn't belong to a synagogue, into a panic about what you're going to do to remain one. Across the city the High Holy Days, from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur (a.k.a. "the really important one"), send wayward but well-meaning souls scrambling to put together last-minute plans for a place of worship. While many of New York's synagogues are crowded this time of year, there are some temples that welcome semi-lapsed congregants (and those who can't afford pricey tickets) into the fold.
One of the city's warmest, most hospitable services is held downtown at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. To get into this free Reform service, you're supposed to flash a student ID, but I've found that these folks don't turn anyone away as long as there's a sliver of space left. Dress is tasteful but not necessarily traditional -- you'll see more batik skirts than tefillin. Lots of students come to HUC-JIR, and mingling is encouraged (I met my favorite ex-boyfriend here on Kol Nidre). Prayers for peace are woven throughout the liturgy, which is amended to be free of gender favoritism (God is not necessarily a "He"). Rabbi Lawrence Raphael delivers a moving welcome talk in which he improbably thanks us once-a-year, High Holy Day Jews for coming. Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, 1 West 4th Street; 212-674-5300. Services for Erev Rosh Hashanah (September 10) and Kol Nidre (September 19) are at 8 p.m.; first day of Rosh Hashanah (September 11)and Yom Kippur (September 20) services are at 10 a.m.
Another synagogue that doesn't look down upon the occasional participant is Congregation B'nai Jeshurun on the Upper West Side. People come here not just to satisfy their religious obligations but also to hear the truly magnificent voice of Cantor Ari Priven, who may have you coming back for more than just the major holidays. Thirteen years ago, B.J. was a dwindling congregation with scarcely 100 families; today, it is spiritual home to thousands and a happening singles scene for young Jewish professionals. While B.J. members are given priority at their High Holy Day services, nonmembers are welcome to any remaining seats. "We are willing to squeeze a little tighter and experience a small amount of discomfort so that brother and sister Jews can worship with us," says Rabbi J. Rolando Matalon. Congregation B'nai Jeshurun, 257 West 88th Street, between West End and Broadway; 212-787-7600. Call for service locations and times.
The Town & Village Synagogue hosts free community services specifically for non-members. Homey and unpretentious, this Conservative synagogue does a great job of reaching out to people who don't make shul a regular destination. Assistant Rabbi Abby Sosland leads a relaxed service with some topics of discussion not usually expected in a High Holy Day service. This year, instead of giving a sermon, Sosland plans to intersperse the traditional liturgy with meditations on healing. Those who wish to attend the community service should call in advance, but as long as there is space, no one will be turned away. Town & Village Synagogue, 334 East 14th Street; 212-677-8090. Erev Rosh Hashanah service is at 7 p.m.; services for the first and second days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are at 9:30 a.m.; Kol Nidre service is at 6:30 p.m.
The Park Avenue Synagogue does not offer a community service, but community members are invited to attend its memorial service on Yom Kippur at 2:45 p.m. Celebrity hounds take note: On a previous visit, my friends and I managed to accidentally occupy Ralph Lauren's pew here. We had a brush with greatness when Mr. Lauren came and politely asked us to move. The service at this Conservative synagogue is traditional, and the unofficial dress code is Chanel and St. John; don't show up in jeans unless you want people to think you just came in off the street (even if you did). Park Avenue Synagogue, 50 East 87th Street, at Madison Avenue; 212-369-2600.
The Flatbush Minyan offers Orthodox services that emphasize teaching and discussion. This year, in place of a sermon, Rabbi Meir Fund will discuss various issues with templegoers in between prayer services.This year's topics include "The Art of Saying 'I'm Sorry'" and "Low Self-Esteem vs. High Humility." Anyone scared off by the Orthodox denomination shouldn't be, as people with varying levels of Jewish experience are all welcome. Congregants can get to know each other at break-the-fast meals, which take place after services, and at a service called tashlich, in which worshippers symbolically cast their sins into a pond near Ocean Parkway. Those used to some of the more palatial settings of Manhattan's synagogues should be prepared for modest surroundings. "If they want a cathedral," Rabbi Fund remarked, "they should go somewhere else." The cost of services at the Flatbush Minyan is $90, including meals. Interested parties should call ahead, but Fund will take reservations up until the last minute. The Flatbush Minyan, 818 East 16th Street, Flatbush; 718-338-8442. Services are at 6:30 p.m. on Erev Rosh Hashanah and Kol Nidre and at 9 a.m. on the first and second days of Rosh Hashanah and on Yom Kippur.
A final set of options for getting some last-minute religion are free services sponsored by the American Jewish Heritage Organization (AJHO) at the Loews 72nd Street East Theater. Yes, it's in a movie theater, and no, popcorn's not included. An effort on the part of AJHO to reach out to "unaffiliated Jews, disaffected Jews, singles, young professionals, and families," these services are designed to make ancient teachings relevant to today's young adults, according to Rabbi Perry Berkowitz, president of the AJHO. Services are the first day of Rosh Hashanah and on Yom Kippur, both days at 10 a.m. The AJHO will also co-sponsor a free Kol Nidre service at the East Side Synagogue at 8:45 p.m. Loews 72nd Street East Theater, Third Avenue between 71st and 72nd Streets; for information, call 212-439-8754. The East Side Synagogue, 1157 Lexington Avenue, near 79th Street.