"Tickets, please!"

It's a common refrain at movie theaters, concert halls and sports arenas. But houses of worship?

Yet that's what many Jews will hear tonight as they assemble for Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year that starts the holiest time of Judaism's liturgical calendar. Admittance to super-crowded services during the High Holidays in many area synagogues will usually require a ticket purchased in advance--at prices as high as $150 to $200.

While some congregations include the cost of tickets in members' annual dues, others charge members and nonmembers alike to attend the services held during the 10-day period between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. Other synagogues give free tickets to members but impose a surcharge for seats in the main sanctuary.

The decades-old practice, which rankles some Jews, is designed to control crowds and raise funds. Rabbis and synagogue lay leaders say they need to ensure that year-round worshipers have seats when synagogues are inundated with many Jews who attend services only during this sacred period. And the crowds provide the funds needed to maintain places of worship.

"People who come three days a year have to find some way to contribute to the synagogue, which exists the 362 other days," said Rabbi Jack Moline, of Agudas Achim Congregation, a Conservative synagogue in Alexandria. Those who complain about the prices, "can come to our synagogue for 363 days a year for absolutely nothing."

He and other rabbis say that tickets are not an absolute requirement for admission and that no one is ever turned away.

"We sell tickets. . . . We don't check at the door," said Rabbi Barry Freundel, of Kesher Israel Congregation, an Orthodox synagogue in Georgetown.

Still, some Jews, often single 20- or 30-somethings who don't belong to a synagogue, look upon it as having to "pay to pray."

"I'm not very big into religion, but the High Holidays are probably one of most meaningful times," said Karen Weiner, 25, a research analyst from Arlington. "I don't think it's really fair, especially for people who don't make much money, to be forced to pay . . . $100 dollars to attend services."

One woman, who did not want to be named, complained she had to buy a $36 ticket for her grown daughter, even though the woman pays dues at a Reform synagogue. Another contrasted the practice with that of the Catholic Church, which "welcomes people back during Easter and Christmas and doesn't make an issue of whether they're tithing or contributing to the upkeep of the church."

"There is a growing ground swell of opinion that it's distasteful to charge for High Holiday tickets," said Glenn S. Easton, executive director of Adas Israel, a Conservative congregation in Northwest Washington where tickets for services in the main sanctuary cost members $150.

The debate over admission fees to services, aired recently in such Jewish publications as the Forward and Tikkun, reflects what many American Jews consider the bigger problem of how to finance synagogues now that the traditional method of charging annual dues is facing increased resistance.

The problem is compounded by the fact that 45 percent of America's 6 million Jews are not affiliated as dues-paying members with any synagogue or temple, according to the latest annual survey by the New York-based American Jewish Committee.

"If more Jews would affiliate with a congregation, synagogue dues wouldn't be as high," said Adas's Easton, who estimates his synagogue serves about 10,000 people, only 6,000 of whom belong to dues-paying households.

Jeffrey Dekro, president of the Philadelphia-based Shefa Fund, said High Holiday costs are resented by Jews who have had "the experience of going to a synagogue and being asked if you've paid. . . . I've heard many stories from people who are so disgusted that they will never go back to that synagogue."

But while non-Jews may find charging for tickets unseemly, Jews regard the Christian practice of passing a collection plate during services as equally distasteful.

"I was raised with the idea you don't handle money on Shabbat," said Richard Paul, a member of Adas Israel who works at WAMU radio station.

Despite the need for tickets, however, most congregations are lenient about admission. College students, members of the military, elderly people and families with financial hardships are often given free tickets. Also, while prime-time services in the main sanctuary are usually restricted to ticket-holders, most congregations have simultaneous services in other rooms open to anyone.

Peggy Banks, president of the District's Temple Micah, where members get free tickets but nonmembers pay $175, said that if someone turns up without a ticket, "we say: 'Welcome, glad you're here. We normally have a fee. Here's an envelope. You can mail it in to us next week.' It's not the time of year to be mean."

Easton said telling members they can't buy a ticket unless their dues are paid is a way to "get the attention" of dues-lagging members. Anyone having trouble paying dues, which range from $155 to $1,370, depending on age, is given a lower rate.

"We would never keep anyone from coming in if they owed us money," he said.

Unaffiliated Jews have other options. The youth organization Hillel sponsors free services at several local universities. Those who attend are asked to mail in a donation. And the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Jewish Community Group advertises, "Open High Holy Day Services" to which "Everyone is welcome. No tickets, no reservations. Contributions encouraged."

Many local synagogues won't sell tickets to nonmembers to ensure that they have room for members. Others court outsiders as potential members. Arlington-Fairfax Jewish Congregation sports a huge banner these days saying, "High Holiday Tickets, Inquire Inside."

"Hopefully, they will come and will want to join," said Stuart Weiss, president of the Conservative synagogue, where members pay $75 for tickets and nonmembers, $150.

The ticket frenzy has given rise to an oft-told joke: A man comes to a High Holiday service without a ticket and tells the usher he "only wants to tell his wife something."

"Okay," replies the usher. "But don't let me catch you praying."

"It's a joke . . . a recognition that it's not an ideal way to deal with things but unfortunately, under the circumstances, it's the best way," said Conservative Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt, of Potomac's Congregation B'nai Tzedek.

CAPTION: Arlington-Fairfax Jewish Congregation courts outsiders during the High Holidays.