While their children were singing songs for Rosh HaShanah, learning about Tashlich, and getting their first classroom taste of the alef-bet, parents were expressing their thanks for “free” religious school.
Free tuition is part of what brought the Miller family of Montclair to join Temple Sholom of West Essex in Cedar Grove. Recently arrived from California, they shopped around for a synagogue where they could enroll their 9-year-old, the older of their two children, in religious school. They liked plenty of things about the congregation; that religious school tuition is included in membership dues was certainly one of them. “It’s very appealing,” said Carlin Miller.
The standard model, which the Reform temple had through last year, included set membership dues, at various levels, plus religious school tuition for each child. But, according to temple copresident Lynne Brennen, the synagogue board came to realize that that formulation was incentivizing people to enroll their children in the religious school as late as possible and to pull them out following the b’nei mitzvah year (the religious school offers classes for children in kindergarten through 12th grade).
“We looked at a spreadsheet of every family and what they were paying,” said Brennen. “What we saw was that people with children in the religious school were paying a lot of money. And after their children’s b’nei mitzvah, people were not paying at all and dropping out.
“We don’t want to be a bar mitzvah factory,” said Brennen. “We want to teach people how to be Jewish adults. You can’t do that if people are just popping in for bar mitzvah education.
“We want to reinforce being part of the community from the moment children can walk until they go to college.”
The new approach is Temple Sholom’s unique embrace of a trend toward alternative models for membership dues and religious school tuition. For many congregations, estimated at 60 nationwide, “alternative dues” means replacing set membership dues (and often dues relief) with a voluntary commitment or a pay-what-you-want model that offers financial transparency from the synagogue reflecting along with a suggested price a costs-divided-by-number-of-members equation. In this formulation, those with means are expected to shoulder a larger burden, but everyone can pay what they want.
Over the course of about a year of analysis and study, Temple Sholom’s board did not see that model as viable. “It’s not concrete,” said Brennen, “and requires a leap of faith” that they were not prepared to take. “In the corporate world, when things are free, there’s an attitude that you get what you pay for, and that when things are free, people don’t throw themselves in. We don’t want to give things away for free or even at a discount — except based on need.”
So the synagogue’s leaders decided on a different approach: They tweaked the dues schedule.
As before, singles pay roughly $1,300, couples about $2,600 in dues. But now, families with one to four children pay an additional $500, and those with five or more children, an additional $1,000. Those member children may attend religious school with no added tuition; previously, tuition for each child cost between $500 and $900, depending on the child’s grade.
The leadership hopes the shift will not only assess dues more efficiently and fairly, but that the “tuition-free” model will encourage parents to start their kids in religious school earlier and keep them enrolled post-b’nei mitzvah.
It seems to be paying off. This year, 22 kids are enrolled in grades eight-12; last year, there were just nine. The number of kindergartners through second-graders in the school have increased from 15 last year to 22 this year. In grades three-seven — the bread-and-butter of religious schools — however, enrollment has actually decreased, from 95 to 85. Administrators point to an unusually large b’nei mitzvah class last year to account for this decrease.
(Additionally, the congregation has added four age-specific youth groups, for youngsters from kindergarten through 12th grade, whose members include 30 students not otherwise enrolled in religious school.)
Membership, which last year was at approximately 300 families, has already gone up more than 10 percent and is expected to continue to rise through the High Holy Day season.
For Brian Fleischer of Montclair who has two children in religious school in the first grade and fourth grade, “to pay separate dues for synagogue and for religious school is difficult particularly for young families. It’s great that it’s now all part of the same package. It was a pleasant surprise,” he said.
And Jill Reich of Montclair, who has two children, in kindergarten and third grade, said, “For us, it’s great. We’re really happy, and with two kids, it’s a good deal. And more kids are coming into the school earlier.” They would have enrolled their kindergartner regardless of the new system. But she’s pleased that her younger child already has more classmates than her older one did in the early grades.
Some parents with older children, like Kristin Hirsch of Glen Ridge, who has a 15-year-old and a 12-year-old, feel they’ve missed the boat. “It’s really bad timing for us. We don’t really get any benefit.” Still, she said, she believes her family has gotten plenty of value out of their education. And they plan to keep coming, even post-bar mitzvah.
“It gives us a reason to keep practicing,” said Hirsch.