Last fall, Kehilat Shalom in Gaithersburg took a gamble. With religious school enrollment dropping, but costs remaining the same, the Conservative synagogue decided to make tuition free for students in kindergarten through second grade.
With the school year over, Rabbi Charles Arian said he’s happy with the results. What began as a school with 10 students ended with 15 — a 50 percent increase. Free tuition had attracted families into the lower grades and Arian said he hopes those students will continue through seventh grade and beyond.
Students in the third through seventh grades also receive a year of tuition-free schooling if their parents paid their synagogue dues in full.
When Arian proposed making parts of the school free, the synagogue board thought it might be too radical a step, he said.
But after a demographic study of Washington’s Jewish community was released in 2018, the board saw that declining synagogue membership was an area-wide trend, Arian said.
According to the study, which was commissioned and funded by the Morningstar Foundation, 45 percent of families in which both parents are Jews and 19 percent families in which one parent is Jewish are raising their children as Jews by religion, as opposed to culturally Jewish. This leaves a lot of young Jews out there without a religious Jewish education, Arian said.
So, the congregation is eliminating the cost of entrance for the youngest children to attract those families.
It was free tuition that led Maryland State Del. Kirill Reznik (D-District 39) to enroll his 6-year-old daughter in Kehilat Shalom’s religious school.
“It was a program we know, at a place we know and the option to [send my daughter] for free was great,” he said.