It’s easier to be a Jew than it used to be, but it’s also a lot more expensive. As educational institutions grapple with the effects of high tuition, Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Potomac has begun an experiment to test the notion that lower tuition will lead to higher enrollment.
Beginning in the fall, the Conservative synagogue will extend its preschool to full day. At the same time, it will launch a one-year pilot project called the Community Builder Program for new synagogue members. Families who sign up will receive a 50 percent reduction in preschool tuition. In exchange, they will commit to participating in synagogue life for a minimum of 10 hours a month.
Synagogue participation can include attending services, volunteering, taking adult classes or going to sisterhood or brotherhood events — “any way that you’re living Jewishly within B’nai Tzedek,” says Amanda Katz, assistant executive director.
There are 55 children in the preschool, ages 6 months to pre-K. The synagogue hopes that the monthly participation will weave families into the life of B’nai Tzedek and they will be less likely to leave the community when the preschool years are over.
Participants will be paired with a mentor, a veteran member of the synagogue, “to help them find their way,” Katz says.
The pilot project’s creators also want to learn if greater participation will lead to a qualitative Jewish growth of families, says Beth Swibel, who co-chairs the Young Family Engagement Committee. “We want to see, is there a growth of energy, is this adding something to our community, are people more engaged?”
Swibel says the high cost of being Jewish was driven home when her mother looked at her annual synagogue membership bill. “She was shocked. She thought it was our cumulative bill over the six years we’ve been members.”
Swibel subsequently led a synagogue task force that looked at ideas for attracting and involving young families. Her co-chair, Devorah Berman, also co-chairs the Young Family Engagement Committee.
“Our long-term goal is to change the culture of our synagogue,” Berman says.
The synagogue will keep track of participants’ hours at the synagogue, probably through an online log, Katz says. “We’re not going to be ridiculous sticklers, but we want accountability.”
The loss of funds from the tuition reduction will be covered for one year by a gift from synagogue members Shelley and Allan Holt. Through their Hillside Foundation, the Holts donated $1 million to the synagogue to establish what Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt calls a “quasi-endowment”; some of the funds to support the Community Builder Program. The Holts declined to speak to WJW.
What will count as success? “If there’s a dramatic increase in preschool families, then we’ll know that a lot of the barrier was cost,” Swibel says.
“We are also looking to see innovation from within,” she adds, “new ways we as a synagogue can make Judaism relevant and meaningful to our members and the greater Jewish community. We really want to help guide members in their Jewish journey.”
The pilot program comes as discussion about preschool tuition has heated up. In October, the leaders of the Jewish Federations of North America called for free Jewish preschool for every Jewish family in America.
Swibel says there are those at B’nai Tzedek who “want to see not just preschool but Hebrew school free. It’s not an unattainable model.”
The pilot program is a first step in that direction, she says.