Hoping to spark a resurgence in religious school registration, Kehilat Shalom, a Conservative congregation in Gaithersburg, is taking a gamble on free education for the youngest grades.
Starting in September, Kehilat Shalom’s K-2 religious school class will be free for all. Congregation officials said they know it’s a risk — the synagogue still needs income to function — but the status quo isn’t tenable.
“Places that thrive are willing to fail,” said Rabbi Charles Arian. “So, we’re going to try this.”
The Kehilat Shalom religious school is small — just 10 students in a congregation of 120 member families. As it stands, none of those 10 would be in next year’s K-2 class.
“It would definitely be a shame not to have a K-2 class because we don’t have kids,” said Rebecca Hoffman, chair of the religious school board and member of the synagogue board.
The religious school is set up in three classes — grades K-2, 3-4 and 5-7 — and the synagogue hasn’t yet decided how it would then introduce the families to paying for future classes, according to Arian. He said the school would sit down with the new parents and work out a model. He suggested a sliding scale or similar method. Currently, tuition for the religious school is $1,000 for members and $1,500 for nonmembers.
For Kehilat Shalom, the small school is also a benefit, Hoffman said, because it means the school has room to grow. It also means there’s a lot of one-on-one time for the students and the kids get to know each other well, she added.
The classes are a combination of in-person classes on Sunday and virtual classes during the week. That has been a lifesaver for some parents, Hoffman said, including herself.
She said she has already received a few phone calls and emails from interested families, but no registrations yet. Up to now, the synagogue has been using word of mouth to get the news out. It plans to take out paid advertisements on social media in August.
Arian proposed making parts of the school free last year, but 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 February, 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.
One of the most widely-cited reasons Arian has heard for why parents don’t enroll their kids in religious school is that initial cost. And, like most synagogues, Kehilat Shalom is happy to work with families to make its services more affordable, he said, but that request can also be an uncomfortable conversation — and subsequent barrier — for families.
“If we think that we have a good product and people are sort of reluctant to buy into it because of the cost, let’s face that head-on,” he said. “Money is a barrier to getting people in the door, but I think once we get people in the door, they will see what we offer is valuable and enriches their lives.”
There are a lot of options for parents who want their kids to be in Hebrew school, Arian said. But he believes a synagogue-based model is ideal. A synagogue is a full service Jewish institution and can provide families with a larger community.
That’s what drew Liat Katz and her family to the synagogue. She and her wife, who is not Jewish, wanted their oldest daughter to attend religious school at a welcoming synagogue. They tried a few larger synagogues, but found that Kehilat Shalom had what they were looking for — the warmth Katz remembered from her childhood synagogue and a small school that worked for her two daughters. Since the family does not live in Gaithersburg, the virtual classes make learning more convenient, she said.
Katz said the cost of religious school was a consideration for her family, so she’s happy to see Kehilat Shalom making itself more accessible.
“I think it’s a good move,” she said. “I think the majority of the people at the synagogue are a little older, so it would be nice to get some more young families.”
And that is the hope, Arian said. If families come to the school and see the benefit, maybe they will also try out the congregation. He sees it as a risk worth taking.