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Synagogue Membership As a Requirement For Religious School Enrollment

This listserv thread from November 2001 still contains valuable discussion on congregational policy. 

Jeff Steinberg, Toronto, Ontario

I sit on our Hebrew school committee, which is currently reviewing a policy of the congregation. The policy requires congregational membership after one year’s enrollment in the school. The school, in effect, serves a membership gathering function.

Our committee feels it would be helpful to know how other congregations/school approach this issue. Are there any congregations/schools which require membership from the outset? Conversely, are there any congregations/schools which impose no membership requirements? Are there any variations in between?

For those congregations with no congregational membership requirement, do you charge nonmember students a premium? Is there a Bar/Bat Mitzvah policy requiring that such students join the congregation at a specified time, i.e. one or two years prior to the Bar/Bat Mitzvah?

Are there any schools which have experienced a declining enrollment as well as reluctance of some parents to enroll their kids due to the membership requirement? In this situation, has the congregation/school considered loosening or waiving the membership policy in order to bolster school enrollment? If not, why not? And what alternative measures have these schools adopted to reverse the trend and increase school membership?

Thanks in advance for any insight you can share.

Jeff Steinberg
Congregation Darchei Noam, Toronto, Ontario

Sheila Jacobs, Attleborough, MA

We require congregational membership to enroll in gan/aleph and beyond. No membership, no school. The preschool program only for 3-5 years olds (held monthly) is available for nonmembers “shopping” around and for families who want to get a feel for the school and synagogue, in general. I don’t think we would “survive” financially without this required membership. However, membership dues are reviewed in light of ability to pay and special arrangements for dues are made.

School Committee member
Congregation Agudas Achim Attleborough, Massachusetts

Barbara Carr, San Diego, CA

Religious School is a privilege of membership in our Congregation. School costs are underwritten by the general membership (school fees would be prohibitive, otherwise, although we charge between $180 and $1,000.00 a year depending on grade level.). I’m sure it could be a lure if this weren’t the case, but school is just one piece of the entire religious experience for a family, so just educating the children without membership wouldn’t work for us.

Hope this helps,

Education Director Congregation
Dor Hadash, San Diego, CA

Dina April, Northbrook, IL

Hi Jeff,

In our six years of existence, our policy has been that membership is required for school entrance… except for Kindergarten. Those who do enroll in Kindergarten without paying for membership pay a higher fee. From time to time, Board members seem to reconsider this policy, but so far it hasn’t been changed. The original theory had to do with the fact that we were building a community not a fee for service school. So, everyone has been encouraged at the outset to become intimately involved with all aspects of the congregation. By not requiring membership, there was a fear that we would accumulate school parents that were uninvolved in the rest of synagogue life.

I don’t think that we’ve had adverse affects by having this policy. We’ve grown to 160 households in 6 years (we started with 5). Some people feel that we could grow more quickly if we adopted a more lenient policy, but those who feel that involvement and intimacy would suffer are still in the majority.

Good luck,

Dina April
Education Committee Member
Congregation Shir Hadash, Northbrook, IL

Sharon Schwartz, New Hope, PA

We require at least one adult member from a household to be a member of our synagogue in order for a child to enroll in our school. We have a very liberal accommodation policy for those who cannot afford the full amount for membership and/or tuition, and we make that clear when giving information to prospective members.

Sharon Schwartz
Education Director
Kehilat HaNahar, New Hope, PA

Deborah Eisenbach-Budner, Portland, OR

Our 300 family Havurah Shalom has the same policy as those who recently answered: membership is required for involvement in the school (which, in grades K-6, is a parent co-op so parent teaching is also required!). This is how it must be, I believe, to encourage community involvement and participation, as well as fairly distribute the financial responsibility and human power needs of maintaining a decent educational program, as long as there are accommodations easily made for those who cannot afford the dues.

The only exception is for folks who are members of another synagogue but want to send their kids to our educational program in High School. In my experience, people who don’t understand why this is necessary, and want to just “pay for service” are missing the point of a congregation or group that is doing anything else besides running a school. It is good to make our communities accessible, but not at the expense of those involved in them already.

Deborah Eisenbach-Budner
Havurah Shalom Educator
Portland, Oregon


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