We have long argued that one of the best incentives to attract unaffiliated members of the Jewish community is to offer free (or low cost) programming. We think once people see the value and meaning in becoming a part of the community, they are more likely participate in the future. And as our associate executive director Paul Golin wrote in a recent op-ed, if more unaffiliated people have more incentive to participate, we can “do a better job listening to and serving the needs of” this population.
This is the thinking behind Pittsburgh’s Congregation Beth Shalom and their offer of “one year of free religious school to all new students enrolling this coming year,” according the Jewish Chronicle. Beth Shalom is also offering a year of free membership if the family is a newcomer. Said Executive Director Lee Levitt:
“We don’t want there to be a barrier to a child receiving a formal religious school education. In these challenging economic times we’re reducing those barriers. We’re eliminating them…
There are financial implications, but part of our mission is to make sure that Jewish children have a strong Jewish background in education.”
It’s no secret that people are more inclined to attend something if it’s free. High Holiday services are a good example – synagogues in every denomination that offer free services attract huge numbers of unaffiliated participants. And that’s great for a one or two day event. The difference with Beth Shalom is it is taking the leap of offering free membership and school for an entire year, a level of access the article says is unheard of among local synagogues and congregations.
The families who take advantage are likely to have more than a passing interest in Judaism. These are people who want to give their children a strong Jewish identity but have been deterred by high costs. Removing that barrier and giving area families the freedom to explore what the community has to offer will certainly inspire some to stay on as members and continue their participation in Jewish life.