Last July, we blogged about an article in Pittsburgh’s Jewish Chronicle highlighting a synagogue, Congregation Beth Shalom, and their offer of “one year of free religious school to all new students enrolling this coming year.”
Not too far away in Philadelphia, a synagogue has gone even further. Ohev Shalom, according to the Jewish Exponent, is offering “several years of free membership and religious-school tuition” to families who enroll their children in the synagogue’s preschool.
The efforts by these synagogues – and many others around the country – are sending a signal to unaffiliated families that the Jewish community wants them to get involved. Free membership and other benefits that reduce costs show willingness on the synagogue’s behalf to do what it takes to get families to walk through their doors. Already 20 families have taken advantage of Ohev Shalom’s offer, and Congregation B’nai Jacob, another Philadelphia area synagogue which has an offer similar to Ohev Shalom, has “enticed 15 new families” to join.
These are great steps to grow membership, but that’s only the first step. Retention and continued participation is the goal. Once through the doors, what are the synagogue’s doing to keep people involved past the expiration date of their free membership or school enrollment? Kathy Kahn, membership specialist for the Union for Reform Judaism, recognizes this challenge. She said:
“If all of your attention is given to recruitment, then all you will do is have an impressive list for one year… If members see your congregation as a fee for service — you pay the dues, we educate your kids — they will never feel a covenant. We must show them what community can be.”
That’s the trickiest part, and it gets to the heart of what we do at JOI. Outreach should be about more than just getting people to enter our institutions. Once they’re inside, we need to help people discover why they should continue to invest in the Jewish community. As Rabbi Philip Warmflash of the Jewish Outreach Partnership says in the article, free memberships will get people interested, but it’s up to us to “do the work that is going to engage people for the long-term.”
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