With the offer, Beth Shalom is trying to make sure tough financial times aren’t keeping children from getting a Jewish education, according to 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,” Levitt said.
The idea to offer free tuition came from the Religious School Committee of the congregation. Levitt said the committee heard about other congregations around the country trying out new ideas, but nothing like what Beth Shalom is now offering.
“We believe we’re pioneers in reaching out to our Pittsburgh community,” he said.
Concerns about the affordability of religious school during a recession are widespread, but most congregations seem to be working with families on a case-by-case basis, according to Susan Wyner, a consultant for the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.
Wyner said many congregations have sought help from external funding sources, like the Legacy Heritage Emergency Fund for Jewish Education. She had not heard of any Conservative congregations offering free tuition as a way to encourage enrollment.
But, she added, “That doesn’t mean that we won’t.”
The impact of the recession on religious schools is unclear, Wyner said. She didn’t have statistics on enrollment since the official start of the recession in December 2007.
“It’s really too early to know what the fallout is going to be, yet,” she said.
The decision to offer free tuition and free membership comes after the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism re-accredited the Beth Shalom Religious School as a “Framework of Excellence,” a program setting out several models for religious schools to structure weekly class schedules for various grade levels, and monitors implementation.
Beth Shalom is one of only two religious schools in Pennsylvania — the other is Beth El Congregation in the South Hills — to offer the preferred “Model 1,” where students between third and seventh grade attend at least six hours of classes weekly spread over three days.
Beth Shalom offers seven hours of after school classes spread over Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. The Beth Shalom Religious School is open to children as young as kindergarten. The 2009-2010 school year begins on Sunday, Sept. 13.
Challenging times have squeezed not only on household budgets, but also congregational budgets. Congregations depend on religious school tuition and membership dues as consistent revenue streams. Levitt acknowledged those financial risks, but said the mission of providing Jewish education overrode the possible economic downsides.
“There are financial implications, but part of our mission is to make sure that Jewish children have a strong Jewish background in education,” he said.
Levitt acknowledged the offer could yield a side-benefit of bringing more families into the congregation as members. “If that turns into a long term relationship with us,” he said, “I believe that’s a win-win for everybody,”
(Eric Lidji can be reached at ericl@thejewishchroniclenet.)