Should Religious School Be Free?

Or all Jewish learning that happens in synagogues for that matter.

A few weeks ago, my friend John Humdeker, the executive director at Shir Tikvah in Minneapolis called for some advice. After a great deal of study, reflection and discussion, the leadership of Shir Tikvah decided to phase out the charging of tuition for Religious School. In fact, as lifelong learning is an integral part of this synagogue’s vision and mission, there would be no fees associated with any Jewish learning opportunity.

The crux of their vision statement is this:

Shir Tikvah is a kehila kedosha (holy community), joyfully revealing the intersections of Talmud torah (lifelong Torah study), t’filah (prayer), tzedakah (justice) and hachnasat orchim (radical hospitality). We creatively wrestle with tradition and innovation as we invigorate Jewish spiritual life and transform the world.

Ponder that for a bit.

I am reminded of a story from many years ago. Sam, the Finance Chairman from a Midwest synagogue called me to ask about ideas as to how to raise $80,000 to meet the budget. This was their annual fundraising goal over and above dues/annual commitments. 600 families. 800 students in the religious school. It was a fairly young congregation.

I started to ask a bunch of questions about dues, capital campaigns, endowment funds. I asked what percent of income is derived from religious school tuition. He told me that there was no tuition for children of congregants to attend religious school. When the synagogue was founded, the leadership felt religious school should be free as a way to encourage membership. Free tuition was a part of its marketing plan.

My suggestion to Sam was pretty simple. Charge $100 tuition for religious school. That should take care of the $80,000 needed for the budget.

There is an important financial issue to consider. In the eyes of the IRS, religious school tuition is not tax deductible. There is a clear benefit associated. A fee for a particular service for those who are paying it. If you don’t have children in religious school, this is a non-issue for you.

Like many congregations today, Shir Tikvah is examining its overall revenue plan. They figure it would cost each family $2100 ($180 per month) to cover their annual budget. Average dues/annual commitment in a fair share model is about $1100. They realized early on in their study that fair share doesn’t mean anything to the members, but if you tell them what it costs to run the place, and here is what we need from you to be an equal/sustaining member, this is something everyone can understand.

The leadership realized that not everyone could do that, which is okay, too. Having everyone understand their sustaining share is the first step. At Shir Tikvah, income from dues is about 52% of their budget. The goal is to move that to 75%. The fees charged for religious school and adult learning represent 21% of the budget. The leadership hopes to decrease that to 10%. Annually they have to raise $130,000 to $150,000 over and above dues, which they see continuing in the future.

But if lifelong Jewish study is a part of the mission of a synagogue, what happens when all of the congregants are asked to share the burden of those costs? The fact is that this is currently the case with that cost per student at $1600 and tuition at $480.

I suggested to John that this change in approach really needed buy-in of a critical mass of congregants. And that there needed to be a communications plan. Individual meetings, focus groups, blogs and other uses of the website and email all had to be a part of the plan to share information about this important policy change and to engage congregants in the conversation about it. John has taken this advice to heart and with the support of the Board they are forming a Nadiv—Generous Giving from the Heart Task Force to help implement this five to six year process.

This is not about just changing a transaction model. This is about asking people to approach how they support the synagogue so such support is aligned with its mission, vision and values.

Of course change does not happen overnight. But having a financial model that relates to a synagogue’s value system is something other synagogues should consider.





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