In a move that is somewhat unusual for the Bay Area, Congregation Sha’ar Zahav in San Francisco is opening its religious school to nonmembers — in the hopes both of providing Jewish education to nonaffiliated families and, down the road, gaining new members.
The pilot program will allow parents to enroll their kindergarten through fourth-grade children in the Sha’ar Zahav education program —including beginning Hebrew classes — without committing to synagogue membership. That’s up to five years of religious schooling.
They’ll still have to pay for the schooling, but normally, at most synagogues, such classes are not even open to nonmembers.
“There’s a fear that if you open [the religious school] to nonmembers, then no one will join a synagogue,” said Rebecca Weiner, the synagogue’s education director. “It’s a risk that the institution is willing to take because it’s important to educate another generation of young Jews.”
The program, called Journey of Jewish Education, starts in early September and will run through mid-May. The education includes K-8 classes on Saturdays, plus a Wednesday after-school Hebrew program for older children (grades 3-8). All classes meet at the Dolores Street synagogue in San Francisco.
As of last week, Weiner said, eight families had signed up, though she is hoping for as many as 15.
In other parts of the country, this type of program has been implemented before. Even locally, it’s not the first time a synagogue has offered school enrollment to nonmember families. However, it’s usually part of a one-year trial, after which families are pressed to join.
Rabbi Marvin Goodman, director of the Northern Cali-fornia Board of Rabbis, said the “come-on” rarely pays off in terms of expanded synagogue membership.
“It’s about membership and about serving the Jews,” Goodman said. “When I was a pulpit rabbi, [offering Jewish education to nonmember families] for one year wasn’t highly successful, though we did get some households to join.”
Goodman thinks the Sha’ar Zahav plan to offer five years of Jewish education to nonmembers is “pushing the envelope” in terms of investing in families that may never end up joining. That being said, he lauded synagogues that “try different things” to increase membership.
Paul Cohen, a Sha’ar Zahav board member, said offering five years is a smart move. “In one year, people are not going to be able to decide that this has value for their family,” he noted.
“It reflects a changing attitude around Jewish institutional life as a whole,” Weiner added. “I see young families trying to configure a lot of their Jewish identity outside of institutional life. It hits the wall when they have kids and they decide to give [them] a Jewish education, but they’re not always certain they want to join a synagogue.”
The program costs $700 annually for nonmembers ($500 for members). Though organizers would love to see participating families ultimately join Sha’ar Zahav, membership is not the principal goal of the program, they said.
By the fifth grade, when bar and bat mitzvah training begins, families must become synagogue members to keep their kids in the school.
Cohen, who also serves on the board of directors of InterfaithFamily.com, sees the program as providing a vital community service.
“Increasing numbers of interfaith and secular Jewish families recognize a need for identity development for their kids,” he said, “but they don’t necessarily see value in synagogue membership.
“Do we have the responsibility as a quality, progressive Jewish education program to offer it beyond our members? And can we attract members over the course of their children’s education if they see it as a value for themselves?”
Cohen, Weiner and the Sha’ar Zahav decision-makers answered both questions in the affirmative.
Cohen conceded Sha’ar Zahav might lose financially in the short term by not requiring participating families to join, but could profit over the long term should the families be sold on synagogue life and join.
As for measuring the success of the program, Weiner said the ultimate metric “will be how many graduates go into rabbinical school.”
Journey of Jewish Education open house, 9 a.m. Sept. 8 at Congregation Sha’ar Zahav, 290 Dolores St., S.F. www.shaarzahav.org or (415) 861-6932.