Opening Our Doors Wide to Families with Young Children
by Jocelyn Sontag
For the past few years, I served on the Membership Initiative Task Force at Westchester Reform Temple (WRT) in Scarsdale, New York. Many of our meetings were spent discussing, among other things, how best to engage families with young children. Specifically, we talked about engaging the families in our Early Childhood Center (ECC), as these are families that chose to send their children to a synagogue preschool (as opposed to a secular one down the street), so their desire for an early Jewish education was apparent. We heard a constant message from the ECC liaisons that these families did not feel included in our synagogue life.
Last fall, in response to the challenging economy, increased requests for dues relief and feedback from the Membership Initiative Task Force on engagement, our synagogue’s president convened a Membership Commitment Task Force, on which I served as the chair. The task force was comprised of our president, a past president, lay leaders (including great financial minds), clergy and administrative staff ranging in age from 30s to 60s.
Our charge was to examine and suggest alternative arrangements for our dues structure. Over the course of about four months, we considered many permutations of a varying dues structure, but after several meetings, discussions with representatives from the Union for Reform Judaism, analysis of responses from a survey sent to families with young children who participate in various events at WRT, and conversations with other lay leaders, professionals and clergy, we decided to propose two new programs aimed at engaging families with young children. Specifically, these initiatives target families whose oldest child attends the ECC and families with children younger than third grade, regardless of ECC enrollment.
Our goals then became clear:
- To connect families with young children to WRT and synagogue life
- To incentivize more young families to join WRT before their oldest child is in third grade
- To recognize the importance of a commitment to WRT, the Jewish people and synagogue life.
Our hope is that these young families will become engaged earlier and stay committed longer.
The two programs are:
- An ECC Membership for families whose oldest child is enrolled at the ECC. WRT membership is included in the ECC tuition and no further membership commitment is due for that year.
- A Families with Young Children Membership for families whose oldest child is not yet in third grade, regardless of enrollment at the ECC. In this program, WRT membership is reduced to 50% of the standard family rate. When the oldest child graduates from the ECC, the family can elect to continue their WRT membership in the Families with Young Children category.
Both membership programs include all privileges of temple membership (High Holy Day tickets, clergy presence at life cycle events, etc.). Provisions also have been made for paying our building fund, with a discount that depends on the age of the oldest child when the family joins WRT.
A note about fees: In the past, we had granted a temple membership discount of 50% to young families (in which both parents were under 35). However, because many families are having children later in life and because ECC programs such as ours are labor and cost intensive, our task force decided to define young families according to the age of the oldest child instead of the age of the parents.
We announced these programs to the congregation in early February and have now begun to publicize the initiative throughout the community. Word is definitely spreading and in the past few weeks, a number of young families have joined in order to be able to register their children for religious school in the fall. We will not be in a position to analyze the results of these programs until next year, but we hope to look back on the spring of 2012 as a special time for engaging families with young children. Serving on the Membership Commitment Task Force was an educational, inspirational and thoughtful experience, and we are all very proud of the work that we accomplished.
Jocelyn Sontag is a member of Westchester Reform Temple.