Exploring enrollment in congregational education: Research findings provide insights beyond the numbers

For more than a decade, the Jewish Education Center of Cleveland has observed trends in congregational education enrollment in the Jewish community. For instance, according to the Jewish Education Project study “From Census to Possibilities: An Overview,” congregational education program enrollment decreased nationally by 41% between the 2006-2007 and 2019-2020 school years. We recently undertook a research study to understand these trends, with a specific interest in what has drawn parents to enroll their children in congregational education programs and what has led them to decide not to enroll or continue enrolling their children in such programs. 

In the spring of 2022, we surveyed parents of children who were currently enrolled in congregational education programs, parents who had withdrawn their children from such programs before and after the start of the pandemic, and parents of children who were never previously enrolled in such programs. Additionally, we interviewed the directors of congregational education programs across Greater Cleveland and analyzed enrollment and related qualitative data from the past decade. 

Based on the abovementioned JEP statistic alone, one might feel discouraged about the future of congregational education; but our findings about the catalysts for the decline provide reasons to feel more optimistic — and insights for action.

Key findings

Jewish education matters to parents. When asked about the importance they place on their children receiving a Jewish education, the majority of parents surveyed reported that it was important to them that their children receive some kind of a Jewish education and/or participate in Jewish experiences.

Children are drivers. Children drive family decision-making about continued program enrollment. It is important to parents that their children are interested in attending congregational education programs. Parents withdrew children who were not interested in continuing their enrollment in congregational education programs. 

The appeal of informal education. Parents who were never affiliated with congregations are more interested in informal Jewish education or experiences than formal Jewish education. 

The need for formal data. Program directors’ anecdotal data does not match formal data from parents in many cases, which is connected to the fact that most congregational education programs do not collect formal data regarding parents’ or children’s needs and desires on a regular basis. Most congregations did not have formal mechanisms to assess the satisfaction levels of the parents and children in their congregational education program communities, including those who are currently enrolled and those who withdrew. 

Content and quality concerns. Parents reported that they are primarily interested in congregational education programs because they want their children to develop a Jewish identity, and are most interested in having their children learn about Jewish values, holidays, and history. Parents reported they are least interested in having their children learn about prayers, Torah, Hebrew and Israel, followed by developing a sense of spirituality. Parents who withdrew their children from congregational education programs reported high rates of dissatisfaction with the quality of Jewish learning.

Disappointment with the sense of community. Parents who withdrew their children from congregational education programs during the pandemic reported high rates of dissatisfaction with the sense of community. In fact, this was the only factor with which these parents reported high rates of discontentment. However, parents who withdrew their children from congregational education programs prior to the pandemic also reported dissatisfaction with the sense of community at higher rates compared to parents of children who are currently enrolled in congregational education programs.

Program costs as a deterrent. The primary reason parents gave for never enrolling their children in congregational education was program costs. Program directors reported that for families whose children are enrolled, there are a range of financial options available and that cost should never hinder enrollment. However, because all of these options require proactive outreach and communication with directors, this financial support is often not accessed by parents. 

While we did not explore reasons that program costs discourage enrollment as part of our research, anecdotal evidence suggests that there are three groups of parents who are deterred by program costs: 

1) parents who do not enroll their children due to a preconceived notion that congregational membership and program fees are too expensive and less important than other spending priorities; 

2) parents who explore congregational membership and congregational education enrollment, but decide not to enroll when they learn the costs of membership plus enrollment; and 

3) parents who are already members of congregations/whose children are already enrolled, but who do not feel comfortable pursuing requests for financial assistance. 

Further research is needed to confirm these observations.

Lack of Jewish education for unenrolled. Children who are not enrolled in a Jewish day school or a congregational education program tend not to receive any form of formal, organized Jewish education.

Lifecycle events are not a carrot or a stick. Holding lifecycle events (e.g., B’nai Mitzvah) do not necessarily encourage congregational education program enrollment, particularly because some congregations have barriers related to lifecycle events (e.g., requiring enrollment in a congregational education program for a set amount of time, or mandating additional fees). In Cleveland, we are hearing anecdotally about an increasing number of parents who are not affiliated with a congregation seeking alternative arrangements, such as working with a rabbi privately or traveling to Israel or other destinations for their children’s lifecycle events. 

B’nai mitzvah as the finish line. Many parents of children who previously attended congregational education programs did not believe that their children needed to continue congregational education past b’nai mitzvah. For each of the past 10 years, post-b’nai mitzvah congregational education program enrollment has dropped an annual average of 39.8% in Cleveland.

Some of our research findings reinforce what those who work in congregational education already know, while other findings suggest that we should think and act in new ways. For example, given the finding that children play a significant role in enrollment decisions, congregational education programs need to become more appealing to children, and programs should systematically assess their satisfaction levels to bolster student retention. In addition, new kinds of informal educational opportunities may be an untapped opportunity to attract children who are not enrolled in congregational education programs. Moreover, our team wondered if parents’ expressed interests were more about the way that the learning is experienced than the content itself. It is unlikely that most congregational education programs will cease to include a focus on God, Torah and Israel, but the way that the learning is structured may require a different approach to teaching these topics.

These findings are compelling. While they contribute to an understanding of various factors that play a part in congregational education program enrollment, they also raise many questions for further research. However, one overarching conclusion is clear: we need to re-think congregational education and think more broadly about how we provide all Jewish children with a Jewish education. Rather than feeling dismayed by congregational education program enrollment, we should use these findings to develop a new strategic approach.

Jenny Janovitz Mirkin is the director of planning and evaluation and Rabbi Stacy Schlein is the director of educational capacity building at the Jewish Education Center of Cleveland.