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Learnin’ on a Prayer

Getting religion to get into pre-k.

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In the frenzy to land a preschool spot, some parents have found God. Area churches and synagogues that offer early-childhood programs are swelling with new families that have joined to help gain priority school admission for their kids. Brooklyn Heights’ Plymouth Church, for instance, has had “a surge of growth in young families,” reports the Reverend David Fisher. “We’re not sure if there is a direct relationship between the school and our congregation’s growth—though we strongly suspect there is.”

Not that it always works. When one Manhattan mother applied to a Jewish preschool, she was urged to join the affiliated synagogue. She paid the $1,500 fee and attended the odd service, but her kid was wait-listed anyway. “Then we applied again, and he still didn’t get in,” she complains. On the other hand, a Carroll Gardens mother who volunteered at a Brooklyn church event will be sending her daughter there in the fall. “Now I am going to be more involved in the church because it could help with a kindergarten recommendation.”

Some institutions are growing wise to self-interested joiners. “I laugh when people tell me, ‘I joined Temple Emanu-El in June and I’m applying to the preschool in September,’ says Amanda Uhry, owner of Manhattan Private School Advisors. “I say, ‘Do you think Emanu-El isn’t hip to what’s going on?’” Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church Day School prefers two years of membership and participation to be eligible for an admissions advantage, while the East Side’s Christ Church United Methodist limits preschool priority to congregants who actively worship and give money. “The Day School office sends to the church office the list of people seeking admission, and we go over it to make sure that the criteria are being met,” says Christ Church’s the Reverend Javier Viera.

Other religious leaders, though, are happy to see new faces—no matter what the reason. Andy Bachman, rabbi of Park Slope’s Congregation Beth Elohim, sees a membership bump in early November, when preschool applications are given out, and another in January, during tour season. That’s okay by him. “People approach affiliation from a variety of motivations,” he says. “The same people who say they joined just because of the preschool are the ones who can’t stop eating the chocolate-covered matzo at the children’s Seder.”

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