Jewish education is important in the lives of American Jewish families

The issue of retention in the field of Jewish education is not a new one.  The demographics of Jewish education show that as a field, we are getting older. The founders of CAJE, myself included, were in our 20’s when we entered the field and founded this organization to support our work and to further our goals. We were idealistic, to be sure, but the common denominator for all of us was a deep love for Judaism and the Jewish people and a determination to share our enthusiasm with others. Many of us had been inspired by the Sixth Day War or by black Americans finding pride in their identity and urging us to do the same.

We do not yet know whether the War with Hamas will strengthen the Jewish community or weaken it. We don’t know whether the rise in antisemitism will bring more people into the Jewish community or see more leaving it.

We are at a very tenuous time in Jewish history to be sure. One thing we do know. Jewish education is important in the lives of American Jewish families. It takes place in many settings, from Day Schools to  overnight camps and everything in between. Some settings get more support than others. Afternoon Hebrew schools whether run by a synagogue or independently, do not receive the support that other types of schooling do. This is misguided since the vast majority of children and their families who receive a Jewish education do it in these settings. Early childhood schools lay an important foundation for children as they develop their Jewish identity. They also do not get the respect and support they need.

The future success of education in years ahead depends a lot on who will be attracted to the field and the support they receive to do their holy work.

There are some disturbing issues facing us in the area of personnel in after school programs.

·       Many people, including some of the most talented, who began working in Jewish education have left the field either for better opportunities in the secular world or because they were treated badly in the Jewish world.

·       Those who stayed in the field are facing retirement without the financial security that they should have accrued during their professional lives. Synagogues are not required to pay into Social Security and there are those who still don’t. Very few offer retirement benefits or any benefits to part-time employees.

·       Many educators are demoralized, feeling that they have not been recognized for their work and their accomplishments.

·       There are not a large enough cadre of younger people to replenish the field and provide guidance for the generation of our grandchildren and beyond.

It is not too late for us to come to understand these issues and address them. The scope of this article does not allow me to go into detail on each of these issues; however, I will address each of them briefly.

Why do people leave our field? We know from our research that people do not do so because of falling out of love with the heart-felt mission of Jewish education. People leave or never enter, for a variety of practical concerns. Since many Jewish education jobs are of a part-time nature, naturally there is great turnover in that sector as people return to more full-time pursuits–perhaps at the end of their schooling or their years of childrearing. Some people undoubtedly took full-time positions within the field, but many more did not. What could we be doing to consolidate part-time jobs, thus allowing for a person to be hired by a community rather than by an individual institution or by expanding their role to include adult education and family education creating a full-time job? What could we be doing to encourage part-time people to hone their teaching and administrative skills and deepen their Jewish knowledge base? What could be done to encourage part-time people to enter the field full-time when they are ready?

While we have no data to support these assumptions, it is my understanding that full-time educators often leave the field to pursue better paying jobs that provide better benefits. They leave because of the demands of the job–including long hours and unreasonable expectations. They leave because they don’t have enough quality support staff and for them to accomplish their goals. They leave because Jewish education does not have enough of a career ladder for them to move up as their skills improve. They leave disheartened by the lack of support of the lay people who employ them and the lack of respect and kavod for their work. My observation is that people who leave early in their careers do so because they do not feel they have the knowledge and training to be successful or the supervision and mentoring necessary to get over the “hard spots.”

It’s a shame to lose talented people because of these types of concerns, when there are solutions available that are well within the range of possibility for our communities. I have heard it said often that Jewish education is a low-paying profession. That has become a mantra of sorts. But why should that be true when we come from such an affluent community?  True, many of our institutions are floundering under financial difficulties, but why is that, given the nature of the American Jewish community? If we care about the survival of the Jewish people against the obvious threats to its existence, we must muster our combined energies to strengthen Jewish education and continue the innovations that NewCAJE members are known for.

The lack financial security can be a stumbling block for many Jewish educators. It is no surprise that many Jewish educators have spouses who make good salaries and receive pensions and family health coverage and other benefits through their work. A single parent, a sole breadwinner, a single person would find it difficult or impossible to work in this field except at the highest levels.

Health care benefits and social security are the cost of doing business. Synagogue lay leaders must come to understand their responsibilities in this area. Educators must be knowledgeable about employment rights and have the courage to inform their Synagogue Board or Educational Committee about what they need to be able to provide their congregations and its children with excellent Jewish education.