NewCAJE to honor Jewish educators for their work and their accomplishments

In Parashat Hukkat, we read about the death of Miriam followed by the outcry of the people because of the lack of water for themselves and their animals. Since the two are juxtaposed, the Midrash assumes a direct connection between the death of Miriam and the lack of water, and says that because of the merit of Miriam, the Israelites had had a well which followed them through the desert–a well which ceased upon her death. In the years before her death, no one seemed to notice that there was sufficient water for the needs of the people. Only after her death did Miriam’s true gifts and contributions receive recognition.

Let’s call this the “Miriam factor” and say there is much too much of this in the Jewish professional world.  When will our employers realize the loving contribution that we have made to their families and value the ways that we have enriched their lives?

How many times have you stayed in your office or classroom to listen to a person in trouble, to help a child with their work, to prepare something extra special for your class the next day? How many of your students would have made it through their B-Mitzvah without your personal and loving attention? We are aware that Jewish educators strive for excellence. That excellence is rarely rewarded in Jewish education either by salary or benefits or recognition.

NewCAJE has experimented with many ways to honor Jewish educators for their work and their accomplishments. We also believe that clergy and lay leaders must find ways to honor their precious employees. Here are some ways to do this:

·       Educators in our schools need to be given opportunities for professional development and sabbaticals so they can grow their skills.

·       They should have a place of honor on their congregational websites similar to that of the clergy.

·       How about reserved parking for the director and teachers?

·       How about recognition events after many years of service?

·       How about invitations to speak from the Bimah about Jewish education each year?

·       How about a living wage and appropriate benefits.

When this piece is in place there will be less attrition from the field. A heartfelt thank you goes a long way toward retaining dedicated professionals—especially when coupled with professional development, ongoing support and financial security.

As far as the recruitment of young and second career people into the field, I am going to make a bold statement. I do not believe that there is a shortage of qualified people who have a love of Judaism and the Jewish people and want to strengthen it through education. Today’s potential teachers are better educated than we were at their age. Whether in an afterschool program or in a day school, they had a good grounding in the basics. Many have gone to Jewish camps, belonged to youth groups, travelled to Israel, took college classes in Jewish studies and have worked as part-time teachers in our schools from when they were teens through college.

How do we retain the ones who are interested in entering the field after college? College graduates want meaningful work with a potential for growth and security. Many talented educators have wisely decided to study for the rabbinate which gives them more status and salary when they go into Jewish education. The seminaries and Hebrew colleges offer wonderful programs offering Master’s and Doctorates in Jewish education. These higher degrees rarely give them a jump in pay and sometimes, not even a leg up when applying to be heads of schools.

Even the best educator cannot run a school without qualified teachers. What can we do to attract and train and employ people who want to be in the classroom?

Once in the field, young people and second career people need expert help, professional development, mentoring and colleagues to support them.

We, currently working in Jewish education, can help attract people into the field by getting our own houses in order. Each of us should have a negotiated work agreement–which is an opportunity to tell your employer what you need and for them to work with you to provide it. Every institution should have benefits in place. More resources of the Jewish community should be dedicated to increasing salaries, hiring adequate staff, support staff, equipment and supplies to do the jobs we were entrusted to do.

Did you know that the Jewish Federations of North America passed a resolution at the 2001 GA supporting better salaries and benefits, encouraging negotiated work agreements and promoting better working conditions in Jewish education. Here it is almost 25 years later.  If this resolution did not lead to better salaries and working conditions, how are we, Jewish educators, going to insist that Federations and schools and other organizations that employ us to make this happen?  Our concerns have become official Federation policy, but local action on these issues will not be sparked until you, the stakeholders, bring it to the attention of your employers.

As our Sages taught, ” It is not our responsibility to complete the work, but neither can we desist from it.” No matter what your role in the field of Jewish education, you can learn to make a difference for yourself and for those who come after you,  in the areas of recruitment and retention. Don’t become a statistic yourself. By getting the things that you need to do your work and stay in your job, you insure the health of the field and that will encourage others to enter and stay. A strong field means honoring our students and our teachers, and the teachers of our teachers. It means there will be a teacher, camp counselor, rabbi, cantor, educational director, curriculum specialist, storyteller, musician, artist, environmental educator, adult educator, etc. for every child and every adult who wants to come closer to the beauties of their own heritage. Strengthening our field means strengthening our Jewish future.