COLUMBUS, Ohio, Aug. 17 (JTA) — Asked to complete the sentence “As a Jewish educator I feel…” a group of teachers and administrators recently volunteered the following: “overwhelmed,” “underappreciated,” “underpaid,” “exhilarated,” “hopeful and frustrated” and “a sense of emergency.” With the American Jewish community frightened by gloomy statistics on intermarriage and assimilation, Jewish education has risen to the top of the communal agenda. But while Jewish educators welcome the new recognition, there is a concern that philanthropists and federation bigwigs are jumping in and dominating the discussion without necessarily consulting — or appreciating — those who have been working in the field for years. Such sentiments were expressed frequently during the annual conference of the Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education, which was held last week in Columbus, Ohio. As it prepares for its 25th anniversary, CAJE — best known for its week-long conventions where teachers and administrators attend sessions ranging from teaching art projects to how to teach Bible stories — is starting to spotlight larger concerns in the field. Such concerns include notoriously low salaries, the challenges of recruiting new educators, making supplemental schools more effective and strategies for involving entire families in Jewish learning. Through a process called “Hanukat,” or rededication, CAJE leaders are encouraging educators across the country to speak up and become advocates in their field. When CAJE was founded in the mid-1960s, Jewish education ranked low in community priorities, and the fledgling group was a “countercultural” effort agitating for system-wide change, said Eliot Spack, the group’s executive director. Over the years, the organization has retained its somewhat irreverent feel. Most board members are directly nominated and elected by the rank-and-file, casual garb is the norm and the bearded, T-shirt-and- shorts-clad executive director wears a name tag bearing only his first name. The annual conferences take place on college campuses rather than the hotels and convention centers favored by most Jewish organizations. They are run primarily by volunteers and are described as “nourishing” and “inspiring” by participants. As it has aged, CAJE has become more mainstream, enjoying warm relations with Jewish federations, changing the “A” in its name from “Alternatives in” to “Advancement of” and helping teachers more with classroom — than systemic — change. But by stepping up the focus on advocacy, leaders hope to bring a little more of the old fire back. They devoted an afternoon of the conference last week to “advocacy symposia” and — using a series of provocative articles as a springboard — hope to engage hundreds of members in discussion groups around the country this year. Spack described the process as “consciousness-raising.” “For a long time, Jewish educators have allowed other people to call the shots for their field,” he said. “We want them to raise their voices and concerns.” Rabbi Cherie Koller-Fox, one of CAJE’s original two founders and an architect of the rededication effort, said she was proud of the group’s accomplishments in helping teachers hone their skills, but frustrated at times by its members’ timidity, if not complacency, on the funding and programmatic matters that affect them. “A lot is on the line here. People need to wake up and stop singing and stop learning how to make things out of felt,” she said, presumably referring to a session that day entitled “Jewish Holiday Fun With Felt.” Salaries in Jewish education vary widely, with administrators of day schools and supplemental schools generally at the top, and teachers — particularly nursery school teachers and part-timers — at the bottom. Unlike their counterparts in public schools, few teachers in Jewish institutions — the overwhelming majority of whom are women — are unionized. A number of teachers interviewed during the conference said they earned less than their synagogues’ secretaries. At a CAJE session led by Koller-Fox, participants wrote their salaries on little pieces of paper and shared them anonymously. The numbers ranged from $13,000 per year with no benefits to $95,000 and a full package; the $95,000 wage-earner noted in the middle of the session that she had just left her job, however, because it required more than 80 hours a week and left her with no time for her family. In addition to the financial issues, teachers and administrators said they felt challenged by board politics, time constraints, children with learning disabilities and families with other priorities. “I’m tired of competing with soccer!” said Sharon Forman-Toll, a Hebrew school director in suburban Philadelphia. Asked why, given the low salaries and high frustrations, they stayed in the field, almost every teacher started with the word “passion.” “It’s my soul work, it’s what I believe in,” said Sylvia Plotkins, a Hebrew school teacher in California. “I love the kids,” said Gail Katz, a nursery school teacher at a Minneapolis synagogue. Many were quick to excuse their synagogues or day schools for the low salaries, noting that Jewish institutions face a scarcity of funds all around. But others questioned why the most affluent Jewish community in history should have to skimp on any program, particularly at a time when education is the stated priority. At the conference’s opening ceremonies, Leslie Wexner, the multimillion dollar philanthropist and retail clothing magnate, suggested the challenge in Jewish education stems from a scarcity of ideas, rather than a scarcity of money. But his view was widely dismissed, even ridiculed, by conference-goers and presenters in the days that followed. Educators repeatedly questioned whether trendy innovations could substitute for dedicated teachers backed by supportive parents and lay leaders. At an advocacy symposium on “Re-envisioning the Supplemental School,” author and educator Joel Lurie Grishaver drew loud applause when he said, “My solution is three things: teachers, teachers and teachers, and as far as I’m concerned, nothing else makes a difference. Their consistency, caring and being there is what transforms the world.” Other advocacy symposia addressed the role of lay leaders, early childhood education, needs of disabled students, outreach strategies and “Personnel, Professionalism and the State of the Profession.” Educators interviewed during the conference cautiously welcomed CAJE’s new emphasis on advocacy, but said they hoped it would not detract from the organization’s professional development sessions and networking opportunities. “This is timely and good, but I hope they understand that people come to the conferences wanting to grow as professionals,” said Mark Baranek, director of a congregational school in Miami Beach.
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