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FOCUS ON ISSUES What to do with a blank check: Jewish teachers create wish lists

COLUMBUS, Ohio, Aug. 17 (JTA) — Money may not buy happiness. But most Jewish educators and administrators believe it can improve Jewish education. At a conference of the Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education, held here last week, teachers and administrators, mostly from synagogue schools, fantasized about what they would do if given a blank check to spend. Not surprisingly, most agreed that for starters, the prestige and salaries of educators need to rise. “There’s still a bit of the ‘Oh, he or she is only a teacher’ out there,” Miriam Brunn Ruberg, education director of a synagogue in Tidewater, Va., said as she watched a stand-up comedy routine the second night of the conference. Salaries and benefits packages — where they exist — 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. At one CAJE session, educators spoke of salaries ranging from as low as $13,000 to as high as $95,000. But mass raises were not the only suggestions. Pausing from her dinner in the cafeteria, Lynn Hazan, a storyteller and teacher from Chicago, said synagogues need to focus more on building community and less on offering services. She suggested a greater emphasis on “substantial experiences that support people, like retreats and Shabbatons,” which are overnight Shabbat gatherings. Social action projects and the arts — particularly music, dance, drama and storytelling — are also effective at engaging people and “bringing texts alive,” she said. Across the table from Hazan, a suburban Philadelphia synagogue school director, Sharon Forman-Toll, said that if money were no object, she would not only double all her teachers’ salaries, but send them all to the CAJE conference each year. She also would subsidize trips to Israel and tuition for Jewish camps and day schools. Poring over her CAJE catalog outside the Ohio State University student union, where various exhibitions and sessions were being held, 19-year-old Hebrew school teacher Beth Goodman suggested bringing more games and interactive projects into the classroom. “You can’t just sit and try to pound information into kids’ heads,” she said, noting that most of her students arrive already tired from a full day at public school. Laurie Hoffman, who has directed the Center for Jewish Education Resources in Nyack, N.Y., for 10 years, said a blank check would enable her to “hire a big staff so I could concentrate on teacher training.” Enough textbooks, basic supplies and teacher development programs would top the wish list of Ariana Scott, a Hebrew school teacher and full-time college student in San Francisco. Scott also wants something money cannot buy: family involvement. “I would require parents to come with their children at least once a month,” she said. “Most parents only get involved right before their child’s Bar or Bat Mitzvah.” A Detroit-area Hebrew school teacher, Joan Melnick, yearned for greater parental involvement and wondered just how much a blank check could accomplish. “I always feel like I have the materials, but with a short amount of time I don’t get enough done,” Melnick said. “I always hope when the kids go home, there’s more of it coming from there, but I’m not sure there is.”