Jewish Teachers Say They Want a Little R-e-s-p-e-c-t

It may show how dire the crisis in Jewish education is that one synagogue education director from Long Island, N.Y. considers it an achievement that she will have enough teachers for her classrooms this fall — even if they’re not up to snuff.

“I don’t think all of them are qualified to be teachers — they don’t all have the knowledge or skills — but every class has an adult in it,” the woman said at last week’s Conference on Alternatives in Jewish Education.

Leaders with the Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education, the conference’s sponsor, estimate that between 10 percent and 20 percent of all Hebrew school classrooms will start the school year without a permanent teacher.

With the beginning of the new school year just weeks away, the shortage of qualified teachers dominated CAJE’s 26th annual conference, held here on the campus of Colorado State University.

In formal sessions and informal conversations, participants attributed the shortage of educators to the low salaries paid Jewish teachers, the lack of pensions and benefits, the paucity of mentoring or continuing education and the lack of kavod, Hebrew for respect.

Such issues, they say, discourage talented young people from thinking of Jewish education as a career.

With a two-year-old project called “Hanukat CAJE” and an official focus on recruitment and retention, CAJE is trying to mobilize Jewish educators to address the problems.

The 3,500-member CAJE group long has been known for its camp-like summer conference.

Educators trek around sprawling campuses, sleep in dorms, connect with old friends over cafeteria meals, share ideas, stay up late for Jewish folk music concerts and marathon storytelling performances and attend hundreds of sessions on everything from art projects to teaching children with learning disabilities to the big issues affecting Jewish life in America.

Most of the participants are teachers in congregational schools. For some of them, the annual CAJE conference is their only source of professional development.

Most say they can not rely on their teaching salaries as their main income, supplementing it with salaries from spouses or other jobs.

In the past few years, education — especially the shortage of qualified personnel — has become a high-profile issue on the national Jewish agenda, and CAJE gradually has stepped up its advocacy efforts:

The group coordinates approximately 10 grass-roots discussion groups around the country, where members discuss the national and local issues they face. At a conference dinner, about 150 CAJE members who have been involved in such groups brainstormed about the causes of the teacher shortage and began a heated discussion on what they can do to improve salaries, benefits and kavod. The discussion will be continued in coming months on the Internet.

A newly- hired CAJE professional is researching issues such as salaries and working conditions, and is surveying members to better determine their needs. Among the preliminary findings: 80 percent of members are women, and 66 percent are between the ages of 41 and 61. “Young people are not entering the field,” said Eli Schaap, CAJE’s assistant executive director.

The group recently started offering low-cost insurance benefits and offering retirement planning, two things that many Jewish teachers with part-time status do not receive from their employers. It also launched a mentoring program for college students who teach part time in Jewish schools and, in future years, plans to offer mentoring for all new teachers.

This year’s conference featured 21 sessions on recruitment, retention and advocacy, ranging from “Negotiating Strategies for the Professional Jewish Educator” to “Where Have All the Teachers Gone? Recruiting and Supporting New Educators.”

CAJE issued a conference resolution calling on the North American Jewish community to provide competitive salaries and benefits, supportive work environments and mentoring programs for new teachers.

This year’s keynote speaker, author and Rabbi Harold Schulweis, added to the advocacy drumbeat.

Schulweis described Jewish educators as “the exploited people of our community.” He urged them to recognize their own importance in influencing young Jews and do a better job of championing their cause among people with power.

In an interview, Schulweis, the spiritual leader of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, Calif., told JTA that CAJE needs to “enter into the consciousness of the synagogue and temple world.”

“My board people are good, involved and give money, but don’t know what’s going on in the schools,” Schulweis said, urging Jewish educators to be more vocal in airing their concerns.

Despite the intense emotions expressed at the conference, there was little talk of unionizing, perhaps because of the decentralized nature of Jewish schools and the fact that so many teachers work only part time.

At the Hanukat CAJE dinner, participants at first tried to determine which issue — professional development, salaries and benefits, or kavod — the organization should make a priority.

But many soon noted how interrelated the issues are.

Shoshanah Zaritt, director of student life at the New Jewish High School of Greater Boston, said, “We all really felt salaries and benefits are really important, but you can’t talk about it without talking about the culture of kavod.

“Part of it is, we as educators need to be educated on how to be advocates for ourselves,” Zaritt said.

One Chicago-area religious school director said talk of kavod is hollow if it’s not accompanied by tangible benefits.

For years, she said, she struggled to convince her synagogue to give her a pension. The synagogue only relented when she brought in national Reform movement professionals to speak with them.

“They told me they loved me and respected me, but” for years “I didn’t get a pension,” she said. “Once I got the pension, then all of a sudden I felt the kavod.”

Privately, some participants wondered whether the CAJE conference itself contributes to, rather than alleviates, a sense that the field is unprofessional.

They criticized the no-frills dormitory accommodations and the ultra-casual decorum: Even the executive director came to conference sessions in shorts and a T-shirt.

Others noted that the sessions vary greatly in quality, and generally are too short to delve into topics in great depth.

Paul Flexner, associate vice president for human resources development at the Jewish Education Service of North America, asked, “Why is it that the rabbis and other professionals go to hotels and conference centers for their conventions?”

Doing so would significantly increase CAJE’s costs, Flexner acknowledged, but “it’s so much nicer and says so much. Where’s the kavod if you sleep in the dorms?”

CAJE’s executive director, Eliot Spack, defended the campus locales, saying they keep costs low so that the conference is accessible. People who prefer more upscale accommodations can stay in neighboring hotels, he said.

As for the informality, Spack said, “Nothing says that people have to act and dress as stuffed shirts in order to feel a sense of kavod.”

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