FORT COLLINS, Colo., Aug. 14 (JTA) — Ever since she was a little girl playing school, Denise Abadi has wanted to teach.
For years, Abadi taught in the public schools, but she turned to Jewish education because she likes “communicating the way I live at home” and having Jewish holidays off.
Now a veteran Hebrew school and early Jewish childhood teacher in Charlotte, N.C., Abadi describes her work as a “labor of love.” But she’s the first to admit that her jobs do not pay a “living wage.”
With a salary of about $17,000 a year and no benefits for more than 20 hours a week in the classroom, Abadi’s career offers little more than a supplementary income that she uses to send her children to summer camp.
“I’m lucky my husband makes a good living so I can afford to teach,” says Abadi, interviewed here last week at the Conference on Alternatives in Jewish Education.
While few statistics are available, most leaders in the field say Jewish schools are facing a teaching shortage of crisis proportions.
According to officials with the Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education, which sponsored last week’s conference, between 10 percent and 20 percent of Hebrew school classrooms will not have permanent teachers when school starts this year.
Many speculate that the field’s low salaries, lack of benefits and lack of respect prevent many people from considering such jobs.
In supplemental, or congregational, schools, the problem of finding and keeping teachers is aggravated by the part-time nature of the job.
Individual jobs at those schools take up from two to 12 hours a week across a smattering of time slots, many of them inconvenient for people with school-age children.
The difficulty for teachers to cobble together a full-time or even substantial part-time job based on Hebrew school teaching makes for a hard sell, particularly as two-career families have sharply reduced the old pool of stay-at- home mothers.
So, given the challenges, why does anyone teach?
Like Abadi, most Hebrew school teachers interviewed at the CAJE conference said they tolerated the drawbacks of the job out of a sense of obligation and genuine enjoyment.
Many described the job more as a hobby or service to the Jewish community than as a career, and many teach in addition to other full- or part- time jobs.
Carol Morris, who teaches sixth grade at a Denver-area congregational school and works as an advocate for school excellence at the Colorado Agency for Jewish Education, said she sees teaching as a “way to contribute to the community.”
Morris, who had been active in her youth group, began teaching a few years ago when her synagogue’s religious school director approached her.
“I’m bringing my kids there on Sunday anyway, so I figure I might as well be there,” she said.
The director of the agency for Jewish education, where she works during the week, has “always said we’re doing God’s work, and that has kept me going.”
Rachel Richter, 30, of Phoenix, Ariz., works full time for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, but has taught Hebrew school for six years.
“It went from something I had to do to make money to, Hey, I’m pretty good at this,” she said.
Richter, who was at the conference with her mother — also a Jewish educator — took last year off.
This year, she will return to teaching for four hours a week, “because I miss that aspect of my life — the synagogue connection and the kids.”
Agnes Sonnenfeld, who teaches at Temple Micah, a Reform congregation in Denver, and works as office manager at a local non-profit organization, grew up as a rabbi’s daughter.
“For me, it’s a mitzvah” to teach, she said. “I was raised that in order to ensure our community’s future, you need to teach.”
Richard Corn, one of the few male participants at the conference, said teaching part time at Scarsdale Synagogue and Westchester Reform Temple, both in suburban New York, is his “contribution to keeping Jewish civilization alive.”
“Although I feel very American, I think that’s not enough,” he said. “Our children need the wisdom and brilliance of a 5,000-year history.”
Erin Savage, 26, is an occupational therapist by profession but teaches part time at the Woodstock Jewish Congregation in upstate New York. The job, she said, “keeps me connected to my identity as a Jew.”
“There’s no better way to learn something than to try to teach to someone else,” she said. “I learn more from my kids than most of the teachers I had in Hebrew school.”