NEW YORK, Nov. 6 (JTA) — It has been tried many times before, but the organizers of a new initiative to recruit and retain top Jewish educators insist that this time their efforts will pay off. What’s changed, they say, is that a growing number of people are choosing their professions based on how rewarding the work is personally rather than financially. The project, called the Jewish Educator Recruitment/Retention Initiative, is being developed as a project of the Covenant Foundation in cooperation with JESNA. It will kick off at a Jewish Education Leadership Summit in February in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Laura Lauder, an organizer and JESNA board member, said the initiative seeks to tap into a nationwide cultural shift. At one Jewish day school in California, 10 of the 60 teachers are parents of children in the school who decided to return to the workforce when their children entered school. “They were looking for a profession that was meaningful,” Lauder said. Jonathan Woocher, president of the Jewish Education Service of North America, said that this subject has been discussed many times over the years, but this time is different because the initiative has the support of a “coalition of people who are cooperating to see that change happens and that change is institutionalized.” “Jewish education is a $3 billion plus enterprise,” Woocher said. The JESNA’s effort, he said, is designed to make sure the field of Jewish education attracts the best and the brightest teachers. JESNA board member Arnee Winshall said that what she envisions at the Florida event is a “strategic plan and a summit where we bring several known intellectuals and those with financial capital to the table . . . and begin to see what things can be leveraged to make a difference.” Among the issues to be discussed at the invitation-only summit will be salaries and benefits. A 2000 study by the Board of Jewish Education in New York, found that one-third of full-time early childhood teachers working in programs under Jewish auspices in the New York area earned less than $20,000 a year — much less than the starting salaries of rookie teachers in the public schools. But Woocher said that although salaries and benefits are important in recruitment and retention of Jewish educators, it may not be the key component, given the quest for more meaningful occupations. He said this new effort would be aimed at “building from the bottom,” as opposed to another effort that failed because it had adopted a top-down approach developed without community input. “This is a different approach in a different time,” he said. “Hopefully we have learned.” “This conference is results oriented,” added Lauder. “We’re happy that funders will be around the table.” Asked what she would like to see in five years, Lauder said, “I want to see collaboration among national, communal and local institutions with data bases on camp counselors, leaders of Hillel who may want to get into the teaching force. We need to track and train them and hand hold a professional career.” But noting that there are statistics that show a 29 percent career turnover rate among teachers in their first three years of teaching if they are in their 30s, Lauder said greater effort should be placed on recruiting those interested in second careers, for whom she said the turnover rate is just 12 percent. Woocher said he would like the initiative to correct one blatant failing — the lack of a central address for those who wish to consider a career in Jewish education. Meredith Woocher, Woocher’s daughter and director of the new initiative, said there is no hard data on the magnitude of the teacher shortage. As a result, part of the project is to determine the scope of the problem. “It is equally important that we fund the research to understand both the scope of the problem and what are the most effective solutions,” she said. A 2001 study by the Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education, found that between 10 and 20 percent of Hebrew school classrooms did not have permanent teachers when school opened that year. There was speculation that low salaries, a lack of benefits and a lack of respect for the profession kept many from considering the field of Jewish education. Judith Ginsberg, executive director of the Covenant Foundation, said her organization has begun to address the latter situation by awarding $25,000 grants to 39 outstanding Jewish educators in the last three years, plus $5,000 to each of their schools. “This has built respect for them and shone the light on talented and devoted teachers,” she said. Meredith Woocher said it remains to be seen how much money would be needed to implement whatever recommendations are eventually developed, but that she hoped a “broad coalition of funders” would be found to raise several million dollars over the next several years. The money might be used, she said, to “create high quality induction, mentoring and professional development programs for teachers, as well as a broad marketing campaign to reach potential Jewish educators.” For the past four years, four organizations — JESNA, the Jewish Community Centers Association, Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life and the United Jewish Communities federation umbrella group — have placed recruiters on 30 college campuses annually in an effort to attract Jewish students to the field of Jewish education, Lauder said. She noted that Hillel estimates that 95 percent of Jewish students attend only 200 colleges, and she said technology should be used to keep track of those interviewed to see the effectiveness of this recruitment effort. Lauder added that she foresees a North American coalition for Jewish educational recruitment that would work on college campuses, at Jewish summer camps and in high schools to attract future Jewish educators. Jonathan Woocher said there is evidence that Jewish programming does make a difference in encouraging young people to enter the field of Jewish education or Jewish communal settings. “We know there are things that work,” he said.
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