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Donors and Jewish Educators Meet to Focus on Early Childhood Teachers

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For 16 years, Bobbi Breslove has prepared children for grade school and taught them Jewish values.

Breslove is a head teacher at the Friedland Nursery School at Temple Beth Rishon in Wyckoff, N.J., where 22 teachers steer 150 children up to kindergarten age through a curriculum tied to the Jewish calendar.

But when she retires, Breslove, like thousands of colleagues who work in Jewish early childhood education, will have accumulated no pension or other benefits.

“I’ll leave with what I came with — nothing,” she says.

Still, Breslove is among the luckier teachers: Three years ago, Beth Rishon approved a three-year pay raise starting at 25 percent.

That “certainly made you feel more appreciated,” she adds.

Financial security remains in short supply among the estimated 60,000 Jewish educators nationwide, however. That’s especially true among early childhood teachers, who generally do not receive benefits and draw salaries even lower than those paid to their public school counterparts, a new study shows.

The survey by the Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education comes as the national Jewish federation system’s Jewish Education Service of North America launches an unprecedented drive to improve recruitment and retention in the field.

Billed as the first Jewish Education Leadership Summit, the JESNA conference in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., from Feb. 8-10 will feature an unusual mix of mega-donors and teachers, administrators and lay leaders from congregational and day schools. They will engage in “hands-on work” aimed at finding and keeping top Jewish educators.

The summit already has attracted more than twice the 150 people expected because the issues are “striking a responsive chord,” says Jonathan Woocher, JESNA’s president.

Highlighting the summit will be the Jewish Educator Recruitment/Retention Initiative, a recent project of JESNA and the Covenant Foundation. The initiative aims to create marketing strategies to attract new educators and make “cultural and structural changes” to “improve the quality of professional life for Jewish educators,” according to the plan.

The initiative comes as Jewish education has grown into a $3 billion-plus enterprise nationwide. An estimated 535,000 students attend early childhood programs, day schools and congregational schools, where 66,000 teachers and administrators work, according to CAJE.

Yet that money “is not always spent in the most efficient and effective way,” Woocher says.

One area ripe for economic change, CAJE maintains, is teacher wages in early childhood programs. The coalition’s survey, conducted over the past three years, found that the median annual salary for early childhood educators is $22,550 based on a 25-hour work week — well below the $54,000 median Jewish salary that the most recent National Jewish Population Survey found.

In comparison, full-time Jewish day school teachers earn a median $41,250, while congregational school teachers who work just a few hours a week earn an estimated $2,500.

Most early childhood educators are women with a median of 12 years of experience. They typically rely on their spouses for the bulk of the family’s income, the CAJE survey found.

“Is it really defensible from a Jewish point of view to be paying someone a salary on which they cannot be raising a Jewish family?” asks Eli Schaap, CAJE’s assistant executive director.

CAJE hopes to tackle the issue in part with its Project Kavod: Improving the Culture of Employment in Jewish Education. Also backed by a grant from the Crown family’s Covenant Foundation, the three-year, $430,000 plan will examine “the flow of money” at three early childhood programs in Miami, Schaap says.

Project Kavod will gather educators, administrators, parents and rabbis to craft a vision and strategy for their schools that boosts benefits and salaries and outlines steps for professional development and advancement, Schaap says.

Some say that such efforts, and the JESNA conference, signal an emerging trend at the intersection of Jewish education and philanthropy.

In the wake of data showing rising Jewish intermarriage, some major philanthropists such as Charles Bronfman launched efforts in the past decade such as birthright israel to promote Jewish identity among young people.

Others, like former hedge-fund king Michael Steinhardt, helped launched the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education, or PEJE, which focused on promoting Jewish day schools as a way to build Jewish identification, and in six years invested $16 million to found 60 new schools.

In December, PEJE unveiled its own strategic plan not only to expand day school enrollment but to improve marketing and recruitment of teachers, sharpen school fund raising and financial management and build ties between schools and the community.

“Jewish philanthropists are realizing that high-profile, sexy programs alone will not transform the community if attention is not given toward transforming its infrastructure and recruiting and training a new generation of leaders,” says Yosef Abramowitz, chief operating officer of Jewish Family & Life!, an educational multimedia enterprise and a columnist for the Chronicle of Philanthropy.

With events like the JESNA summit, “the dots are beginning to connect between the real needs on the ground and the deep desire by donors to have their generosity have long-term, systemic impact,” he says.

Among the big givers at the JESNA summit will be Bronfman, Steinhardt, Susan Crown, Harold Grinspoon, Laura Lauder, Lynne Schusterman, Diane Troderman and Arnee Winshall.

Last November it was Steinhardt who caused a stir by pledging $10 million to Jewish education and challenging other mega-donors to make up the rest of a proposed $100 million Fund for Our Jewish Future.

Some say it would take at least that amount of money to address the problem of low teacher pay.

On the one hand, “it’s a very popular clarion call that we need to increase teacher salaries in general,” says Yossi Prager, executive director of the Avi Chai Foundation, which promotes Jewish commitment and observance.

Yet just boosting annual salaries for the 20,000 full-time day school teachers by a “meaningful” $20,000 would amount to $40 million.

“You’re talking about many hundreds of millions of dollars a year to increase teacher salaries, and I’m not sure that’s doable,” Prager says.

Still, Woocher and others say getting philanthropists and educators to roll up their sleeves and confront such details head-on gives them hope.

“The excitement of having all these people together might lead to some exciting things,” Schaap says.

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