How to Keep Jewish Teachers? Miami Pilot Project Seeks Answers

When Jewish educators who teach young children were asked in a recent survey what had attracted them to the field, only 1 percent said it was the money. Asked what factors most contribute to keeping them in the field, just 3 percent mentioned their salaries. And asked what would worry them most if their children became Jewish educators, nearly 70 percent said income.

These findings aren’t surprising, educators say. After all, the average salary of an early-childhood Jewish educator in the United States hovers somewhere around $18,000 a year, and low salaries across the spectrum of jobs in Jewish education remain a chronic problem, observers say.

That’s why, when the same group of teachers from Broward and Miami-Dade counties in Florida was asked what would most improve their jobs, 76 percent said increased salary would help, and another 34 percent mentioned better health insurance.

“Early-childhood education, of all the different divisions of a system — which is not seamless — of Jewish education, is the one in which people are generally paid the worst and receive the worst of everything, and it can be a crucial component of the Jewish education system,” said Steven Kraus, director of day school, congregational and communal education initiatives at the Jewish Education Service of North America. “The Jewish community needs to find ways to understand the importance of early-childhood education and supporting those people who are on the front lines.”

A new pilot project now operating in Florida aims to do just that. Project Kavod: Improving the Culture of Employment in Jewish Education, a program conducted by the Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education through a grant from the Covenant Foundation, is investigating ways to better recruit and retain qualified teachers trained in pedagogy and Jewish studies.

“We have a recruitment and retention crisis in personnel,” said Eli Schapp, CAJE’s assistant executive director. “You need the professionals and they need to be well trained and they need to be happy to work in this field.”

“My question,” Schapp added, “is ‘What do I need to pay to create the system I want to create, and what’s the multiyear plan in order to get there?’ “

Project Kavod, a three-year pilot program, is working with four Miami institutions to help develop approaches and tools that creatively address personnel issues. The pilot institutions are the David and Mary Alper Jewish Community Center; the Conservative Bet Shira Congregation; the Reform Temple Beth Sholom; and the Rabbi Alexander S. Gross Hebrew Academy, whose student body is largely Orthodox.

In addition, Project Kavod — the Hebrew word for ‘respect’ — is working with the Miami-Dade Center for the Advancement of Jewish Education and the Greater Miami Jewish Federation.

The program has begun by gathering fiscal data on the four sites and forming a community committee to look at the survey data and make initial determinations.

A subgroup of the committee recently came up with 45 items that potentially could improve the culture of employment in early-childhood education. On July 28 they’ll meet to decide which recommendations to pursue seriously.

In addition, several educators said, they’ll have to work to educate the public about the importance of early-childhood education.

“I think there still needs to be an important education/advocacy piece when it comes to good early-childhood education,” JESNA’s Kraus said. A few “generations ago some people would have seen early childhood education as glorified babysitting. We’re way beyond that in many places.”

Further, said Patricia Bidol-Padva, the Project Kavod coordinator in Florida, Jewish parents need to learn about “what the salaries are and to make a commitment to doing something about it.”

Project Kavod is also producing a manual of “change-management tools” for early-childhood education institutions and will put out a publication looking to answering three perennial questions: Why is Jewish education important; how should Jewish educators be treated; and what’s the obligation of Jewish educators to the communities they serve?

Those running the program say they hope that, in addition to aiding the four Florida pilot institutions, similar work will eventually be done at day schools, congregational schools and informal Jewish education programs elsewhere.

“There’s a long way to go,” Bido-Padva said.

That may be so, but for Rabbi Jeffrey Falick, director of Jewish life and culture at the Dave and Mary Alper Jewish Community Center, it’s no mere pipe dream. Teachers’ salaries could be significantly improved if the JCC raised $100,000 more a year, he said.

“That’s not, on the scale of things, an unrealistic aspiration,” he said. “The program is really helping us to build a case. It’s not that people in the community aren’t aware of this. But you need to really build up a solid case, to show the evidence on the ground.”

While improved salaries and benefits have emerged as top priorities, Falick said, continuing education and a good work environment also need to be addressed.

Deena Messinger teaches in the kindergarten at the Sinai Akiba Academy in Los Angeles. Last year, she said, she considered switching over to a secular private school or a public school for better salary and benefits — even though her school actually pays well relative to other day schools, she said.

Still, her health benefits don’t include a vision or dental plan. Further, Messinger said, as she and her husband look down the line to having children, paying for day-school education on their salaries — Sinai Akiba’s tuition is now “pushing $12,000,” she said — seems daunting.

“Benefits and tuition are areas that could be used to improve recruitment and retention,” she said.

In the end, Messinger chose to stay in Jewish education.

“It wasn’t just about money. What kept me at my school was that I do really like teaching Jewish kids,” she said. “Any choice you make in your life has trade-offs. There’s no perfect place. But it’s worth it. I love what I do and I think that’s pretty rare.”

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