ST. LOUIS (JTA) – Bright, engaging and full of energy, Bethany Spielberg is the kind of classroom teacher any Jewish school would be lucky to have.
Spielberg, 18, an education major at California State University, Fullerton, already teaches second grade at her Reform temple’s religious school.
After a week here at CAJE, the annual conference of North American Jewish educators sponsored by the Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education, she remains firmly committed to a career in teaching – but not in Jewish schools.
“Honestly? It’s because of the money,” she admits.
Spielberg, who attended the conference as one of 26 students chosen for the Schusterman College program, hopes to continue teaching in Jewish supplementary schools after she graduates, but she won’t do it full-time. And that’s not for lack of desire.
“Being Jewish is a big part of my life, and I’d like to give something back,” she said. “I’d love to do it seven days a week, but I’d also love teaching secular school, and if the money is so different …” Her voice trails off.
“It’s hard enough living on a secular teacher’s salary.”
Spielberg’s dilemma highlights the reality of Jewish education at the dawn of the 21st century.
Even as the Jewish community focuses on the goal of Jewish continuity and leaders trumpet the need for high-quality Jewish education, those who are entrusted with the task of delivering that education – the classroom teachers – remain underpaid, overworked and underappreciated.
“We need to invest many more dollars in our Hebrew-school leadership,” said Scott Shay, author of “Getting Our Groove Back: How to Energize American Jewry,” in his Aug. 5 opening-night speech. “That means greater respect and money for our teachers.”
According to CAJE data, and preliminary findings from a 2006 study of congregational and day schools in North America, 250,000 children are enrolled in Jewish congregational schools and 175,000 in Jewish day schools. But the 50,000 teachers in those schools have few, if any, benefits – 46 percent of day-school teachers have no health insurance, and their salaries average less than $45,000 a year. The situation is even worse for Jewish preschool teachers, whose annual salary averages $20,000.
Not surprisingly, the annual turnover rate for day-school teachers is 25 percent.
“We’ve never had enough high-quality Jewish educators,” said CAJE Executive Director Jeff Lasday. “We have magnificent classrooms, great textbooks, terrific digital material but still not enough excellent teachers.”
At a recent meeting of Jewish communal leaders in Miami, Lasday said, “One lay leader told me, I had no idea we pay our baby sitters more than our teachers.”
Young people are not entering the field of Jewish education. According to CAJE statistics, more than half the teachers in Jewish congregational and day schools are older than 48.
Despite the discouraging picture, dozens of young teachers and graduate students joined the Schusterman fellows at the CAJE conference.
They came from varied backgrounds. Some had pleasant memories of religious school; many others did not. Some attended day school.
Some already are teaching in classrooms, and more than a few are following in the footsteps of parents who are teachers, many at Jewish schools.
What they share is idealism, enthusiasm and a commitment to helping secure the Jewish future.
“I love it,” said Rachel Gold, 21, a senior at Brandeis University.
Gold, a biology and environmental sciences major, said she plans a career in that field, but also wants to continue teaching in Jewish supplementary schools. She’s been doing that for the past four years.
“I love second and third grade, seeing them go from knowing a few letters to understanding the Hebrew prayers,” she said.
Spielberg said, “It’s exciting to feel so important, so needed. I want to make the kids love being Jewish more than I want to teach them Torah, especially the younger kids.”
What the young and aspiring teachers share as well is a belief in the importance of the profession and the desire to see it more highly valued by the Jewish community.
“At one time the teachers were volunteers,” said Lisa Alpern, education director at IKAR, a transdenominational community in Los Angeles. “They didn’t have a master’s in education, it wasn’t a profession.”
Things are different now, Alpern said.
“We are not just implementing the rabbi’s vision, we’re sharing our own,” she said. “We have the capacity to be real leaders.”
While most Jewish teachers are women, a good number of the younger teachers and students at the CAJE conference were men. They see themselves as important role models for boys and girls, showing children that men as well as women value education.
Davey Rosen, 28, is a second-year student in the Davidson School at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary. He also works with young children at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in Manhattan.
Rosen plans to make a career of teaching Jewish children, and he resents those who assume that as a man he will be going on to rabbinical school.
“We’re dealing with the future of our people, and we’re dealing with the lives of these kids right now,” he said. “You can’t rely on just anyone to do that.”
CAJE has launched Project Kavod, or respect, a campaign to improve Jewish educators’ working conditions and elevate their status.
Lasday said there are “exciting new initiatives” for congregational schools coming in the next year, building on the impetus created by Jewish educational umbrella organizations such as JESNA and PEJE, the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education.
In new collaborative efforts, JCCs, federations and religious schools in some cities are trying to work together to improve Jewish educational opportunities.
But Lasday doesn’t see the salaries rising soon.
“I tell them, follow your passion, don’t follow the money,” he said. “You’re young, you’ll always find a job.”
For these young Jewish educators, it is indeed a calling and not a job.
Rachel Cooper, 21, is the youth and program director at her Conservative synagogue in Toronto. She says the work enriches her life in ways that cannot be measured.
“Ultimately it’s because we have the opportunity to make a lasting mark on the world, one that is immediately seen,” she said. “The next generation will be here, and we want them to be informed Jews. If we don’t do it, who will?”