Educators As ‘Endangered Species’


Alvin Mars will come to Long Island this week for a few days of shopping. He’s looking for Jewish teachers.

Mars is headmaster of the American Hebrew Academy, a "liberal preparatory school" in Greensboro, N.C., that will open in September 2001. The nondenominational boarding school hopes to have 800 students and 200 teachers.

He will start a formal search next month, and already says "it’s a struggle to find teachers": trained, competent teachers.

So Mars will use the 25th annual Conference of Alternatives in Jewish Education, to be held Aug. 13-17 at Hofstra University in Hempstead, as the unofficial kickoff of his recruitment drive.

The gathering of some 2,200 Jewish educators, billed by the organizers as the "biggest birthday party in North America this summer," will take place in the greater New York area for only the third time.

Experts on Jewish education agree that a visible absence of personnel to staff an array of jobs is the major issue facing the field on the conference’s landmark anniversary.

"We’re becoming an endangered species," says Eliot Spack, executive director of the Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education.

Spack is talking about those who work in Jewish day schools and supplementary schools, youth groups and camps, JCCs and arts programs, early childhood programs and adult education classes, and other settings.

He says CAJE, a "celebration of Jewish teaching" that grew out of a 1976 conference at Brown University attended by 300, is open to anyone "who is committed to the transmitting of Jewish heritage."

The problem, Spack says, is there aren’t enough people like that."Hundreds of Jewish classes will open in September without a teacher," Spack says. In many cases, "they’ll hire the warmest body they can find."

The situation is marginally better in the New York area because of the size of the Jewish community, Spack says, noting there are more trained people. But, he adds, "the phenomenon is as prevalent here as elsewhere."

At universities across the United States, Spack says, fewer than 100 students are enrolled in Jewish education graduate-level programs, and "the numbers are dwindling."

The problem is caused by many factors: relatively low salaries for teachers in most Jewish schools, low prestige for members of the field, a general decrease in Jewish literacy in the American Jewish community.

AJE is among several Jewish organizations that sponsors activities to reverse the trend.

Among the hundreds of seminars and workshops (as well as religious services, 90 entertainment performances and a massive vendors’ fair) at next week’s conference will be formal discussions on the subject, outreach programs to attract teens and college students to a career in Jewish education, and informal recruitment activities. (CAJE also runs inservice training programs during the year for Jewish teachers nationwide to instill a sense of pride and upgrade their professional skills.)

Mars says he set up interviews with prospective teachers for his nascent school weeks in advance. "CAJE will be an excellent place for it," he says. "CAJE is a place that turns people on to the field."

The Jewish Education Service of North America, a coordinating and research resource for schools across the country, established a task force on personnel recruitment, development, retention and placement a year ago, says Paul Flexner, its director of human resources development.

"We have to hire people who are less than qualified to staff our programs at every level," Flexner says. "The community has recognized that the problem is serious.

He points to similar personnel-minded efforts under the auspices of UJA-Federation of New York and institutions in every major American Jewish community.

JESNA is conducting a study of its 18-year-old Lainer Interns project, which recruits college students spending their junior year in Israel for training in Jewish education. The agency started a similar postgraduate program four years ago.

"It takes years to know the impact" of such programs, Flexner says.

The effect of the shortage is already known, he says. "Anybody would say if you don’t have quality trained people, your [educational] program won’t be as good as if you had quality trained people. We’re not as effective as if we had people who were qualified."

Flexner will serve as a CAJE faculty member.

Several local Jewish federations and bureaus of Jewish education are subsidizing teachers’ participation in the conference, a major change from its founding days, when its "creative" emphasis was considered threatening to existing agencies.

"In the early days," Spack says, "we were seen as a countercultural product of the ’60s."Today, CAJE is mainstream. Its support by virtually every prominent Jewish organization is recognition of its role in strengthening Jewish education. "For many people we’re the only game in town that speaks to the needs of teachers," Spack says. It is part reunion, part morale booster, part idea fair, part family camp with day care.

This year’s college-sized catalog features such innovations as kivunim, concentrations of study that allow participants to gear their classes to their particular interests, like a university major; havayot field trips to Jewish neighborhoods and Jewish institutions throughout New York, patterned after the educational programs offered to Israeli soldiers; a beit midrash study hall where chavruta-style study of traditional Jewish texts will be available; and a series of classroom demonstrations by master teachers.

One distinguishing mark of CAJE, Spack says, is its interdenominational nature. There are participants and faculty members and worship services representing every branch of Judaism.

"This is a working model of klal Yisroel," the entire Jewish community, he says.

For Alvin Mars, who will conduct his formal search for Jewish teachers at rabbinic seminaries and university Jewish education programs, CAJE will present a chance to meet some of the most dedicated Jewish teachers available.

His school, funded with "one of the largest [endowments] ever put together for an institution of Jewish life in this country," he says, will have an easy time attracting applicants. "People are contacting me constantly."

But, Mars says, he expects to find a "dearth of quality people. I’m going to face what everybody else faces. There’s not enough to go around."

His school’s gain, he says, will be others’ loss. "For everyone who comes here, someone will be losing one of their qualified teachers."