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Jewish day school boom creates teacher shortage


NEW YORK, March 6 (JTA) – Every time the newly formed North American Association of Jewish High Schools convenes, the room is more crowded – and there is word of new schools in the works.

But given the shortage of qualified personnel, school leaders greet their new compatriots with some ambivalence, said Simcha Pearl, head of the four- year-old New Atlanta Jewish Community High School.

They are delighted at the growing popularity of day schools and the opportunity to create joint programs, like semesters in Israel. But they also are wary of the competition for teachers.

“Everyone’s thinking, ‘All right, but I have to protect what I have,’ ” Pearl said.

The personnel shortage in North American Jewish education stems from several factors, among them the rapid growth of new day schools, the shortage of institutions training teachers and administrators for Jewish schools, a national dearth of teachers in general and a field that historically has paid low salaries.

Day schools are particularly hard hit given the sector’s rapid growth in recent years. But all areas of Jewish education – congregational schools, nursery schools, summer camps, youth groups and campus Hillels – face serious shortages.

The personnel crisis also affects other areas of Jewish communal life, such as federations, Jewish community centers and the rabbinate.

Personnel is “the No. 1 problem in North America for the Jewish people,” said Rabbi David Silber, co-founder of Ha Sha’ar, a new program training Jewish day school teachers. “Nothing’s even close to it.”

In the past few years, a number of new recruitment and training efforts have emerged from different quarters, including degree programs, professional development sessions that groom people for top positions and pilot projects in which college students receive training while teaching part time. And salaries reportedly are rising.

But most in the field say the efforts are not nearly enough.

Just how bad is the situation? At virtually every Jewish conference in the past year, recruitment seemingly tops the list of people’s concerns.

Still, statistics to measure the shortage are hard to come by.

That’s because positions usually are filled in the end, albeit after lengthy searches, and not with ideal candidates, said Paul Flexner of the Jewish Education Service of North America.

“There’s a tendency in education circles that when school opens you frantically hire at the last minute people to teach in all your classrooms,” said Flexner, who is overseeing a JESNA task force on the national shortage of education personnel. “Many of these people are less than qualified.”

The shortage of educators with backgrounds in Jewish studies comes as there is a shortage of teachers in general in the United States. That has left Jewish day schools struggling to find not just Judaic studies teachers – a perennial problem – but secular studies teachers as well.

With public schools in many cities stepping up their recruitment efforts and legions of teachers expected to retire in the coming decade, the problem likely will worsen.

Rabbi Robert Abramson, director of education for the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism’s department of education – which has almost 70 Solomon Schechter day school affiliates – describes the teacher shortage as a “wave crashing down” that’s going to “hit everyone.”

Institutions located outside Jewish hubs have particular difficulty attracting talent.

“For us in Atlanta, the challenge is to not have the metro New Yorks and L.A.’s and Bostons be the black holes into which are sucked all the great talent,” Pearl said.

Day high schools, especially the new Conservative and community ones, have particular trouble finding qualified Judaic studies teachers.

Day elementary schools long have relied on secular Israeli expatriates to teach Hebrew and Judaic studies, said Bruce Powell, head of a new day high school planned for Los Angeles and a consultant to day schools around the country.

High school, however, is another story.

“In high school it gets more complex in terms of Jewish philosophy and theology,” Powell said, adding that teen-agers need teachers who are experts on the subject matter and who are religious role models.

“Now you can’t just have someone who had a little Bible in school in Israel,” he said.

Modern Orthodox high schools have a somewhat different challenge. They have existed for several generations, but most graduates pursue careers more lucrative than education.

Thus the schools often hire educators trained in fervently Orthodox institutions, which means the schools end up imparting a more haredi approach to Judaism than parents or lay leaders seek for their children.

The shortage is sparking numerous projects. Among them:

* The United Jewish Communities, the umbrella for Jewish federations, plans to hire a human resource director to launch a national project focusing on recruitment. JESNA, the group’s education arm, is facilitating a pilot project in which college students teach part time in local congregational schools while receiving training and mentoring for Jewish education careers.

* Several organizations, including the UJC and JESNA, are teaming up to launch a Web site,, to serve as a clearinghouse for jobs in the Jewish community.

* Edah, a modern Orthodox group, may create a program modeled after Teach for America that would recruit young, modern Orthodox college graduates to teach for a few years in Jewish day schools.

*Bar-Ilan University in Israel runs a summer program for new day school administrators, while Yeshiva University and the Jewish Theological Seminary – with funding from the Avi Chai Foundation – are operating summer programs to groom potential day school heads. In Chicago, Loyola University and Jewish day schools have teamed up to create a master of education administrative degree for Jewish day schools.

* Pardes, a Jerusalem yeshiva known for attracting liberal North American college graduates for intensive Jewish text study, began offering alumni this year a master’s program jointly with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Fourteen students – who receive tuition subsidies and $12,000-a- year stipends – have enrolled so far, committing to teach at least three years in North American day schools. The program includes a three-week student teaching and mentoring placement in North American day schools.

Even with fellowships, however, it is unclear how many people will take advantage of the new programs unless salaries and status improve.

Silber, whose New York program has trained 19 day school teachers since it began three years ago, said he has difficulty recruiting for the year-long program, which requires a two-year teaching commitment. That’s despite free tuition and $18,000 annual stipends.

People think of Jewish education as “a non-profession, and don’t see the opportunities that exist,” Silber said.

Cheryl Finkel, head of the Epstein School, a Conservative day school in Atlanta said, “The way I like to put it is, if you’re a young woman and dating a Jewish classroom teacher and your mother says that’s great, then the problem will be solved.”

Finkel, who is leaving her current post to work as a national consultant for day schools, said philanthropic dollars are needed so that day schools can increase salaries without having to raise tuition.

A recent survey by the New York-based Covenant Foundation found that beginning, full-time teachers at North American Jewish day schools can expect to earn, on average, $21,000 to $24,000, with “modest” health benefits. Teachers with master’s degrees average $24,000 to $31,000.

In contrast, U.S. public school starting salaries average $27,000, with more extensive health benefits. And even public school salaries are far below what college graduates can earn in other fields.

Barry Shrage, president of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston, said the laws of supply and demand will force up teacher salaries.

Already, according to Powell, low salaries are starting to become “old news.” Some veteran teachers earn up to $90,000, he said, while headmaster positions in new day schools are running from $150,000 to $220,000.

A growing number of day schools, Powell said, are recruiting rabbis for administrative and teaching posts, luring them from the pulpit with the perk of having Shabbat and Jewish holidays free to spend with their families.

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