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Facing Teacher Crisis, Jewish Groups Hope to Draw Young Jews to Teaching

August 15, 2001
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Two projects are under way to create Jewish versions of Teach for America, a 10- year-old program that recruits college graduates to teach in public schools.

The efforts come as more and more Jewish leaders are describing the shortage of Jewish teachers and other Jewish communal professionals as a crisis.

The larger project, spearheaded by the Los Angeles-based University of Judaism, aims to recruit recent college graduates and enthusiastic alumni of Israel programs like Birthright Israel — which sends young Jews on free trips to Israel — to work in various spheres of Jewish education.

The other, run by the five-year-old New York-based Edah, will recruit college graduates with modern Orthodox upbringings to teach for two years in modern Orthodox day schools.

Both projects have launch dates of summer 2002.

And both will sponsor summer-long “boot camp”-style training for the new recruits. But while the University of Judaism hopes to recruit people for long-term careers in Jewish education, Edah expects people simply to invest a few years of service before going on to other careers.

In a similar but smaller program, Brandeis University’s Hornstein Program in Jewish Communal Service and Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s education school are training and mentoring 20 people to teach for three years in Boston and L.A.-area day schools.

The Brandeis-HUC effort also will work closely with the day schools to ensure they are committed to mentoring and ongoing professional development.

The new projects are all in early stages, with many details — such as financial incentives, recruitment tactics, size and the exact content of the training programs — yet to be determined. All plan to start with relatively small pilot groups, and it is not yet clear how much they will cost.

The University of Judaism effort will target “college students who graduate and are not sure yet what they want to do, and even if they are sure, who want to take a break from school and do something out in the field,” said Ron Wolfson, vice president of the university.

Teach for America, modeled on the Peace Corps, has not been a blanket success. Some have charged that, particularly in its early years, it did not provide adequate training or ongoing support for its recruits, who go on to teach in some of the nation’s most troubled public schools.

Nonetheless, Teach for America has had more than 6,000 participants since its founding in 1990. Some 85 percent to 90 percent of recent recruits have completed their two-year commitments, the organization reports, and 58 percent of all participants remain in the field of education.

However, some worry that Teach for America’s success might be harder to replicate in Jewish schools because so few potential teachers have strong foundations in Judaica.

In particular, alumni of Birthright Israel — whom the University of Judaism intends to recruit because they come back enthusiastic about Israel and Judaism — generally have limited Jewish educations.

Susan Shevitz, director of the Hornstein Program, said she supports the various projects, but wonders “how do you work with people who have had minimal Jewish encounters and not that much depth in Jewish knowledge, to get them to teach on a sophisticated level?”

Another challenge, Shevitz said, is that most Jewish schools lack a “culture of professional development” and do not provide adequate mentoring or training for new teachers.

Yossi Prager, executive director of the New York-based Avi Chai Foundation, a major funder of projects that strengthen Jewish day schools, echoed some of Shevitz’s concerns.

“Birthright people are at the very start of their own journeys to Jewish literacy, so what can you possibly give them in a short training period that will qualify them to teach in a day school?” Prager added.

Wolfson acknowledged the challenges of his program. He said that recruits with weaker Jewish backgrounds would not teach in day schools — at least not at first — but would likely teach in informal education or congregational schools, where material is covered in less detail.

Wolfson also acknowledged that the program “has to be linked to very good training” and that the new teachers will need to get an “excellent background in Judaica and an excellent background in pedagogic techniques and strategies.”

Eliot Spack, executive director of the Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education, welcomed the idea, saying that while there is no “panacea,” his group is “all for any idea that recruits people to this field.”

Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism — which is, among other things, the umbrella for approximately 70 Conservative day schools — said the University of Judaism project “sounds like a great idea.”

He is concerned about issues like quality control and the program’s ability to “get the right kinds of people,” Epstein admitted, but said such concerns are “outweighed by the potential of such a program.”

“You’ve got to risk in order to succeed,” he said.

Reaction among students — the programs’ target audience — was mixed.

Steve Glickman, 21, of Los Angeles, said the University of Judaism program might appeal to Jews already considering careers in Jewish education, but that most young Jews “not only want to serve the Jewish community, but want to serve the larger community as a whole.”

Glickman, who is a student at Georgetown University and spent a semester at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem last year, said part of the appeal of Teach for America — that the Jewish programs would not have — is that “you are able to work with kids in economically disadvantaged communities, which serves as an added learning experience.”

However, Jennifer Schoen, a recent graduate of Binghamton University in New York, said she had been considering teaching in general and that a Jewish Teach for America sounds very appealing.

“Although I admittedly have never thought about Jewish education, I believe I would enjoy Judaism as a curriculum,” said Schoen, who was active in the Conservative movement’s United Synagogue Youth as a teen-ager.

Young people’s reactions to the Edah effort were similarly mixed.

Shira Alpert, 22, a graduate student in education at the University of Pennsylvania, said while she likes the idea but the program will “have a tough time finding students who are willing to give up two years.”

Most modern Orthodox students she knows from her undergraduate years at Penn are more “career-minded” than other students, Alpert said.

Modern Orthodox young people “start families earlier, marry earlier and most of my friends are going straight to graduate school or into investment banking jobs,” she said.

But Amara Levine, a senior at Penn, was enthusiastic about the idea, noting that Orthodox day schools in small communities like her hometown of Memphis, have particular difficulty finding qualified teachers.

Plus, with the bad economy, she said, “Now would be a good time to start it up because students are not sure about finding jobs right away.”

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