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Trying to Find New Blood, Educators Realize the Profession is a Hard Sell

August 18, 2004
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It might seem like a tough sell to get someone to go into the field of Jewish education: The pay is poor, the benefits are often nonexistent and the only perk may be free stationery supplies. But that view misses the point: Jewish education can be one of the most rewarding, fulfilling and enjoyable professions around.

At least, that’s what some Jewish educators were trying to tell a bunch of college students this week at a conference of Jewish educators on Long Island.

“We help them look at Jewish education as a career, not necessarily a job,” said Yuri Hronsky, a day-school teacher from Los Angeles and chair of the CAJE Schusterman College Program, which pays for college-age Jews interested in Jewish education to attend the annual conference of the Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education.

“This is a great first step. There’s always more we can do,” Hronsky said.

Twenty-six Jewish college students on the Sc! husterman scholarship were among the 1,500 or so people at this week’s Conference on Alternatives in Jewish Education, held at Hofstra University.

The college program, which covers the students’ conference fees of about $1,000 per person, is one sign of the growing recruiting challenge Jewish educators face.

Rising costs, noncompetitive teachers’ salaries and dwindling Jewish knowledge at home have made the job of teaching young Jews about being Jewish more difficult. The same factors also make finding people to do that job harder than ever.

“The personnel crisis in Jewish education is quite serious,” said Eliot Spack, CAJE’s executive director. “Finding people is tough. What’s the incentive? Certainly not the dollars.”

That’s why recruitment programs like this one are so important, educators said.

“How do we reinfuse new, young people into Jewish education?” asked Wendy Sadler, director of special projects for the Alliance for Jewish Education in Detroit. “! It’s a question to us of survival on many fronts.”

Organizers said they hoped that bringing the young Jews to the conference would excite them about going into Jewish education.

“If we want more people in our profession, we are our best recruiters,” Hronsky said. “If you don’t engage them, they’ll look elsewhere.”

The college students seemed excited to be at the conference — which held sessions on everything from Jewish meditation to teaching strategies — but aware of the difficulties of a career in Jewish education.

“I have a passion for education, but I am very realistic when it comes to finances,” said Amir Kalay, a student from the University of Utah. The Hebrew school at which Kalay teaches part time paid for him to attend the conference.

“I think education will always be a hobby of mine, but I want to be able to support a family,” he said.

The median annual income of day school educators is $41,250, according to CAJE. For early childhood educators it’s $15,000, and for congregational-school educators, who generally w! ork only a few hours per week, it’s $2,500.

Participants on the Schusterman program were a highly self-selective group. By taking a week out of their summer vacation to attend the conference — and coming up with the funds to travel there — they showed they take Jewish education seriously, organizers said.

“My boss told me about this,” said Eric Bemau, a University of Massachusetts student and part-time teacher at a Hebrew school. “It seemed right up my alley.”

He said being around others with similar interests reinforced his belief that Jewish education is something he likes to do.

“This has been a significant leg up for me, just meeting other college students who do what I do,” he said. “I came to be enlightened.”

Despite their interests, however, many of the college students who came to the conference weren’t planning to become Jewish educators.

“They’re pushing us toward Jewish education,” said Alexander Baum, a student from Syracuse, N.Y., and the so! n of a Jewish educator. “I’ve been hearing about it my entire life.”

Baum, however, said he was more interested in making music — klezmer music — his career.

Irina Khait, from San Jose, Calif., teaches at a synagogue religious school in San Francisco. She said she came to the conference to learn about how to be a better teacher and, for the future, a better Jewish mother and synagogue lay person — not to hone career skills.

“I’m not planning to be in Jewish education professionally,” Khait said. “I want to be a doctor.”

The preliminary results of a survey being conducted by Eliot Schaap, CAJE’s assistant executive director, show that most alumni of the college program choose careers in Jewish education. But since the group is so self-selective, it doesn’t reveal much about the appeal of Jewish education to the broader Jewish public.

As Jewish educators bear an ever-greater share of teaching young Jews about being Jewish — students are getting less and less of that from their parents — the survival of the Jewish people is at! stake, educators say.

“What does that say about us if we’re not committed to providing people with a gainful living?” Spack said. “The Jewish community has to wake up. Jewish kids are not being encouraged to do this as a career. There’s a tremendous attrition rate in Jewish education. They work for a couple of years and then they get burned out, overloaded.”

That’s one thing that worries Josh Fixler, a college student from Denver who wants to become a rabbi.

“I want to be a normal father, a normal husband,” he said. “I have to balance what I want to do for the Jewish community versus what I want to do for my family.”

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