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Jewish Journal

Teacher Shortage

Religious school administrators scramble to fill vacancies.

by Andrea Adelson

June 6, 2002 | 8:00 pm

There is no summertime lull at schools for Jewish education.

Even as day campers toting towel-stuffed beach bags invade day schools and synagogue religious classrooms, administrators are spending their summer scrambling to fill staff vacancies for September, at a time when qualified Judaic and Hebrew instructors are difficult to find.

The shortage stems from an increasing demand statewide for public school teachers, a shift in Israel's economy and what some suggest is a failure of planning by Reform and Conservative movements.

In addition, Orange County presents its own set of difficulties for recruiting, given the region's description by one educator as "Jewishly disadvantaged."

"People involved in Jewish teaching want an active Jewish community," says Eve Fein, director of Rancho Santa Margarita's Morasha Jewish Day School, who recently filled two staff positions by tapping existing residents.

"We have pockets of it here, but to create Jewish life here takes more work," she said. "You can have a terrific impact, but to take a leap to Orange County is a challenge in itself."

Fortuitously for administrators, the proliferation of Jewish day schools during the '70s and '80s coincided with economic doldrums in Israel. Religious school administrators, too, were happy to staff classrooms with Israeli-born teachers seeking better job opportunities in the U.S.

Not so the last decade.

"During the high-tech boom, we hardly saw an Israeli teacher at all," says Yonaton Shultz, personnel services director for the Los Angeles Bureau of Jewish Education. Today, he says, the initial waves of Israeli immigrants are nearing retirement, and recent Jewish education graduates prefer jobs as administrators, for which benefits are better than in teaching. "Where is the next batch?" he asks.

Unlike secular recruiters, who resort to signing bonuses and housing subsidies to lure candidates, such enticements are rarely offered for Jewish jobs.

Even so, religious school directors are devising clever inducements for teachers, who typically work part-time. These include reduced religious school tuition for their children and free temple membership.

Some solve their recruiting difficulties under their own roof. "You have to keep your antenna up," says Joanne Mercer, religious education director at Newport Beach's Temple Bat Yahm, which this fall will hold 10 sessions each of Hebrew and Judaic study for 350 students. Mercer is a former public school teacher and long-time Sunday school teacher, who was named acting director to fill a vacancy and assumed the post in 1991.

Transforming congregants who hunger for personal Jewish growth into qualified teachers is a pet recruitment project of Joan S. Kaye, director of the Orange County Bureau of Jewish Education. In 1994, she received a five-year, $200,000 grant to devise a program to train and mentor congregants on teaching in a Jewish school.

This summer, Kaye herself is seeking an assistant director to succeed Jay Lewis, who after seven years in the county was named Hillel executive director at the University of Kansas. Kaye has posted a job description at jewishjobfinder.com, a Web site started last October.

Passion alone, though, is no substitute for the perquisites accorded professionals. "Being a Jewish educator wasn't viewed as a real job," says Shultz, who reports that 50 percent of day school teachers lacked benefits in 1987.

No longer is that the case as competitive pressure forced day schools to shift hiring to full-time staff, instead of part-timers, he says. To stay competitive, some day schools are offering pension benefits. "That's going to make it a long-term field," he predicts.

This month, a new effort to fill the day school administrative pipeline starts by subsidizing 10 graduate students enrolled in a leadership training program at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., and at the Hebrew Union College-Institute of Religion in Los Angeles.

Eight other campuses, which have yet to be identified, are also expected to offer the program, says Paul Flexner, human resources vice president for the Jewish Education Service of North America, the Jewish Federation's educational arm. Students will receive a $25,000 stipend, health insurance and 12 graduate credits, about a third necessary to complete a master's degree.

"Come Sept. 3, almost every classroom will have a teacher," Flexner says. In a cautionary note to parents, though, he adds, "That doesn't mean they have any training or experience."

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