"What am I doing to help build community?" he wondered.
As the eldest of four siblings and a former camp counselor, Wirtschafter had always enjoyed mentoring children. So he decided to return to the United States and pursue a career in teaching. But he wanted a program that looked beyond the how-tos of teaching and "engaged with the big 'why' questions."
Wirtschafter found what he was seeking in DeLeT, the Day School Leadership Through Teaching program. DeLeT, which means "door" in Hebrew, is a 13-month fellowship designed to recruit and train high-caliber Jewish day school teachers. The program is offered in Los Angeles and San Francisco through the Rhea Hirsch School of Education at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) and at Brandeis University in Massachusetts.
"DeLeT prepares you to teach with your mind and with your heart," said Wirtschafter, who is now beginning his fourth year as a history and Judaic studies teacher at Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School in Northridge.
DeLeT was launched five years ago not only to foster strong, committed day school teachers but to meet the profession's growing need. On the one hand, day school enrollment is increasing. An Avi Chai Foundation census projected 25 percent growth in Jewish day school enrollment from 1998 to 2008. On the other hand, fewer teachers are available.
National data indicate that as many as 50 percent of all new teachers -- not just those in day schools -- leave the profession by their fifth year.
"This is the first time the Jewish community has taken responsibility for teaching teachers," said Dr. Michael Zeldin, director of HUC-JIR's School of Education and of the West Coast DeLeT program. He noted that DeLeT focuses not just on recruiting teachers, but on preparing them to teach, helping them find positions and creating career opportunities to keep them involved in day school education.
California DeLeT participants spend two consecutive summers studying education and Judaica at HUC-JIR. During the academic year they continue their studies while interning in a day school classroom under the guidance of two mentor teachers. Participants receive a $25,000 stipend, paid by HUC-JIR and the school at which they intern, and the school also provides health care coverage.
Program graduates are awarded a certificate in day school teaching from HUC-JIR and receive credits toward their teaching credential, although they must complete additional courses elsewhere to earn a state credential.
"The goal is not only for fellows to learn the intricacies of teaching but equally importantly, how to think about teaching so they can continue developing their practice throughout their careers," Zeldin said.
Rabbi Mitchel Malkus, head of school for the Rabbi Jacob Pressman Academy of Temple Beth Am, said that DeLeT provides participants with valuable field experience.
"HUC-JIR has built the on-site teaching component into the academic work," he said. "Even in the best graduate programs, the number of hours a graduate student spends teaching is not close to the number of hours they receive in" DeLeT.
Participants learn to "make connections between [students'] Jewish lives and their general studies lives," said Leah Ticker, a DeLeT graduate in her second year of teaching at Wilshire Boulevard Temple's Brawerman Elementary School.
She said DeLeT challenged her to integrate Jewish and secular curricula in meaningful and creative ways beyond "counting the number of candles you'd use by the end of Chanukah."
For example, while she was interning in a second-grade classroom, the curriculum called for a unit about Japan. Ticker took the concept of hachnasat orchim, welcoming guests, and used it to compare the Passover seder to the Japanese tea ceremony.
The program itself has integrated Jewish ideas into courses required for state teaching credentials. A class on health incorporates Jewish texts and ethics and is taught by a rabbi-therapist, while one on multicultural education looks at diverse groups both outside and within the Los Angeles Jewish community.
To date, 78 participants have been trained, and almost all have taken day school teaching positions. DeLeT graduates can be found not only in California and Massachusetts, but in New York, Illinois and five other states. Most are recent college graduates, but some, like Wirtschafter, are embarking on second careers. While the majority of participants are Reform and Conservative, about 15 percent are Orthodox, and Orthodox institutions have also hired program graduates.
Six Los Angeles area day schools have served as training venues for DeLeT interns: Adat Ari El's Trana & Ronald Trana Labowe Family Day School, Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School, Heschel West Day School, Pressman Academy, Brawerman Elementary School and Temple Israel of Hollywood Day School. Each of them, as well as Harkam Hillel Hebrew Academy, Milken Community High School and Sinai Akiba Academy, have hired DeLeT graduates as teachers.
"I applaud HUC-JIR for being involved and for acknowledging the need we all have to find high-caliber future educators," said Eileen Horowitz, Temple Israel's head of school.
DeLeT program director Zeldin said the program's impact reaches beyond the program fellows. Mentor teachers, who meet weekly as a group, also enhance their skills by "having new conversations about teaching and learning." They, in turn, share their knowledge and enthusiasm with colleagues.
Until this year, DeLeT was supported by a group of private funders recruited by Bay Area philanthropist Laura Lauder, who founded the program. As of this July, it was transferred to HUC-JIR and Brandeis, which will need to obtain funding to train more future educators. Program costs for HUC-JIR amount to about $500,000 per year, some of which has already been raised.
As for the participants who have already been trained, "whether they'll be teaching first-graders reading or fourth-graders social studies or sixth-graders science, they're all committed to being Jewish educators," Zeldin said. "And that, we think, will transform the face of Jewish education over time."