Looking for a job where you can impart knowledge, be a positive role model and get all the Jewish holidays off? One field offering those opportunities desperately needs qualified people: Jewish education. Nationwide, day schools, supplementary schools and after-school Hebrew programs are suffering from a lack of qualified educators.
While education agencies and schools are recruiting through local Hillels, ads in Jewish newspapers and college publications, filling those positions is only becoming more difficult."We're experiencing some real staffing problems," says Yonaton Shultz, director of school personnel services for the Bureau of Jewish Education in Los Angeles. The bureau services more than 165 different programs and schools, incorporating 2,500 educators from nursery through 12th grade, according to Shultz.
Similarly, the greater Boston area needs teachers in a variety of settings, including new positions that combine duties, explains Nathan Kruman, professional development consultant for the Bureau of Jewish Education in Boston.
"Boston has many very exciting positions and many new hybrid positions that combine teaching in the classic sense with other activities, sometimes administrative, sometimes youth, sometimes family," says Kruman. "There's generally something available because we've built up institutions and added more full-time and part-time jobs over the last 25 years."
The needs are just as great in Chicago, where there are three organizations that staff Jewish programs: the Bureau of Jewish Education, the Community Foundation for Jewish Education and the Associated Talmud Torah.
Yaffa Berman, director of recruitment and placement for the Community Foundation for Jewish Education, says there are 150 to 225 positions open in the Chicago metropolitan area every year for teachers in early childhood, supplementary, high school and adult education. "Despite major recruitment efforts at major university placement offices, Hillels, the Israeli Consulate, newspaper ads, congregational and day school bulletins and more, the problem still exists," she says.
Because these positions need to be filled, schools are forced to hire people who don't meet the standard of excellence preferred. "About 70 percent of the respondents to our call for teachers meet our expectations, leaving us with no option but to lower standards for the remaining 30 percent," says Berman, "thus compromising the quality of the education that our students are receiving."
On the other hand, Rabbi Harvey Well, superintendent of the Associated Talmud Torah in Chicago, who fills slots in more than 25 programs throughout the Midwest, doesn't have the trouble finding people that he once did.
"There used to be a time when we really needed to search high and low for teachers, but now with so many post-rabbinic institutes, it has become much easier and teachers are much more available," says Well. "There are probably 10 to 20 teachers yearly where... people leave the city, people retire, people decide they want to go into different areas. But it really isn't the crisis that it once was; it's much more easily managed."
Challenges of the times
The challenges are greater for supplementary religious and after-school programs. According to Shultz, when both parents work, a mother isn't able to do all the necessary carpooling to take her children to the program. Schools that once went Sundays through Thursdays now have to cut their programs back to three and sometimes even two days per week. So even with more teachers than before, scheduling difficulties compound the situation.
"That's a very hard thing to deal with," says Shultz. "If one teacher is going to teach at one school Sunday and Tuesday and another school was offering her a job on Sunday and Wednesday and another school was offering her a job on Sunday and Thursday, she can't take any of those other jobs because they're all attached to a Sunday, and she's already committed for a Sunday. So the teachers are teaching less hours. It's not that they're less available, it's just that the schedules are worse. And this is a challenge that our schools are going to have to deal with."
Qualified teachers, it seems, almost need to be masters of illusion to appear at multiple institutions to give students the education they need to receive. This can be resolved in one of two ways: "One teacher can teach in two schools as long as the schools agree to change their scheduling," says Shultz.
Another challenge is finding qualified candidates.
"The State of Illinois tells us when it comes to private education, parochial education, that a teacher has to show competence in the area that they're teaching," says Well. "[That's] our main criteria, that the individuals hired should show competence in the areas that they're teaching. Usually [while] the general studies teachers have [Illinois teaching certificates], the Judaic teachers do not. We offer a full range of educational courses to train teachers and at the end of three years we ourselves give the teachers certificates to show that they have completed the course."
Many programs offer some kind of training. People who have a pedagogic background or a degree in education can be trained in Judaic content, according to Berman. "And those who have the Judaism knowledge without the pedagogic skills can be trained to use those. We are very flexible," she added.
The Bureau of Jewish Education in Los Angeles has started one attempt at a solution: training synagogue congregants to be religious school teachers.
"We believe that there is a whole slew of people out there who belong to the congregation and rather than serving on the ritual committee and rather than being in the sisterhood, they probably would enjoy teaching in the religious school," Shultz says.
The program, a year and a half long, includes courses on Sundays, being a teaching assistant, and being a student teacher. Participants will be mentored by other teachers on the staff and by the principals.
"We have a triple-pronged program, actually: training of the teachers, the training of the mentors and the training of the principals to supervise the whole thing. We're excited about both of the programs" Shultz adds.
Boston has a new program that provides both professional development and financial support. Open to 100 educators, the program provides an advisor who works with the educator to identify the educator's needs, and the educator can fill those needs at schools such as Hebrew College or Brandeis University, or through other local Jewish continuing education programs. The community helps pay for those courses.
"They'll be able to take courses to the equivalent of up to about to a half of a master's degree in Jewish education. Then the community will continue to support them, not 100 percent, but certainly a very significant amount. I don't think it's happening anywhere else," Kruman says of the program supported in part by grants from the Cummings Foundation and from the Covenant Foundation.
"In other words, we find jobs for people and we then match them... with a personal advisor who creates with them an individual professional development plan. And that plan will identify their strengths and where they have room to grow."
Boston also has a New Educators Institute that provides an overview of some of the areas that a new teacher needs to master over the course of approximately six months. Graduates finish those skills while working as teachers and then are eligible to begin the program to work towards their master's degrees.
Passionless need not apply
The professionals responsible for recruiting teachers emphasize that interested candidates shouldn't worry about qualifications, since training is often provided.
"[We're looking for] somebody who wants the job and is serious about it and is ready to really jump on and ... take on an active role in shaping the lives of the children who are a part of our community," says Kruman. "[Jewish education] is about improving the quality of our life and passing it on."
Ideal candidates, according to Kruman, should be committed to education, have some experience, know the field, and most of all, enjoy kids.
Well adds, "If you don't like getting kids excited to learn, then no matter what training you've received, in the end it will basically be very sterile or ineffectual. If I'm looking for a teacher, I look for a spark that they have, a link that they want to establish with the kids that they're going to teach, because it's been proven that's been the best kind of teacher."
Developing teachers has to be a communal responsibility, says Berman. "High quality Jewish education is dependent upon the community taking this challenge seriously and doing something about it." she says. "We must ...hire and retain dynamic teachers who have a passion for educating the future generation of Jewish leaders."
Shultz adds, "We're all Jews by choice - those of us who were born into Jewish families and those of us who came in to it. Our children are going to be choosing if they want to stay Jewish or not. We've got to have the best people available to convince them that this is something worthy of their time, effort, energy and identification.
"If we don't bring the best people in, if we don't have well-trained, knowledgeable Jewish educators, we can close up shop now, because all we'll end up having is a sham, and kids see through that right away. That's the challenge that faces our community."
This article appears courtesy of Zipple.com