It is Tuesday night at the University of Judaism (UJ) and lecturer Rami Wernik is going around the room asking his students what they think is the biggest concern of the Jewish community today. The answers vary -- some think it is the cost of Jewish education; others, the threat of assimilation.
Dan, a teacher at Milken, feels that non-Orthodox Jewish education is lacking.
"We need to raise and maintain standards in non-Orthodox Jewish educational settings," he says. "Students aren't expected to know as much in Judaica as they are in physics or calculus."
It is an extension of Dan's concern why these 17 students are at the UJ. Everyone in the class is a teacher at a Jewish school, and they are working toward their master's degrees in Jewish education -- so that they can be more Jewishly educated and, consequently, raise the standard of Jewish education in Los Angeles. The program is for working professionals. Classes are at night, and some of the students have received generous fellowships toward the cost of tuition.
"For years we have known that there are many teachers and Jewish educators in the field who have not achieved a master's degree in Jewish education," said Ron Wolfson, dean of the UJ's Center for Jewish Education. "The primary reason is that they start to work, and for the past 20 years it has been impossible to get a master's [at the UJ] unless they stopped work."
The program is one that aims to rectify a few of the many problems facing the Jewish school system. The first is that despite astronomical tuition fees, teachers don't get paid enough. In the Bureau of Jewish Education, a system that most L.A. Jewish schools are affiliated with, teachers' salaries are commensurate with their educational level. As most teachers have only bachelor's degrees, there is little opportunity for them to move into a higher pay bracket. Teachers who graduate from this -- or any -- master's programs, and continue to teach in Jewish day schools, can receive up to a $5,000 pay rise.
This, organizers hope, will also entice teachers to stay in Jewish schools, so that schools won't have to worry about their good teachers being lured by the salaries and benefits provided the Los Angeles Unified School District.
Finally, it is expected that the course will augment the teaching skills and Jewish knowledge of its participants. As a student pointed out, standards are lower than they ought to be in the Jewish part of the curriculum, largely because of a lack of education. Some of the teachers might have the knowledge but not the skills in classroom management, others vice-versa.
"One of the issues that we found is that it is extremely difficult to attract new teachers to the system," said Peter Lowy, a UJ board member who helped develop this program and donated funds necessary for the scholarships. "You tend to find, especially in the Judaic studies departments, teachers who have Judaic knowledge and can benefit from additional teacher training."
Lowy, who is the CEO of Westfield America Inc., one of America's largest shopping center developers, told The Journal that he is concentrating his philanthropic efforts in Jewish education, and he sees the UJ program as "venture capital philanthropy." He and his wife, Janine, have committed to fund the program for seven years; after that, they hope that the community will appreciate the program's benefits to the school system, and schools, parents and other philanthropists will provide the necessary funds to continue it.
"I would encourage any of the families, at any of the day schools, to create a scholarship to send their teachers from their school [to this program]," Lowy said.
Organizers are already hailing the program a success. They expected only six students, but were thrilled when they had 18 qualified applicants who wanted to take the programs.
The teachers learning in the program come mainly from Conservative and Reform schools. Despite the presence of one teacher from Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy, the Orthodox schools have not, as of yet, sent their teachers up the UJ hill to participate in the program, perhaps due to philosophical differences between the nondenominational UJ and the Orthodox movement.
"The approach to issues of both Torah and chinuch [Jewish education] varies wildly between Orthodoxy and the heterodox movements," said a Jewish studies teacher who teaches at several Orthodox day schools who did not want to be named. "Those who would be willing to sacrifice Jewish observance to the passing zeitgeist of the time are not people that Orthodox Jews are looking to for inspiration and instruction."
Nevertheless, Lowy and Wolfson see the program as a communal one, and they hope that Orthodox and non-Orthodox teachers will participate in it.
Wolfson said: "If you want to make a difference in building the Jewish community, teaching is a great career."