This time of year, I get calls like this almost every day from congregations and day schools across North America looking for highly qualified Jewish educators to direct their education programs. Later in the spring, the calls will start coming from day schools and high schools looking for teachers.
To everyone who calls I have to say the same thing: "I know of a couple of people who are looking to change jobs, but it will be hard to get any of them. Well-qualified Jewish educators will get a lot of offers from which to choose. Most congregations and schools will go scrambling, often leaving searches open for two years or more before they find a candidate who excites them. In the meantime, they settle.
Facing this shortage of qualified Jewish educators at every job level and in every educational setting, I find myself wondering why more young Jewish adults, especially among this current idealistic generation, aren't choosing careers in Jewish education. Why aren't more of them clamoring to be Jewish educators?
It's not that the work Jewish educators do isn't meaningful. A veteran educator who came to speak in one of my classes told the students that she is one of the few people she knows who wakes up every day, looks at herself in the mirror and thanks God that she gets to do what she does every day. She feels that she touches the lives of children and adults in ways that few people do.
And it's not about the salaries. It is not unusual for congregations to list jobs for education directors (now often called "Directors of Lifelong Jewish Learning") for six-figure salaries plus a full package of benefits. Heads of day schools can earn considerably more, and while day school teachers earn less, their salaries are quite respectable (and they are rarely out evenings!).
Nor is it that the work is not creative and exciting. Congregations are re-imagining their schools and coming up with new formats for Jewish education every year. They are experimenting with family schools, camp-like religious school models and new modes of adult learning. Day schools are always seeking ways to remain on the cutting edge of education, always searching for more effective approaches to teaching and learning. Camps and youth groups are constantly creating new ideas for engaging their clients. And throughout the Jewish community, educators are inventing new ways to reach out to populations rarely served.
Yet, how much encouragement to pursue a career in Jewish education do young adults receive from their parents, the Jewish professionals they meet or the community at large? How many young adults will not even hear about the possibility of becoming a Jewish educator as they are grappling during those after-college years with decisions about what direction to take in their lives? And how often will talented adolescents and young adults interested in serving the Jewish people hear about other avenues of service, but not about being teachers or leaders in schools, camps, youth programs and other places where Jews learn?
We who care about the future of the Jewish people can do better.
We who are parents of young adults can remind them of the impact that teachers and educators had on them. We can tell them that they can touch others the way they were touched ... and that they can make a good living doing so. We can tell them about teaching fellowship programs like DeLeT and graduate programs with generous financial aid packages. (One school in the East used to offer all Jewish education students free tuition. At my school, most students are eligible for scholarships that bring their total tuition costs for a master's degree down to only a few thousand dollars.)
We who are clergy, educators and communal professionals can invite promising young adults to talk with us about their futures. We can show them the rewarding path that lies ahead for them if they choose to become Jewish educators. We can point with pride to colleagues in our own institutions who were trained at one of the schools or programs that prepare Jewish educators, and how they've made a difference.
And we who are in positions of communal leadership can make sure that our institutions honor all our teachers and educators, and not just those few singled out for awards by national and local philanthropies. In congregations, we can honor educational leaders as klei kodesh, holy vessels who, like rabbis and cantors, bring the delights of the divine and the joys of Judaism to life on earth. In schools, we can honor teachers all year long and not just on "Yom Ha-Moreh" with tangible rewards for excellence and intangible signs of our appreciation.
Maybe in a few years we will be able to look back and say that we changed the landscape of Jewish life by making sure that each Jewish child and each adult Jewish learner encountered passionate, well-prepared Jewish educators, and each institution was led by visionary leaders who brought with them the wealth of talents and the gifts they acquired as they prepared for their careers. But to be able to look back this way, we have to work today to bring larger numbers of young people into the profession of Jewish education and encourage them to seek out the very best professional preparation possible.
Michael Zeldin is Director of the Rhea Hirsch School of Education at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Los Angeles. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.