Last year, Deena Messinger considered leaving her job as a kindergarten teacher at Sinai Akiva Academy in Westwood to teach at a secular private school or a public school. While Sinai pays well relative to other day schools, she said, a switch would mean higher salary and better benefits, such as a vision and dental plan. As Messinger and her husband look down the line to having children, paying for day-school education on their salaries -- Sinai Akiba's tuition is now "pushing $12,000," she said -- seemed daunting.
In the end, Messinger chose to stay at Sinai.
"It wasn't just about money. What kept me at my school was that I do really like teaching Jewish kids," she said. "Any choice you make in your life has trade-offs. There's no perfect place. But it's worth it. I love what I do and I think that's pretty rare."
Dedicating oneself to Jewish education, and then feeling underpaid and undervalued for doing so, is a chronic problem among Jewish educators -- especially those who teach the youngest children.
When Jewish early childhood educators were asked in a recent survey what had attracted them to the field, only 1 percent said it was the money. Asked what factors most contribute to keeping them in the field, just 3 percent mentioned their salaries.
And when the same group of teachers from Broward and Miami-Dade counties in Florida was asked what would most improve their jobs, 76 percent said increased salary would help, and another 34 percent mentioned better health insurance.
Those findings aren't surprising, given that the average salary of an early childhood Jewish educator in the United States hovers somewhere around $18,000 a year, and low salaries across the spectrum of jobs in Jewish education remain a problem, observers say.
"Early childhood Jewish education is where people are generally paid the worst and receive the worst of everything, and it can be a crucial component of the Jewish education system," said Steven Kraus, director of day school, congregational and communal education initiatives at the Jewish Education Service of North America. The Jewish community, he added, needs to understand the importance of early childhood education and support those "who are on the front lines."
A new pilot project now operating in Florida aims to do just that.
Project Kavod: Improving the Culture of Employment in Jewish Education, a program conducted by the Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education through a grant from the Covenant Foundation, is investigating ways to better recruit and retain qualified teachers.
Project Kavod, a three-year pilot program, is working with four Miami institutions: the David and Mary Alper Jewish Community Center; the Conservative Bet Shira Congregation; the Reform Temple Beth Sholom; and the Rabbi Alexander S. Gross Hebrew Academy, whose student body is largely Orthodox.
In addition, Project Kavod -- the Hebrew word for "respect" -- is working with the Miami-Dade Center for the Advancement of Jewish Education and the Greater Miami Jewish Federation.
The program has begun by gathering fiscal data on the four sites. The result is 45 items that potentially could improve the culture of employment in early childhood education.
One fundamental challenge is informing the public about the importance of early childhood education.
"There still needs to be an important education/advocacy piece," said Kraus of the Jewish Education Service. A few "generations ago some people would have seen early childhood education as glorified baby-sitting. We're way beyond that in many places."
Further, said Patricia Bidol-Padva, the Project Kavod coordinator in Florida, Jewish parents need to learn about "what the salaries are and to make a commitment to doing something about it."
Project Kavod is producing a manual of "change-management tools" for early childhood education institutions and a publication with answers to three perennial questions: Why is Jewish education important; how should Jewish educators be treated; and what's the obligation of Jewish educators to the communities they serve?
"There's a long way to go," Bido-Padva said. Still, teachers' salaries could be significantly improved if the JCC raised $100,000 more a year, said Rabbi Jeffrey Falick, director of Jewish life and culture at the Dave and Mary Alper JCC.
"That's not, on the scale of things, an unrealistic aspiration," he said. "The program is really helping us to build a case. "