Joseph Kanfer deftly wrapped wires and affixed pieces of material to a truncated test tube. Then he glued the Hebrew letter "shin" to the creation, producing a mezuzah.
While the scene resembled a preschool project, it signified much more. Kanfer, former chairman of the Jewish Education Service of North America (JESNA) and a major donor to Jewish educational projects, was taking part in Avoda Arts, a cutting-edge initiative to elevate arts instruction in Jewish schools.
So far, the program has produced five Jewish educators and helped dozens of college students create Jewish-themed artworks in disciplines ranging from film to sculpture.
"We are absolutely a recruitment process," said Carol Brennglass Spinner, Avoda Arts' executive director.
Such efforts are part of a wider, unprecedented campaign to attract and hold onto Jewish teachers at a time when Jewish education in North America has grown into an estimated $3 billion enterprise -- little of which goes to educator salaries.
Kanfer, whose GOJO, Inc. of Akron, Ohio, manufactures Purell hand cleaner, was participating in an unprecedented summit here this week that brought many of the Jewish philanthropic world's biggest funders into a room with 350 educators, administrators and communal professionals to devise plans to bring new respect and rewards to the Jewish teaching profession.
Such talk of change is hardly new. The terms "recruitment and retention" have been around since the 1980s, and talk of low teacher pay is hardly news.
However, participants insist that the first Jewish Education Leadership Summit will prove a radical departure from the norm. Sponsored by JESNA, the summit included intensive sessions where megadonors like Charles Bronfman and Michael Steinhardt sat alongside teachers and school administrators and hashed out detailed proposals to recruit and retain a new generation of Jewish teachers.
"What's different about this conference is that there are no talking heads," said Laura Lauder of Atherton, Calif., who co-chaired the summit. "Whether you represent a $100 million foundation or you're a teacher on the ground, everyone has a seat at the table."
Many of the donors involved have contributed millions of dollars to Jewish schools and organizations. But, in another big shift, they now are calling for educators to come up with serious business plans that, as Lauder put it, spell out the tachlis or details of overhauling Jewish education.
"We want plans with measurable outlines that we can be accountable for," said Lauder, who married into the philanthropic Lauder family and is a major donor in her own right.
"It's not doing business as usual," said Arnee Winshall of Boston, another summit co-chair, who has contributed significantly to Jewish educational causes. "I'm much more willing to write a larger check when I can see how it's going to make a difference."
Summit organizers said the work they did here will meet Winshall's standards. Over the course of the conference, participants hashed out ideas in intensive sessions covering areas from early childhood education to congregational education to day schools.
Hundreds of pages of notes from the meetings will be incorporated in coming months into a larger effort called the Jewish Educator Recruitment/Retention Initiative Action Plan. The idea is to mount a national drive to find and keep top Jewish teachers.
Already, Winshall said, there are pockets of innovation that lead to hope that teachers are getting their due.
Jaynie Schultz, board president of Akiba Academy, a modern Orthodox day school in Dallas, said that four years ago, the school began paying salaries that were 95 percent of teacher salaries at the highest-paid non-Jewish suburban schools. In the four years since, the school has had little trouble hiring top teachers, and few faculty members have left, she said.
Meanwhile, Marc Kramer, executive director of Ravsak, a network of 82 multidenominational day schools across North America, announced a substantial grant from the Avi Chai Foundation to give heads of Jewish day schools' Judaic studies programs a better Jewish education, themselves.
Many school chiefs are skilled at administration or fundraising but personally lack a solid Jewish grounding, he said. The administrators can attend summer and winter courses and use a new online distance-learning service called, JskyWay, to enhance their own Jewish education.
"We won't be creating great Talmudic minds, but we can strengthen their capacity to advocate for their schools," Kramer said.
Over the past five years, Helene Tigay, executive director of the Auerbach Central Agency for Jewish Education in Philadelphia, has led a successful drive to recruit teachers for supplemental, or Hebrew, school.
Five years ago, local synagogue schools typically started the school year with about one-quarter of teaching positions unfilled due to lack of qualified candidates, Tigay said.
Armed with an initial $25,000 grant from her local Jewish federation -- and now with a three-year, $100,000 grant from the Covenant Foundation -- Tigay launched a catchy ad campaign and compiled a database of more than 100 teachers. She managed to fill the open slots.
She also compiled a manual for recruiting and retaining teachers and helped schools build a vision for their programs. Now Tigay is ensuring that the new teachers are given counseling, professional workshops, stipends for professional trips and other "in-service" support, she said.
"We've been so successful at recruitment, that our focus is now retention," Tigay said.
Others are finding that they need to focus on the less-tangible qualities of Jewish education to win over potential hires. Helene Kalson Cohen, dean of the Jewish Academy of Metro Detroit, a multidenominational school, said she tells candidates that what they get as Jewish educators they won't find in secular or other private schools. The school offers a "supportive community" with mentoring programs, professional development efforts and involved and motivated students and parents.
Despite these advancements, many at the conference said it remains to be seen whether a national, unified approach like the Jewish Educator Recruitment/Retention Initiative will make a real difference.
Kalson Cohen, who also is a JESNA board member, said the plan's impact will depend on how it is delivered. Educators like her are busy professionals who may ignore a massive, national plan that fails to include components that target specific local areas, Kalson Cohen warned.
"I almost want to say that I never want to see the whole thing together, otherwise it will be a trophy that will end up on shelves and then it will lose its power," Kalson Cohen added.
Still, much talk at the conference reflected what some hope will be a tipping point in Jewish education, where educators devise a real action plan that rallies philanthropists.
"The belief and the hope is that this might be one of those moments in time where a number of factors will emerge to allow systemic change to occur," Kalson Cohen said.