by Dr. Rona Novick,  Dean of Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration

Jewish education is the most important gift we give our children and our communities. This is not because Jewish education supports continuity. Judaism, a religion of growth, of personal evolution, forward movement, Tikun Olam, must grow students, not so they can mirror the present, but so that they can shape the future.  We should not be satisfied with an educational system that merely holds the line or allows continuation of Judaism as we know it.  Jewish education is the key to fulfilled Jewish learning and living that builds beyond where we are now.  It is the most powerful guarantee of a generation that will advance Jewish life and help advance the world in important ways.

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In education, and in Jewish education as well, new models are being tested, new schools are opening, and experiential education offerings proliferate.  It is easy to think these innovations will fuel success.  These developments are important, but the heart and soul of Jewish education is, and will always be, the people who deliver it.  In classrooms, in camps, on college campuses, in shuls, talented and committed educators are catalyzing the growth of learners.  Pirkei Avot advises us to “find yourself a teacher” – and there are wonderful teachers impacting Jewish education and Jewish learners.  But there are many learners and many schools that struggle to “find themselves a teacher,” discovering there are none to be had.

This is the true crisis in Jewish education - our failure to develop and nurture the human resources that are necessary to grow healthy, connected, knowledgeable Jews. We are not engaging enough bright, dedicated people in careers in Jewish learning. Jewish education is suffering from the same trend as the field of general education where the numbers of students majoring in education has steadily declined over the past 20 years.  However, the experience of Jewish educators is markedly different from their public school counterparts in two important ways: one involving the financial benefits of the career, and the other, the workload involved.     

Jewish educators rarely enjoy the same financial benefits as their public school counterparts.  They may not have health care or other insurance benefits and do not have the promise of a pension to attract them to or keep them in a career in Jewish education.  As an additional challenge, whereas public school teachers are usually provided with an articulated curriculum and have access to extensive resources to support their teaching, Jewish educators often must personally generate the vast majority of their lessons and develop their own tools for engaging students with their assigned content.  Public school teachers have mandated planning periods during the day, and time in their work-week carved out for meetings with colleagues and professional development.  Jewish educators rarely are afforded planning time, and often work in lonely isolation.

Add to that the comparatively lower salaries, limited benefits, heavier work-load, lack of boundaries and minimal professional respect in Jewish versus public schools and it becomes easy to understand why people are not choosing the Jewish education career path.

...I believe we can only grow Jewish education and nurture Jewish educators when each and every one of us considers whether and how we can be part of the solution.
— Dr. Rona Novick, Dean of Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration

We can label this as a community problem.  We can see this an issue for day schools to solve. But I believe we can only grow Jewish education and nurture Jewish educators when each and every one of us considers whether and how we can be part of the solution.  Consider your Shabbat table discussions.  Are Jewish educators discussed with respect?  Are they thanked for the work they do for our children and grandchildren?  Are parents and boards of Jewish schools prepared to recognize that credentialed, well-prepared Jewish educators deserve respectable salaries?  Will we swell with just as much pride when we introduce our sons/daughters as Jewish educators as when we use the proverbial “my son/daughter the doctor”?

At the Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education I meet those who, despite the roadblocks, despite the lack of financial promise, despite the long hours and parents and students who kvetch and demand, are devoting their lives to Jewish education.  They are remarkable in their uniqueness, each bringing their particular style and philosophy of teaching to enrich their students’ learning.  They are equally remarkable in their unity of purpose.  Virtually every future educator voices a passion for igniting the souls of students, for giving modern youngsters the gift of an ancient mesorah, for touching lives with the warmth and wonder of Torah.  I am so inspired by these educators and future educators and am confident these unique and remarkable professionals will infuse Jewish education in wonderful ways. 

Imagine what we could do with dozens more just like them.  They are out there.  They are high school and college students inspired by their own learning, noting the impact great educators have had on them.  They are youth leaders and camp counselors experiencing the satisfaction that comes from being a role-model and influencer in the lives of others.  They are adults working in careers that are financial lucrative but spiritually limiting.  This next generation of inspired and inspiring teachers is watching and listening.  Will we, through our actions and words, send the message that Jewish education is no job for a nice Jewish man or woman?  Or will we communicate, in our treatment of Jewish schools and educators, that Jewish educators are a treasured resource?  Will we support, financially and otherwise, those who will grow the next generation of committed, passionate Jewish learners?  We cannot afford to send the wrong message or cut corners. We cannot afford to lose to other careers anyone whose passion, knowledge, skill, and commitment belong in our classrooms, nurturing the next generation.  

I understand that the issues are complex and the needs considerable.  I realize that finding all the resources we need to support Jewish education will be difficult.  I am, however, arguing for clarity on one simple fact.  Without the right people in our schools and classrooms, no amount of funds will create inspired Jewish education and inspired Jews.  Let us invest in Jewish education as if our lives depended on it.  Because, in fact, our lives, and our children’s and children’s children’s lives do.

This article is cross-posted from The Layers Project Magazine.