Is This A Job for a Nice Jewish Boy or Girl? You Bet It Is!

by Michael Zeldin

“Hello, Professor Zeldin. You have to help us! We’re searching for a top-notch Jewish educator. It’s quite an opportunity for someone to be very creative, and if we find the right person we’ll do whatever it takes to get them. Do you know of anyone?”

Every week I get calls like this from congregations, day schools and community agencies from across North America looking for highly qualified Jewish educators to direct their programs. To everyone who calls I have to say the same thing: “I know of a couple of people 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.”

I find myself wondering why our idealistic, bright and ambitious young adults aren’t clamoring to be Jewish educators? It’s not that the work Jewish educators do isn’t meaningful. One alum told me that she is one of the few people she knows who wakes up every day, and thanks God that she gets to do what she does every day. She thinks of herself as part of the 1% – the 1% of people in this world who find their work meaningful and fulfilling, where they know they make a difference in the lives of children, adults and communities.

It’s not that the salaries aren’t competitive. Typically congregations list jobs for education directors (now often called “Directors of Lifelong Jewish Learning”) for very respectable salaries plus a full package of benefits. Camp directors and heads of day schools can earn considerably more.

It’s not that the work isn’t creative and trendsetting. Congregations are re-imagining Jewish education and experimenting with family schools, camp-like religious education programs, and new modes of adult learning. Day schools are always seeking ways to remain on the cutting edge of education, searching for more effective approaches to teaching and learning and pioneering technologies that will soon become standard in the field. Camps and youth groups are constantly creating new ideas for engaging Jewish youth.

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’s lay leaders? How many young adults will not even hear about the possibility of becoming a Jewish educator as they are grappling during those post-college odyssey 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 educators 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.

Do our children ever listen to us? We know that sometimes they do, especially when they know what we’re saying is important. Here are two things that are very important: your child’s career path and the future of Jewish education. Our children can’t all be lawyers or hedge fund managers so let’s steer them in a better, even more fulfilling direction.

Michael Zeldin is Senior National Director of HUC-JIR’s Schools of Education. He can be reached at mzeldin@huc.edu.

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Comments

  1. Gordon Fuller says:

    All good points, and well written! But how do the lay people of those congregations nurture and develop those educators once they’ve hired them? I’m afraid if we listened to even excellent educators, they would all have some horror stories to share.

  2. Parents should be made aware that there are plenty of GREAT jobs in the Jewish community, and those jobs are not just jobs, they lead to careers. There is a list of great jobs in the community: http://www.JewishJobs.com.

    A very good point often lost in the search for a career: making money is not nearly as fulfilling and does not bring happiness as making a meaningful difference in the lives of others. It is not even a close call. Working for the Jewish community is a GREAT calling, offers GREAT career opportunities, and provides respect and happiness that cannot be offered by practicing law or fund management.

    To those who are considering a job or career in the Jewish community: Follow your passions and pursue your dreams, and plenty of great jobs for you there will be.

  3. Paul Steinberg says:

    Professor Zeldin raises an important issue – encouraging bright young people to pursue careers in Jewish education. I must, however, disagree about the financial incentives. Education directors do not make nearly as much money as other professionals make, such as doctors, lawyers, rabbis, and business professionals. In fact, synagogues often save money by cutting education directors to part-time salaries (even though the work remains full-time) and/or do not offer full benefits packages. Moreover, with the mediocre salaries and benefits that education directors have, they usually cannot afford to send their own children to Jewish day schools, camps, and Israel trips that they consistently champion. And today, with the economy as it is, education directors are being replaced by young rabbis because congregations believe they can get a two-for-one, i.e., an assistant rabbi who can also manage their religious school, whether or not the rabbi knows much about education.

    Of course, this is only about education directors, opposed to teachers of Judaics in day schools or religious schools, where the financial incentives are even lower.

    The Jewish community has a lot of work to do to financially incentive bright young people to enter Jewish education. How about paying off student loans? How about free or heavily subsidized camp or day school for their kids? How about free membership to JCC’s? How about more budget dedicated to their continuing professional development? How about merit-based bonuses, like in the business world?

    The inside joke among Jewish educators, is that we would never want our kids to going into the business – low salary and little thanks – and unfortunately, not much has changed.

  4. SHULAMITH ELSTER says:

    Michael: I think your timing on this issue is perfect.

    Over a good number of years many of us have met the young people we want to have as colleagues. Some of us have the good fortune to watch as our students became our colleagues and are thrilled to have protégés distinguished in their chosen arena of Jewish communal service.

    While we may or may not be able to influence our own we can, nevertheless, work within the organized Jewish community and with the growing number of private funders to advocate for new recruitment initiatives, access to the finest mentors, funding of pilot and demonstration projects and, in general, provide opportunities that “compete” in attracting the minds and hearts of those who a half-a -generation ago looked to business, technology, medicine and law.. after all , once many of us heard: “…those who can do, those who can’t teach”.

    NO MORE PRIZES FOR PREDICTING RAIN, PRIZES ONLY FOR BUILDING ARKS! +R.J.Nabisco/China Breakers

    shulamith elster

  5. It would be beneficial to young and promising Jewish educators to see that veterans in the field are treated with respect. Once an educator becomes “expansive” there are all kind of reasons why he/she must go. Communities who want to preserve Jewish Education must value knowledge and experience, otherwise the task of babysitting is not a long term promise.

  6. At NewCAJE, we are working to change the field of Jewish education. Our main focus is on our annual Jewish educators’ conference, at which Jewish educators of all backgrounds, movements, demographics, modes can come together and learn from each other. It gives Jewish educators a broader view of the field of Jewish education, and encourages young educators – perhaps those working only part-time while in college or grad school, or those who have a different day job but do Jewish education in addition — to consider themselves to have a career in Jewish education. The conference gives a platform to people across North America to share what they are doing and advance the field together. And one of the most important pieces is letting young people know that this is not just something that they do to make a little extra money; this is a career. As an organization, we also advocate for better wages, benefits, and respect for Jewish educators, and offer training and networking opportunities to help keep our most talented people in Jewish education. If you know a young person who is dabbling in Jewish education, send them to the NewCAJE conference. They’ll be able to see that it is valuable and meaningful work. http://www.newcaje.org

  7. Sharon Wechter says:

    As a Jewish educator myself, I can think of one reason why I would not to encourage my child to enter Jewish education without being ordained as well: for the last half a dozen plus years, more and more congregations have been unwilling to hire a Jewish educator, preferring to hire a newly ordained rabbi to double as congregational rabbi and educator. As an educator with over twenty years of valuable experience, it has been disheartening to suddenly discover that there is less room within our Reform congregations for Jewish educators.

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