Being a Jewish educator: Is it a career or a calling?

In Short

Jewish educators are Jewish educators because they care

[First in a Series on CASJE’s Study, “Career Trajectories of Jewish Educators”]

This week CASJE (Collaborative for Applied Studies in Jewish Education) begins to release findings from its Career Trajectories of Jewish Educators Study. The study, funded by the William Davidson Foundation and the Jim Joseph Foundation, was designed to provide useable knowledge about the recruitment, retention and development of Jewish educators. 

The title of the study is not accidental. A key decision that framed the study design and research was to characterize work in Jewish education as a career. As the authors from Rosov Consulting described in a white paper published by CASJE in 2020 “Beginning with the work of Bellah and his colleagues, in their landmark study Habits of the Heart, sociologists have distinguished people’s relationships to their work as jobs, careers and callings.” Put succinctly: a job is something one does to pay the bills; a career involves a commitment to professional growth and advancement within one’s field of work; and a calling is work related to one’s larger sense of purpose.

Jobs are sustained by essential skills. Careers are sustained by professional knowhow. Callings are sustained by inspiration.

Many see the concept of a calling into a vocation as doing work that transcends a job or career – a calling serves a greater good. Better yet is when your vocation is also your avocation, something that expresses your truest passions and interests. In contemporary American culture, doing what you love is a kind of aspirational identity, #blessed.

CASJE’s study found that those who launch a career in Jewish education are highly mission-driven: they share a love of Jewish learning and a commitment to helping others (see the first strand of the study, Preparing for Entry). They seek work that is meaningful and provides fulfillment. This sense of mission and quest for meaning can sustain educators when their work or workplace environments are especially challenging. But is that resilience, grounded in deep commitments, always a good thing for Jewish educators or for Jewish education?

Economists like Nancy Foibert have identified what is called the care penalty. When work is marked by characteristics like altruism, affection and moral commitments workers may be willing to accept less favorable conditions because of their larger sense of responsibility to values and relationships. Relatedly, in her new book Work Won’t Love You Back, labor journalist Sarah Jaffe argues that the American penchant for seeking meaning and purpose in the workplace leaves workers open to exploitation. Critically, she notes that even as work in general is conceptualized as a source of personal fulfillment, it is largely the female-dominated occupations (e.g., education, nursing, social work) that persist in offering more in the way of feeling than financial reward. That’s part of the history of how the pink collar professions were founded: women were recruited to cut costs. 

The profession of teaching in the US exemplifies some of these tensions. Certainly Jewish education is a profession in which your work might actually love you back. Many educators form deep bonds with their learners, whether they are children or adults. These relationships are among the great rewards of the work. 

Yet when an educator’s commitment to Jewish learning, love of their students and community, and sense of identity and purpose, are wrapped up in their professional role, evidence suggests that warm feelings can become a means of tying the educators to less-than-supportive workplaces while also subverting investment in the technical know-how and professional learning teachers need to succeed.

Indeed, we see many of the themes of Jaffe’s book echoed in the findings from the CASJE study. As noted, our study found that Jewish educators are highly mission driven and care about the work and the communities they serve. Yet, as the reports and briefs we will release over the next few weeks show, Jewish educators are also overall dissatisfied with their compensation, supervision, and opportunities for advancement. They report inadequate access to high-quality professional development. And, increasingly, the professional learning offered to them emphasizes the affective and relational over content and skills to effectively do their work. 

Just before the pandemic shut down all in-person meetings, CASJE facilitated a day-long workshop for Jewish educational leaders. At one point in the program we deliberated over the difference between a job, a career and a calling. Many people in the room were surprisingly discomfited by the idea that our study would look at the Jewish education workforce through the lens of career. They felt that this characterization was a demotion that undermined their own sense of their work as sacred service, or a calling. 

As someone who approaches Jewish education with a sense of passion and mission, I appreciate the sense of loss those educational leaders felt in framing Jewish education as a career rather than a calling. But in fact, for the frontline educators themselves who make up the workforce in our day schools, preschools, synagogues, summer camps, museums and community centers— those whose positions don’t command the compensation and status that typically come with administrative roles—it was the burdens that stem from framing teaching as a calling that came through most clearly in our study.

Further the study also illuminated what Jewish education might lose when it’s seen as a personal mission and not a profession: fewer opportunities for sustained, ongoing professional learning and lack of access to supervision and support from instructional leaders.  

In studying the Jewish educational workforce through the lens of career it’s not our intention to strip Jewish educators of the sense of higher purpose. Jewish educators bring passion, care and commitment to their work, but the field can’t coast on their sense of purpose; it’s not good for Jewish educators and it’s not good for Jewish education. Framing work in Jewish education as a professional career can bring benefits to educators, to their learners and to our communities. When we invest in the careers of Jewish educators we ensure that these mission-driven individuals get the structures and supports they need to do their work well, with the dignity and professionalism that befits the sacred role they serve in our community. 

Jewish educators are Jewish educators because they care. The CASJE study lays out the many rewards that Jewish educators find in this work of care: love of Jewish learning, satisfaction in serving others, finding meaning in their work. Investing in Jewish educators through compensation and benefits, professional learning, constructive supervision, and career advancement opportunities, won’t make them care less – it will show that we care. 

Arielle Levites, PhD, is managing director of CASJE.