By Alex Pomson

Recently, I’ve been interviewing Jewish day school educators about how they’ve tried to provide meaningful educational experiences to students over virtual platforms. These have been some of the most humbling professional conversations I’ve ever conducted.

I was once a day-school teacher myself. I was drawn to the work because I had a knack for getting young people excited about Jewish culture and the Jewish past. Teaching was fun. It was exhausting, but I was energized by the opportunity to be creative and to touch the lives of the next generation.

As I talked with these educators, I was overwhelmed by a sense that none ever imagined how difficult their work would be: needing to reach their students for months on end, by video; helping address students’ mounting concerns about their futures; supporting especially those who say repeatedly “I learn best in person.” None ever reimagined their work would look like this.

In the days since the last of these conversations I’ve been asking myself how many of these people will have the appetite to stay with this acutely challenging work, how many might be let go by their employers like so many others in less fortunate sectors; camps, JCCs and Federations, for example. We, and they, don’t know. As I recently heard my colleague, David Bryfman, argue, the most challenging aspect of this pandemic is that we don’t know when it will end. Our lives are gripped by extreme uncertainty.

Our team at Rosov Consulting is in the midst of a major study of the career trajectories of Jewish educators that, we believe, can help educators and their employers navigate some of this uncertainty. The work, part of a larger study commissioned about six months before the pandemic by CASJE (Consortium for Applied Studies in Jewish Education), is sponsored by the Jim Joseph Foundation and the William Davidson Foundation. We didn’t know then how relevant it would be to our present uncertain moment. It might be even more useful when the community is ready to rebuild for a new reality.

We’re currently wrapping up a survey of thousands of young people about their career choices. Even before we complete this data gathering effort, our work provides clues that can help educational leaders skate fast to wherever the puck might make it on what is a decidedly icy surface.

The survey was shaped by a preliminary investigation of the concepts that shed light on the meaning of career today; the factors and forces that shape the desire to pursue a career, and specifically a career in Jewish education. This investigation involved an extensive literature review, interviews with key informants in the field, and focus groups with early career educators. A working paper about this work, Preparing for Entry: Concepts that Support a Study of What it Takes to Launch a Career in Jewish Education, can be found here.

This preliminary work shows that choosing to work as a Jewish educator and deciding to enter this field as a career – regardless of the defining characteristics of this current moment – results from the interplay of four contributing components. Provisionally, we call them stimuli, personal assets, enabling opportunities, and inhibitors. Stimuli are the factors and forces that whet an interest in and stoke a passion to work as a Jewish educator. Personal assets support an individual’s readiness and capacity to become a Jewish educator at any point along their pathway to the field. Enabling opportunities are the frameworks and programs that help translate an appetite to work as a Jewish educator into a readiness and capacity to be one. Inhibitors are the circumstances and pressures that discourage individuals either from working in the field of Jewish education altogether or from making a career in this field.

We don’t yet know the relative importance of these different concepts and their salience among different populations in predicting whether someone will enter the field of Jewish education or not. What we do know from our review of literature on the career choices of educators and of those in fields that call for clinical knowledge, care and civic commitment is that these concepts are continually in tension. People draw on strong reasons for doing (and continuing to do) this work; they won’t and can’t take on the work without access to skills and resources that help them perform well; and even when ready and able to embark on this work, they can still be deflected by economic, professional and personal circumstances.

Of course, each person’s story is different, but viewing career entry and retention in conceptual terms can be profoundly useful. Concepts are the crimps that help us climb the smoothest cliff faces. They give us something on which to hold as we advance across uncertain terrain. The concepts we examine in the Preparing for Entry paper distill bodies of knowledge that indicate what draws quality educators to their work. They reference factors that are known to deter or defer particular career choices. They reveal what interventions, supports and resources can enable a promising individual to commit to this field even in the most challenging circumstances. 

These concepts help make sense of why, as I was told in one recent interview, a young educator, living alone under lockdown far from family and responsible for the education of tens of high school students, has nevertheless persevered with this impossible task, providing his students with inspirational Jewish content. Concepts turn a moving anecdote into a theory of action.

Alex Pomson is Principal and Managing Director of Rosov Consulting. 

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