What’s your price?

How we are failing our congregational educators and the future of North American Jewry

In Short

If Jewish leaders are serious about the need for good Jewish education, they need to put their money where their mouths are

In the many recent conversations lamenting the decline of synagogues, alarmist articles and panels issue dire warnings about the end of the synagogue era and North American Jewry as we know it. While I acknowledge the concern and validity of the less-than-ideal statistics, there are many successful synagogues experiencing a different story. They are thriving, robust and yes, growing communities that are contending not with empty classrooms or pews, but instead with a lack of space to accommodate the families that walk through their doors. So rather than join the chorus of questions about what’s going wrong, I’d like to ask “what’s going right” in these communities? Why are certain congregations growing?

While multiple variables account for a synagogue’s success, the one most responsible for a growing synagogue is the health and effectiveness of its congregational school. The majority of new members to congregations are families seeking a Jewish education for their children. Contrary to the enduring myth that congregational schools are a drain on the synagogue’s budget, they are in fact the very fountain of life that sustains it. When you consider the number of members with children enrolled in the school, or those who originally joined for the school, it becomes clear that the school is sustaining the synagogue and not the other way around. Show me a growing synagogue, and I’ll show you the exceptional educational program behind it.

Once we understand the critical role that congregational schools play on the growth and success of a synagogue, it follows that one of the most important positions is that of the congregational educator. You cannot have an effective school without an impactful educator. We would expect then that the professional in such a vital position would earn a salary proportional to the value of their role to the organization. In this case, we would be wrong. 

Over the years, I have received many educator job descriptions with a request to share them with my network. As I reviewed the stack in my inbox this year, two concerning patterns emerged. The first was the sheer volume of duties expected of a congregational educator. An educator’s role is not limited to curricular and educational responsibilities. Educators are a human resources team of one, hiring and managing dozens of staff. Educators often oversee payroll of their teachers, their program’s budget, membership and community engagement, communication and marketing, the physical and emotional health and safety for hundreds of students, emergency protocols and organizational systems, training and professional development, operations, event management and pastoral care. Over the last three years, they also took on the roles of medical and epidemiology experts, social workers and online learning facilitators. They are the executive directors of a business within a business.

The second and even more alarming pattern was the inadequate salaries for congregational educators relative to other leadership roles in the organization. Following the pages of job expectations and responsibilities were shockingly low salary ranges, described as “competitive,” that were in no way proportional to the jobs they are expected to do and the value they bring. Educators have more responsibilities and supervise more people than everyone else in the organization; why are their salaries not reflective of that? (This is true not only for congregational educators, but all educators – Jewish and not).

How can we address the discrepancy between the value educators add to their synagogues and the value their synagogues place on them? The first step is to better understand and address the reason behind it. I do not believe that my educator colleagues are simply less valued, and I know many synagogue leadership staff that value and respect their educators. However, valuing someone and understanding the actual value they bring to their organization are two different things. I believe that most senior leadership staff and board members do not fully grasp the scope and volume of an educator’s role, nor their impact on synagogue membership and engagement. They need to take time to learn about the daily responsibilities and tasks of their educator and how their work impacts the health and growth of their synagogue.

The second step is to identify appropriate comparables for educator salaries. When the Association of Reform Jewish Educators released its most recent “Compensation and Benefits Survey Report” in January, I watched my colleagues clamber to compare their salaries to others in the field. Many were eager to share this information with their boards and supervisors to show where they stood. It was then that I realized our very premise was wrong. The comparables we currently use are warped and unhelpful because educators are comparing their salaries to other educators. Looking to other inadequately paid colleagues to determine if our salary is better than the worst paid among us will not elevate the field, nor will it result in salaries proportional to the value we bring. In many synagogues’ defense, when they describe an educator’s salary as “competitive,” they’re not wrong; but competitive with what? We need to identify a comparable leadership role within the synagogue with similar levels of responsibility, accountability, and impact. It is not other educators with whom we should be comparing our salaries; it is clergy.

When we compare the educator salary information with the 2019-2020 “Study of Rabbinic Compensation,” a partnership between the Central Conference of American Rabbis and the Union for Reform Judaism, it becomes clear that educator salaries are far from competitive. As an example, educators with more than 20 years of supervisory/managerial experience were earning almost the same average base salary as assistant rabbis, most of whom have a maximum of three years of experience in their roles, almost all of which are not supervisory in nature. The average base salary for educators with 10 years or less of supervisory/managerial experience was significantly lower, despite the years of experience being higher. It is also worth noting that 80% of the educators surveyed held a master’s degree. When you compare educator salaries with those of associate rabbis, the picture becomes bleaker. I want to be clear that it is not my intention to diminish the value of my rabbinical and other clergy colleagues who are doing critical, difficult, and holy work; it is my goal, instead, to advocate for the equal value and valuation of our education colleagues. We can no longer look to other education roles as comparables for congregational educator salaries; congregational educators should instead be paid in line with associate rabbis, commensurate with experience. That should be the bar we set and the scale that synagogues use.

Of all of the conversations we can be having about the future health and sustainability of the Jewish community, why have this conversation now? Because congregations are at an existential inflection point. Every year, the number of congregational educators entering the field diminishes, and the number leaving the field increases. The stress and all-consuming nature of the job paired with inadequate and disproportional salaries are making these roles unattractive, inhospitable, and uninhabitable. A colleague who graduated in the last five years shared that 90% of her educator classmates have already considered leaving the field. Without qualified and effective congregational educators creating successful education programs, the main draw for synagogue membership disappears. What will synagogues do without congregational educators? Do we risk finding out?

It is time to align the value we ascribe to congregational educators to the value they bring to our communities. It is time to match their valuation with their value added. It is time to make these roles worth the effort and excellence they require. It is time to ask what price you are willing to pay for the future of the Jewish community.

Micol Zimmerman Burkeman has worked to elevate and reimagine Jewish education and leadership for the last two decades. As an executive coach, consultant and facilitator, she works with educators, clergy and Jewish communal professionals and organizations to help them increase their impact and maximize their potential. She is a proud Jewish educator.