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.