[eJP note: The recent post “Thrown Off the Sinking Ship,” by a Jewish Educator, has attracted significant reader interest. The post, and the comments, should be required reading for every synagogue rabbi and board chair (we encourage readers to share).
The following, one of many thoughtful comments, was posted by Rabbi Cherie Koller-Fox.]
By Cherie Koller-Fox
First, I want to thank and honor all of you who work in the field of Jewish education for the important work that you do day in and day out and for the many many hours you dedicate to your work because you care about your students and their parents.
In my work with CAJE and now NewCAJE, I have had the privilege of meeting thousands of Jewish educators. Good and better and best, but all dedicated and kind and 85% women. I cannot believe that the preponderance of women is not a factor in the field. Women who care so deeply about their work often don’t ask for what they need in terms of salary, benefits and even school supplies. Very few educators today have contacts and too many work part time – meaning full time with part time pay. Anyone who has left a job not because they wanted to has experienced this unpleasantness and heartbreak. The first writers analogy to a divorce is telling. We put love and devotion into our job, probably weren’t treated as we should be and then had our hearts broken. I know of people who retired from long-time jobs into poverty because their communities did not provide retirement contributions or worse didn’t contribute to Social Security on their behalf.
What to do, because as you can see from the commonality of all the letters and by their astute analyses of the field, something must be done. Not for me or my generation but for those coming into the field, many of whom are our children but the rest are our students.
As I see it there are 2 or 3 solutions to this problem. The most obvious is the need for a union or at least a strong organization of educators that sets the standards for hiring, firing, benefits and working conditions. A synagogue that does not adhere to these standards would not be able to hire an educator. Their name would go out to the field and there would be a process whereby they could improve and be able to hire someone. Sound radical to you? Miami and Montreal have had unions since the 2o’s and people who work full time have real benefits and protections. A decade ago CAJE received a Covenant grant to try to extend that to part time and ECE educators but unfortunately it was 2008 and the recession tanked all our good work. Secondly, or maybe firstly, we need to provide solid materials to educate those ever changing boards on their responsibilities and standards. They are well-meaning people for the most part who for whatever reason don’t understand that they are our employers or what that entails. Even part-time employees deserve part- time benefits and respect in terms of compensation. I believe that part-time employees need more professional development than ever. They need experiences like we provide at NewCAJE and other conferences. My board firmly believes they should not be paying for this professional development but on the contrary should be paid for their time.
Finally, we should have a pay scale and a way to rank synagogues by the way they treat their educators.
All of these things are doable IF the field will come together across denominations and work settings and set these standards. From these few letters I’ve learned that there might be more consensus about this than I have previously thought.
This requires leadership. NewCAJE’s vision statement includes advocacy and I would ask all interested educators to let us know who you are and your interest on working in this project by writing a note to firstname.lastname@example.org
I wish all the educators the best and urge them not to stand idly by. If you care about the Jewish future, care also about the importance of attracting the best and brightest to the field where they can find their home and know it is one they can trust.
Rabbi Cherie Koller-Fox is Founder & President of NewCAJE.