Thrown Off the Sinking Ship
By A Jewish Educator
I am a Jewish Educator. For almost my entire professional career I have worked in camps, day schools, and congregational schools. For well over a decade, I have been the full-time Director of Education at a mid-sized synagogue.
I am a Jewish Educator – correction, I am a middle-aged woman who was fired from my job.
The synagogue board apparently wants to go in a “new direction.” I was summoned to a meeting and presented with a legal separation agreement to sign. In a month long process of negotiation, which is the closest I ever hope to come to going through a divorce, we went back and forth on several issues, such as whether the institution needed to pay me severance pay or banked sick and vacation days.
Synagogue schools are in trouble. Changes in demographics, in synagogue affiliation, and in families’ commitment and interest in putting their child in an established program versus enrolling them in a new startup school or getting a private tutor have all contributed to a decrease in numbers. In publications over the past decade, I have read article after article about how camp is great and the solution to the problem of Jewish education. I have read article after article about how day school is great and the solution to the problem of Jewish education. I have read articles about the few and far between good synagogue programs being run by the few and far between talented educators who are innovative and effective. These too are touted as the solution to the problem of Jewish education. Technology will save us; camp will save us; whatever exciting new educational method will save us; the charismatic young educator will save us.
I never have and will not now claim that I was the savior of the American Jewish community or of the congregational school. Our numbers were down and complaints were up. Despite challenges and little support, I worked very hard with passion and with skill. I connected with children, teens, parents, teachers, other synagogue staff and other Jewish professionals, and I hope I was a role model for living a life that had Jewish meaning. I tried to be accommodating to each child’s and family’s unique needs and was constantly making changes to school structure and curriculum. I was criticized if I made changes and criticized if I did not make changes.
For about a year, I could feel myself being marginalized – not included in discussions or meetings about the future, spoken to rudely by a few parents of students in the school, and told of negative remarks made at board meetings. I buckled down and worked harder then ever to make both school and family programs positive experiences, while trying to hold onto my dwindling self-esteem. In the end, there was nothing I could do to change an outcome that I believe was decided months before I was informed.
I am a Jewish Educator – correction, I am a “valued” member of the community.
I am very lucky to have colleagues, a lawyer, friends and family who have listened to me and helped me each day. I know that my story is not unique. I know that eventually I will be fine, but for now, each day still brings self-doubt. What is my role now in the Jewish community? If I am in need of a rabbi or a shul, where will I go? Why do I feel so humiliated? What skills do I have and where can I work? Will anyone anywhere hire a middle-aged woman? How will we make ends meet and where can I cut money out of our household budget? Why did I immerse myself and define myself so completely by my work? Was I really so bad at my job that I deserved to be tossed out like yesterday’s garbage? Does everyone know my story? Does anyone care, and should they? Who are my friends, really?
I know that the synagogue had every legal right to fire me as they did, without cause. When I was fired I was assured that the synagogue board values me, and I was promised free lifetime membership in the congregation. I guess this gift might be useful or meaningful, if I could make myself ever walk into the building again.