Valuing Jewish Educators by Singing Shalom Aleichem

By Cheryl Magen

A career in Jewish education comes with many rewards – a built-in community, spiritual fulfillment, feeling like you’re making the world a better place – unfortunately, high-level financial compensation is generally not one of them. This can be good news for organizations, as it means that only people who are truly passionate about Jewish education enter the field. That said, educators cannot live on passion alone, as witnessed by the high burnout rate among young Jewish professionals.

In order to prevent this burnout, it is critical for organizations to show educators that they are appreciated for their knowledge, passion and commitment. What follows is not a conversation about compensation, which has been discussed extensively here and in other related publications, but rather some suggestions for non-monetary actions that organizations can take to make their educators feel respected and valued.

Let’s look at the liturgical poem, Shalom Aleichem as a framework for respect and value. There are 4 stanzas to the poem traditionally sung on Friday nights at the start of the Shabbat meal. Each of these stanzas represents an essential method for showing educators that they are truly valued.

Seeking a new Jewish ProfessionalShalom AleichemWe welcome you in peace, partnership and with all good wishes.

  • Finding the best candidates for an open position takes hard work, networking, patience and a thoughtful approach. This new relationship should be built on honesty, integrity and the values of the organization. From the start, the alignment of your mission statement with the process of choosing a new educator will cement the foundation of (hopefully) a long-lasting partnership.
  • In that spirit, do your homework about non-salary benefits that can set your professional up for a successful tenure. Yes, salary is important, but so are things like gender equality, professional development with colleagues in the field, flexibility, personal time, and time to continue learning new skills. In return you can expect hard work, dedication, stepping up when needed, being a team player and modeling the values your organization holds dear.

Onboarding – Boachem L’shalomCome in, make yourself at home. May you come in peace.

  • Many Jewish educators take jobs in new cities. Organizations need to take steps to help them acclimate to the new community. Make sure these new employees have offers for dinners and holidays. Pair them with members of the community who can provide guidance in finding the right doctors, supermarkets, childcare or schools.
  • First impressions matter, so make sure your new educator feels welcome when they arrive at work. That means having their office clean and set-up, not just leaving it in the same state as when the last person departed. Also, take time to communicate about the organizational culture: do people eat lunch communally, are hours flexible, how can you procure necessary supplies. Taking time to explain the history, processes and organizational structure will help a new employee integrate much faster. Perhaps assign a buddy who the new employee can ask process and logistical questions to without embarrassment or taking up valuable time of their supervisor.
  • Set younger educators up for success. If the educator is new in the field, consider outside mentoring for the first year or two. This initial investment could make the difference between someone staying for a year or staying in the field for their entire career.

Sharing feedbackBarchuni L’shalomWe are so blessed to have you with us. It is a blessing to be here together.

  • Engage in an open and regular dialog about how things are going. Discuss both what is going well and what could be going better. When these conversations happen on a regular basis, both sides feel more invested in the outcomes and educators feel like they understand what steps to take to ensure success. Educators also need a safe space to talk about what is not working for them and how some changes in the procedures or policies might strengthen the organization as a whole. Set regular times for these conversations and stick to the schedule. When there is open and accepting dialogue the educator can feel that there is a positive partnership and not just a performance report of problems. When my supervisor asked me what I thought was going well and what wasn’t, he was able to support my growth and even correct my impression of where I thought I failed.
  • Make sure to give flexible time off. Most educators work very odd hours and are expected to be available at times when others are “off.” For example, a Jewish educator often does not have Shabbat or chagim off to spend with family or friends. This can be particularly difficult for educators when it was their own love of Jewish experience that brought them into the field in the first place. Giving adequate time off, and creating a culture where employees are encouraged to take that time off, will allow everyone to recharge and give you their best performance going forward.
  • Trust your Jewish educators to be professionals. Never, ever, ever ask someone to accept a job without a written job description. How will they know what to focus on each day? How will success be determined if neither partner is clear about the work expectations. Hire the best professional you can; let them do their work and then evaluate them on content, availability and presence – not on whether they are in an office for x hours a day/week/year. By regularly sharing feedback and listening to their questions and concerns, professionals will work hard as your partner for the best possible education to take place.

Saying GoodbyeTzetchem L’shalomLeave with peace in your heart.

  • At some point in time, you may need to part ways with an educator. Perhaps, even after regular feedback and support, it is not a good match for your organization and you need to say goodbye. Perhaps the educator has reached a plateau and wants a new opportunity to grow in other ways and they will want to say goodbye. Whatever the circumstances, the end of a relationship needs as much care and effort as the search and hiring process. Be as thoughtful and intentional as possible and in many cases it makes sense to involve the educator so everyone’s best interest is taken into consideration.
  • When it is time to part ways, remember that how we say goodbye sends a message, both to the outgoing educator and to others in the organization. Whether the educator was mildly or wildly successful, saying “Thank you” in a sincere and public way should be the minimum. Whether you’re saying thank you for taking care of our children, or providing us with Shabbat and holiday experiences, being there when we needed you, going above and beyond, working crazy hours, and/or trying to be creative and innovative, try to specifically highlight the outgoing employee’s specific contributions to the organization. Not only will this improve your organization’s reputation, but it is also a powerful signal to remaining employees that their contributions are being valued and recognized.
  • The Jewish world is 3 inches wide and 1 inch deep; we are highly networked and not shy about sharing thoughts about our work experiences. Unless there is some unlawful behavior that requires immediate separation, making sure both the organization and the educator leave with their souls intact is of paramount importance.

Cheryl Magen is the Director of Alumni Engagement for the Wm. Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education at JTS. Because she feels valued at work, she is also able to provide career coaching and mentorship to current students and the alumni.