Fewer Orthodox Teaching in Public Schools

By Max Gross

Published January 14, 2005, issue of January 14, 2005.
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‘As long as there are final exams, there will always be prayer in school!”

So reads the store-bought sign that hangs behind Leonard Stahl, president of the Association of Orthodox Jewish Teachers, in the organization’s modest offices in the Midwood section of Brooklyn. But the situation facing Stahl isn’t a joke: The number of Orthodox Jews teaching in public schools is steadily declining.

“There has been discussion” about the decline, Stahl said. And worry. “There are so many people who get frightened away… We’re trying to educate the Jewish community about how you can have a fulfilling professional and religious life as a public school teacher.”

AOJT was created in 1965 to serve New York City’s schools, and has successfully campaigned to schedule spring vacation to coincide with Passover, gotten teachers out of school early on Friday nights and lobbied for more personal days for teachers to celebrate Jewish holidays. AOJT holds a dinner or luncheon every year, puts out a newsletter, holds an essay contest and starts clubs for troubled Jewish students in public schools. “Back in the 1980s, we were on the cusp of getting a kosher food program — but it was just as the Jewish population in the public schools dropped, so we just missed out,” Stahl said.

When it began, AOJT was one of three Jewish teachers’ organizations in public schools; there was also the Jewish Teachers’ Association and the Jewish Teachers Community Chest. Today, AOJT is the only Jewish teachers’ organization left standing, and therefore it sometimes acts as a mouthpiece for non-Orthodox Jewish teachers, as well — something that was not part of its original mission. But even with a broadened base, AOJT is shrinking.

Currently there are 2,500 dues-paying members of AOJT, down from a peak of roughly 7,000 in the 1980s. About 6,000 others, many of whom are retired, are on the AOJT mailing list. Stahl believes that there are many more Jews in the system who don’t know — or don’t care — about AOJT, which is open to teachers from all 1,300 schools in the New York City public school system.

“At one point, there were thousands of Jewish teachers — and there were thousands of Orthodox, certainly in the ’60s and ’70s,” said Kal Tuchman, 61, a retired public school teacher who used to be on AOJT’s board. Public schools typically pay better than day schools or yeshivas, and offer more benefits. And thanks to groups like AOJT, public schools have been relatively accommodating of religious needs.

Still, the reasons for the dwindling Orthodox presence are many.

“Along with everything else, females have a lot more choices,” Stahl said. Being a public school teacher was once one of the only career options for Jewish women. Today, he said, “there are a lot more women in the professions.”

Plus, the teaching environment in a public school can be particularly rough for observant faculty members. Teachers like Marisa Harford, 26, must inure themselves to a lot of the things that their students say. Harford teaches English in the Bronx at the School for Community Research and Learning, where most of her students have never had any previous interaction with Jews.

“I’ve had kids say, ‘We love Osama bin Laden,’ ‘We love Hitler,’” Harford said. After she explained to the students who Hitler was and what he did, “they say, ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it.…’ Again, they’re 15 years old.” But it rankles Harford.

Nearly every observant teacher has a similar story.

“They didn’t even know what ‘Heil Hitler’ meant, but they knew it was something that would get Orthodox Jews riled,” Tuchman said.

There’s also the hurdle of the issue of holidays and Sabbath observance. During the winter, when the Sabbath begins earlier, observant teachers don’t want to keep writing their lessons on the blackboard.

When Harford asks to take off for Jewish holidays (other than the best-known ones), she sometimes meets with bewildered looks. “When I would take off for Shavuot, people were like, ‘Are you sure you’re not making that up?’” Harford said with a laugh. “Nobody actually said that, but they’d be like, ‘What kind of holiday is that? I never heard of it.’”

As the number of Orthodox teachers wanes, misunderstandings can only become more frequent. “I feel sorry for people who are starting out,” said Suzi Tuchman, Kal’s wife, who teaches English as a Second Language.

While Orthodox teachers have strived to overcome the difficulties of working in public schools, they typically opt not to send their own children to the same schools. The majority of observant Jews have always sent their children to religious schools, and Orthodox teachers — despite their commitment to public education — are no different. But the trend was not always so absolute.

According to Stahl, sending Orthodox children to public school “was more common” 40 or 50 years ago. Stahl, himself a product of the public school system, estimated that as many as half the Orthodox children in his neighborhood when he was a student went to public school. There are no hard statistics about Orthodox enrollment, but there is a general agreement that the numbers today are far lower than in the past.

“I would say 99.9% of people who I know who are Orthodox [teachers] send their kids to Jewish schools,” said Ruth Snyder, 55, who retired last year from teaching kindergarten in Queens. “I sent [my kids] to Yeshiva,” she said.

A year-and-a-half ago — after his marketing career ended — Larry David Bernstein, who was then 33, joined the New York City Teaching Fellowship program and began teaching ninth grade English in a public school in East New York. He quickly grew to love it. But when he became a father last year, the Bernsteins decided that their young son would not be taking any lessons from his dad. “Oh, we’re sending him to Jewish school,” Bernstein said.

Despite declining numbers, the situation for Orthodox teachers isn’t dire. Pay remains relatively good, religious needs are usually accommodated, and the chance to teach kids who often come from disadvantaged backgrounds still has its own rewards. “It is still a good field for people who have religious needs,” Stahl said.

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