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New Initiative Aims To Recruit, Retain Jewish Teachers

To spotlight what it regards as one of the most pressing problems plaguing Jewish education today, the Jewish Education Service of North America, known as JESNA, will host a summit next month to address recruitment and retention of teachers in Jewish schools. Major Jewish philanthropists — including Michael Steinhardt, Susan Crown and Edgar and Charles Bronfman — are among the 200 people expected to attend the three-day conference, which begins February 8 in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.

The anticipated presence of key Jewish donors is the reason JESNA officials insist that the time is now ripe for change. JESNA president Jonathan Woocher acknowledges that educator recruitment has been discussed numerous times before, but believes that a new breed of venture philanthropists, such as Steinhardt, who recently offered $10 million to a new fund that would provide a Jewish education for every child, can bring new resources to the table.

“There are more people of my generation who are venture philanthropists, looking for ways to be highly engaged,” said summit co-chair Laura Lauder, who is married to venture capitalist Gary Lauder, son of Leonard Lauder, chairman of the Estée Lauder cosmetics empire.

February’s summit will officially launch the Jewish Educator Recruitment/Retention Initiative, or JERRI, a collaboration between JESNA and The Covenant Foundation. JERRI has a three-pronged focus: the recruitment process, the culture of Jewish education and research surrounding these areas.

A survey by the Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education, or CAJE, found that educators choose the field for its meaningfulness and compatibility with family life. But its pitfalls — low compensation and benefits, limited opportunities for career advancement — have caused a dwindling in the number of people entering the field, and an exodus of some already in it. According to another study by CAJE, Jewish educators are older on average than teachers in other private or public schools, indicating that fewer young people are entering the field. In addition, over half of those in the field have considered leaving it, or have done so for a short time.

“We want the funnel of educators coming in to be wide,” said Lauder, “and the sieve of those leaving to be narrow.”

Programs to recruit teachers have been launched recently on college campuses, but have encountered difficulties attracting people.

“We’re strong in developing programs and sometimes weak in learning from the experiences of these programs,” said Woocher, who admitted that the new efforts’ success rates vary widely and need to be analyzed.

Woocher suggests a one-stop-shop approach, a unified recruitment process that would present college graduates with all available fellowships and teaching opportunities. He also wants to develop a new national database that lists hundreds of potential educators.

“Typically, teachers were active in Jewish youth activities,” said Woocher. “We want a database of young people who, by virtue of their current activities, are good prospects for future involvement in education.”

Utilizing this concept, a pilot project of the new recruitment initiative was tried out last summer at Jewish camps to compile a database of camp counselors. In exchange for an Amazon gift certificate, counselors gave their contact information, so that they could receive occasional mailings or emails about Jewish educational opportunities.

Yet before the new initiative can attract new teachers to the field, it has to figure out a way to keep them there. “There is way too high a dissatisfaction rate among teachers,” said Lauder.

The starting salary can be as low as $30,000 for full-time day school teachers and $20,000 for early childhood teachers, significantly less than in public or other private schools. Low pay is a key problem with retaining educators, yet one that is difficult to solve without raising millions to boost salaries.

“There are other ways of increasing benefits,” said Lauder. “If the quality of the work experience is high, people’s toleration of the compensation level will be higher.”

She pointed as an example to her own community in Palo Alto, Calif., which offers interest-free loans to teachers at the local Jewish school to buy homes in the area.

Lauder and the other organizers hope that similarly innovative approaches will be discussed at the summit. Attendees will participate in workshops in their field of expertise, such as day school or adult education, while JESNA staff will record any new suggestions.

“There are three critical issues we want addressed,” said Woocher. “Who is it that we’re trying to recruit? How do we create a culture of support? And how do we make it possible to have a real career in Jewish education?”

The summit is expected to attract lay leaders, professionals from Jewish educational agencies and heads of Jewish universities.

In the spring, JERRI will focus on implementing some of the suggestions that come up at the summit. “The goal of JERRI and this summit is to provide a kind of road map for work that needs to be done,” said Woocher. He insists that the best way to work is from the bottom up, with local organizations and communities putting the ideas into practice.

Nevertheless, JERRI will launch some of the new projects on its own, working with a budget of $750,000. The Covenant Foundation, which is funded by Chicago’s Crown Family Foundation and gives grants to innovative Jewish educational programs, recently gave JERRI a $250,000 grant.

“We need to bring to the community’s attention how we’re currently compensating the people to whom we have given the sacred trust of Jewish education,” said Judith Ginsberg, executive director of the Foundation. “We want a massive change of culture.”

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