Once upon a time, I was young and idealistic.
I was driven to a career in Jewish education by a deep passion for Torah study — despite the high likelihood of financial challenges. I yearned for the energy that comes from watching an idea click in a student’s mind, that comes from guiding a roomful of students through the tapestry of Torah thought and analysis, finding what clicks for them and watching it grow. I assumed I would marry someone drawn to a similar field, and my mother joked that I would say “no” if anyone suggested introducing me to a guy who was actually going to make money. (Joke’s on us: I married a doctor - and his medical school loans.) I would interview for teaching jobs and forget to ask about the salary, so focused was I on the essence of what I’d be doing.
Now, I’m still fairly young, and fairly idealistic.
I’m also a mother of four human beings who need me, who need food and shelter and clothing as well as a Jewish education of their own. We all have financial needs, whether we’re idealistic or not. There’s a reason there’s no such thing as a free lunch: the people providing your lunch need to eat, too. Yet, in my own experience and from conversations with others over the years, it seems there are a lot of people out there who think Jewish educators should provide their time and expertise for free.
I’m not talking about a two-minute “Hey, Sarah, do you know where I can find this quote in the Talmud?” After all, my husband gets brief medical questions, too, and thinks nothing of them, but no one would ever expect him to give a full office exam for free. So why do people so often expect my colleagues and me to provide a full lesson without pay?
This sort of issue comes up in other professions as well, but bringing Torah into the picture adds particular complications. Torah is for all, right? How can anyone have the gall to charge for it? Indeed, abundant sources in our tradition come down strongly against charging for Torah. But it has also been fairly well established in our traditions that economic realities have changed, and Torah educators must be paid for their time – unless they choose to forgo that – just like any other professional.
I remember the first time I turned down a job because of money. I really wanted to take it: I loved the students and wanted desperately to learn Torah with them. But when I calculated the salary they were offering for this part-time assignment against the cost of child care for my (first) baby, taxes, and the cost of gas, and realized I would be left with just about enough to buy a cup of coffee on the way there, I turned them down.
“It’s not enough. I can’t do it,” I said.
“We were hoping you would do it partly as a chesed [volunteerism],” I was told.
“I’m not at a stage of life that allows me to take on that chesed,” I answered, almost choking the words out; I could barely muster them past my idealistic passion. Not teach Torah, because of money?
And that was at a school — the expectations surrounding payment for teaching Torah became ever more difficult to navigate when I ventured into what I call “freelance Jewish education.” A class here, a class there, a bit of writing or editing over there… surely I don’t expect to be compensated for these small items?
Oh, but I do. For one thing, they’re not as small as they look: While some educators do seem to have been born with infinite neatly packaged lectures in their pockets, most of us need to prepare, which means hours upon hours spent on often difficult work. For another thing, this is my profession, not a hobby, and my sense of professional dignity, as well as my finances, insist that it be treated as such.
And every time I have these conversations — whether I insist on being compensated, or whether I am graciously offered payment upfront — leaves a permanent mark. I remember each and every time.
I remember the friend who expressed surprise when I casually mentioned something about payment for one of my classes. “You get paid for that?!” Yes, I do — though when you factor in the hours upon hours of preparation time, I get paid less per hour than the people I pay to watch my preschool-aged child so I can do that. I stay up late, and sometimes get up early, and leave my sink full of dishes so I can use every spare minute to prepare for those classes for which you’re surprised I get paid. If I am not paid, not only do I not feel valued, but I can’t justify doing this job I so deeply value. If I am not paid, I am essentially paying for the privilege of teaching Torah.
It is a privilege indeed – but I’m not at a stage of life that allows me to take on that chesed.
I remember every time I’ve had to ask for pay, to defend my need to be paid, to ask for more pay, to turn down a speaking engagement or calculate whether I could do it without pay. I remember everyone who’s tried to tell me I should work without pay, to “give back” to my community. I remember every time I agonized over how to write an email asking for pay – “Is this for pay?” “I’m so sorry, I don’t think I can do it without pay.” “Can you raise that rate?” I feel nauseated every time. I try to explain that I desperately want to do this, to make them believe I’m not a bad person — I’m not in it for the money, this is just life. If I were in it for the money, I wouldn’t be in it. Because let’s be honest: Even when Jewish educators are paid, how do the rates compare to other professions?
Most importantly, I remember all those who have asked me to teach them Torah and said upfront: “Of course, for pay.” With them, I didn’t have to ask, and I wanted to throw my arms around them in gratitude for granting me that dignity. For remembering every single time we meet and giving me the check or cash without fanfare, without my having to remind them, without my feeling sick as I choked out the words.
Of course, the economic realities of life go both ways; not every institution, or individual, is able to pay, or pay a lot. Sometimes that’s okay; sometimes I can make it work. Sometimes, other teachers can make it work, even if I can’t. Some, indeed, are able to take on that chesed. Some institutions who could not pay have communicated upfront, before I had to ask, that they wish they could pay me but cannot, or that they can only pay me a small amount, even though they know my time is worth more — and I greatly appreciated that honesty.
To all those in the position of inviting Jewish educators to speak or teach: I ask you, please, to consider seriously whether and how much you can offer to pay, and then — say something upfront. Say something before we have to ask, before we choke on the conflict between our idealistic passion for Torah and our needs.
Try to respect our professional background and our time. Show us you truly respect the knowledge you’re asking us to provide. Show us you respect our particular challenges in trying to build a profession out of our idealistic love for Torah – because without commensurate pay, we might not be able to teach Torah at all.
Sarah Rudolph is a freelance Jewish educator, writer, and editor. She has been sharing her passion for Jewish texts of all kinds for over 15 years, with students of all ages. Sarah’s essays have been published in a variety of internet and print media, including Times of Israel, Kveller, Jewish Action, OU Life, The Lehrhaus, TorahMusings, and more. Sarah lives in Cleveland with her husband and four children, but is privileged to learn online with students all over the world through www.TorahTutors.org and www.WebYeshiva.org.