As a clinical child psychologist, whether working in my office or visiting schools, I saw that schools could be scary, challenging places for children. I also noted schools that invested the time and effort to cultivate students’ emotional well-being. As a day school parent, I believed and wished that Jewish schools would be places of learning in every sense of the word, growing the minds, hearts, and spirits of my children and of all Jewish children. When I was invited to join the faculty of the Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education at Yeshiva University (AGS), I had the opportunity to reconsider what, exactly, I believed was the mission of Jewish education, and how we might ensure it fulfilled that mission. In the dozen years I have been privileged to serve on the AGS faculty, for some years as director of its Doctoral program, and now as the dean, my appreciation for what Jewish education is, and what it can and should be, has deepened, as has my passion for what we need to do to ensure the growth our children deserve.
I have read the research – and the popular press coverage – about the state of Jewish education and the Jewish future. I have visited schools and communities across North America and beyond. I have spoken to hundreds of students, parents, and educators. I have witnessed innovative programs that harness the latest technology and classrooms where students are learning exactly as Jews have learned for centuries. And, of course, I have had the privilege of teaching hundreds of Jewish educators and aspiring educators and educational leaders. I have learned much, and often facts and impressions contradict. However, two things have become crystal clear.
First and foremost, Jewish education is the most important gift we give our children and our communities. This is not because Jewish education supports continuity; continuity is not a sufficient goal towards which to strive. Judaism, a religion of growth, of personal evolution, forward movement, tikun olam, must grow students, not so they can mirror the present, but so that they can shape the future. We should not be satisfied with an educational system that merely holds the line or allows continuation of Judaism as we know it. Jewish education is the key to fulfilled Jewish learning and living that builds beyond where we are now. It is the most powerful guarantee of a generation that will advance Jewish life and help advance the world in crucial ways.
I believe clarity is also possible in considering what Jewish education requires to accomplish this lofty goal. In a field where new models are being tested, new schools are opening, and experiential education offerings proliferate, it is easy to think the answer is in more and varied programs. These developments are important, but the heart and soul of Jewish education is, and will always be, the people who deliver it. In classrooms, in camps, on college campuses, in shuls, talented and committed educators are catalyzing the growth of learners. Researchers document the critical role teachers and educational leaders play in shaping the outcomes of learners. Pirkei Avot advises us to “find yourself a teacher” – and there are wonderful teachers impacting Jewish education and Jewish learners. But there are many learners and many schools that struggle to “find themselves a teacher,” discovering there are none to be had.
The unspoken crisis in Jewish education is our failure to develop and nurture the human resources that are necessary to grow healthy, connected, knowledgeable Jews. We are not engaging enough bright, dedicated people in careers in Jewish learning. Jewish education is suffering from the same trend as the field of general education, where the number of students majoring in education has steadily declined over the past twenty years. Add to that the comparatively lower salary, limited benefits, heavier workload, lack of boundaries and minimal professional respect in Jewish versus public schools and it becomes easy to understand why people are not choosing the Jewish education career path.
We can label this as a community problem. We can see this as an issue for day schools to solve. But I believe we can only grow Jewish education, and nurture Jewish educators, when each and every one of us considers whether and how we can be part of the solution. Consider your Shabbat table discussions. Are Jewish educators discussed with respect? Are they thanked for the work they do for our children and grandchildren? Are parents and boards of Jewish schools prepared to recognize that credentialed, well-prepared Jewish educators deserve respectable salaries? Will we swell with just as much pride when we introduce our sons/daughters as Jewish educators as when we use the proverbial “my son/daughter the doctor”?
I am very lucky. I have a window into a bright future. At Azrieli, I meet those who, despite the roadblocks, despite the lack of financial promise, despite the long hours and parents and students who kvetch and make demands, are devoting their lives to Jewish education. They are remarkable in their uniqueness, all bringing their particular styles and philosophies of teaching to enrich their students’ learning. They are equally remarkable in their unity of purpose. Virtually every future educator voices a passion for igniting the souls of students, for giving modern youngsters the gift of an ancient mesorah, for touching lives with the warmth and wonder of Torah. I am so inspired by these educators and future educators, and am confident these unique and remarkable professionals will enhance Jewish education in wonderful ways.
Imagine what we could do with dozens more just like them. They are out there. They are high school and college students inspired in their own learning, noting the impact great educators have had on them. They are youth leaders and camp counselors experiencing the satisfaction that comes from being a role model and influencer in the lives of others. They are adults working in careers that are financially lucrative but spiritually limiting. This next generation of inspired and inspiring teachers is watching and listening. Will we, through our actions and words, send the message that Jewish education is no job for a nice Jewish man or woman? Or will we communicate, in our treatment of Jewish schools and educators, that Jewish educators are a treasured resource? Will we support, financially and otherwise, those who will grow the next generation of committed, passionate Jewish learners? We cannot afford to send the wrong message or cut corners. We cannot afford to lose to other careers anyone whose passion, knowledge, skill and commitment belong in our classrooms, nurturing the next generation.
I understand that the issues are complex and the needs considerable. I realize that finding all the resources we need to support Jewish education will be difficult. I am, however, arguing for clarity on one simple fact: Without the right people in our schools and classrooms, no amount of funds will create inspired education. When we recognize that Jewish educators are a highly valuable commodity, and we invest in developing and supporting them, we reap dividends in our children’s and grandchildren’s growth and in a Jewish future that holds great promise.