Top-quality Jewish schools require investing in top teachers

America has come to understand the importance of education for all of its children. In a new century in which handling information promises to be more important than handling physical resources, effective education for a lifetime of learning is going to be the bedrock for success.

Jews have long understood the importance of study both as a religious activity and as the passageway to a shared culture. American Jews are waking up to how important it is to give their children a solid Jewish education so that they can choose the part they will play in the future of our people. The problem is that our educational systems are having a hard time keeping up, basically because we don't have enough good teachers for our day schools or for our congregational schools, where the majority of our children are formally trained in our heritage.

The problem is hardly new. Jewish schools can't count on ethnicity to attract the best teachers, because Jews have long been able to find jobs in public schools or, in the case of the congregational part-timers, in the general sector. But the problem is getting worse ironically because the national commitment to Jewish education is boosting enrollments faster than we can attract quality people to become teachers. The Jewish community is not powerless to address the issue. There are a number of very specific steps that philanthropists, community organizations and individuals can start taking right now.

Nationally, we are failing to draw our best young people into teaching careers. The percentage of young Jews who choose to work in our day schools is pitifully small. To address that problem, we should create a national Jewish Teachers Superfund, with an initial endowment of $50 million. The fund would provide either reimbursement for college tuition or repayment of student loans for any new day school teacher or full-time congregational teacher under the age of 30.

Even more proactively, the fund could provide scholarship assistance or low-cost loans for college students who are committed to entering Jewish education. It should also be used to fund experiments in broadening outreach by congregational schools, so they can tap sources, such as teachers colleges, or provide training for older people who are returning to the job market. The program can draw inspiration from the work of the Wexner Foundation, which has been paying full college tuition plus healthy stipends for rabbis as well as Jewish educators and social workers for more than a decade. Until the initial goal of $50 million is met, private foundations should commit $5 million a year immediately.

Working largely through federations across the nation, our community leadership has risen to the challenge of improving both day and congregational schools, investing energy and money in the task. These local initiatives have produced some notable successes that could be more widely emulated.

At the end of the day, however, successful Jewish education will depend on keeping good teachers in the classrooms. That means paying them better and showing them the respect they deserve.

Synagogues, federations and other local agencies must resolve to put more in the paychecks. They can increase per capita payments to the schools and raise both the number and the size of scholarships they give to needy students. And they ought to find creative ways to show teachers that they are admired outside of the classroom. The Mandel Foundation done a fine job in training the leaders of Jewish schools and raising the standards for the job. That work now has to be broadened to embrace the classroom leaders.

We will get good teachers if we as individuals start showing that we truly value what they do and who they are. A few simple steps such as volunteering to help with a congregational class project, for example, or seeking out a classroom teacher for praise might help. Far more important in the long run will be a shift in attitude; we need to encourage our children to pursue careers in education as vigorously as we steer them to becoming doctors, lawyers or businesspeople.

Keeping good people teaching in our Jewish schools requires salary dollars. But it's also important that we as parents and community members respect the people to whom we entrust our most precious resource — our children.