Familiar refrain at CAJE: Teachers need more money, respect

Bright, engaging and full of energy, Bethany Spielberg is the kind of classroom teacher any Jewish school would be lucky to have.

Spielberg, 18, an education major at California State University, Fullerton, already teaches second grade at her Reform temple’s religious school.

After a week in St. Louis at CAJE, the annual conference of North American Jewish educators sponsored by the Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education, she remains committed to a teaching career but not in Jewish schools.

“Honestly? It’s because of the money,” she admits.

Spielberg, who attended the conference as one of 26 students chosen for the Schusterman College program, hopes to continue teaching in Jewish supplementary schools after she graduates, but she won’t do it full-time. And that’s not for lack of desire.

“Being Jewish is a big part of my life, and I’d like to give something back,” she said. “I’d love to do it seven days a week, but I’d also love teaching secular school. And if the money is so different … ” Her voice trails off. “It’s hard enough living on a secular teacher’s salary.”

Spielberg’s dilemma highlights the reality of Jewish education at the dawn of the 21st century.

Even as the Jewish community focuses on the goal of Jewish continuity and leaders trumpet the need for high-quality Jewish education, those who are entrusted with the task of delivering that education — the classroom teachers — remain underpaid, overworked and underappreciated.

“It’s totally cause for concern,” said Debbie Enelow, director of education at Temple Isaiah in Walnut Creek. She said the cumulative affect is noticeable in her job and also at the CAJE conference, where this year (her seventh) she saw fewer young people than ever before.

“You’re no longer seeing the number of graduate education students running to the local synagogue for experience,” she said. “And Jewish education is not the top profession that bright, intellectual Jews go in to.”

According to CAJE statistics, more than half the teachers in Jewish congregational and day schools are older than 48.

“We’ve got to shake up our federations and monies, create some task forces and work together to get the Jewish education as a profession up there in status,” Enelow said.

According to CAJE data and preliminary findings from a 2006 study of congregational and day schools in North America, 250,000 children are enrolled in Jewish congregational schools and 175,000 in Jewish day schools. But the 50,000 teachers in those schools have few, if any, benefits — 46 percent of day-school teachers have no health insurance, and their salaries average less than $45,000 a year. The situation is even worse for Jewish preschool teachers, whose annual salary averages $20,000.

That compounds the problem, Enelow pointed out. Even if young teachers want to attend CAJE — a conference she describes with a variety of superlatives — it’s prohibitive for the average Hebrew school teacher or first-year day school teacher.

Enelow would love to see Jewish federations across the country create scholarships for young teachers or students who want to attend the conference but can’t afford to.

“It would enliven what’s happening in schools, letting them see that Jewish education is filled with interesting debates and issues, that we’re not just making challah covers, but making the future of the Jewish people,” she said.

“If they’re isolated in their school, they have old models of what religious schools are. We want them to see new possibilities.”