A Nov. 2020 session of Temple Isaiah's JQuest Hebrew school. (Photo/Courtesy Temple Isaiah)
A Nov. 2020 session of Temple Isaiah's JQuest Hebrew school. (Photo/Courtesy Temple Isaiah)

Facing teacher hiring crunch, Jewish religious schools plan job fair

Last week, the religious school director at Temple Beth Abraham in Oakland got some unfortunate news.

One of Susan Simon’s star teachers, whom she described as the most “warm, cuddly and empathetic human being” you will ever meet in the classroom, called to tell her he wouldn’t be teaching at the Conservative shul this fall. He had to cover for someone else, at a different Bay Area religious school, who had quit.

That left Simon with yet another vacancy just weeks before the start of classes, which begin Aug. 31. And she was running out of ideas.

“You network with everybody you know, you advertise on the few sources you have. But nobody responds,” she said of her efforts to find teachers. “You have tapped out your community.”

Each summer, religious schools (sometimes called “Hebrew schools,” though most don’t use that term anymore) tinker with staff rolls and make a handful of hires to prepare for the upcoming fall.

But this year, religious schools — a feature at nearly all of the region’s largest synagogues and many smaller ones, too — are reporting major challenges as they confront staffing shortages attributable to a mix of pandemic burnout, anxieties about the lingering virus, concerns about commuting and a host of other causes.

“Every year in June, there’s a flurry of people saying, ‘I don’t have enough teachers!’ Who wants to come work for me!” said Jenni Mangel, director of educational leadership at Jewish LearningWorks, the S.F.-based nonprofit active in the world of Jewish community education for more than a century. “This year, the flurry was more like a blizzard.”

Mangel counted 20 job listings on JLW’s listserv, Edulist, between May and June, more than twice as many as last year. Eighteen more were posted from July to August.

So, for the first time since Mangel and her colleague Debra Sagan Massey began working at the nonprofit, JLW organized a job fair. Less than a week later, there was already a waitlist for hiring organizations wishing to participate.

The Jewish Education Virtual Job Fair will be held online on Thursday, Aug. 12, from 7:30 to 8:30 p.m., hosted in partnership with S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children’s Services and JVS. To RSVP and to learn more about teaching opportunities around the Bay Area, click here.

“This is completely new,” said Massey, a senior educator at JLW. She said within 24 hours of proposing the idea, she had “15 educators online saying, ‘Please help us figure this out.’”

One of them was Dorit Hetz-Crane, director of education at Congregation B’nai Tikvah in Walnut Creek. After actively recruiting two new teachers from a pool of religious school alumni, Hetz-Crane said she still has 1½ roles to fill.

Of those who chose not to work this fall, she found a sense of anxiety surrounding Covid-19, particularly since children under 12 are not vaccinated.

“Covid scared people to come and work with kids,” she said.

Others simply felt burnt out after a difficult year in which religious school was conducted entirely over screens. “Everybody needs a break,” she said.

Religious school presents inherent staffing challenges, pandemic or not, Jewish education leaders said. Though the pay rate is significantly higher than California’s average hourly wage, hours are limited, sometimes just  two to four per week, so it’s not enough to earn a living. (One educator called it “grocery money.”)

The religious schools often are held after public and private schools let out for the day, but before the end of the work day — presenting conflicts for those with full-time jobs. And the position requires some familiarity with Judaism, unlike, for example, preschool teaching roles, which can be filled by complete newcomers to Jewish traditions.

Religious school teachers in the Bay Area range in age and experience level, from college students to professionals in their early 30s, middle-age Judaica teachers looking for supplemental income, and retirees.

Another issue, Mangel said, is that because of the pandemic, “people are reassessing how they want to be spending their time. The work of teaching in a supplemental school program is substantial. A lot of folks are saying, ‘I can do other things with that four to eight hours of my week.’”

The traditional perks offered to religious school teachers — like synagogue membership and free tuition for the teachers’ kids — are not cutting it for many organizations, Mangel said. The question of increasing pay can be “painful,” though it’s a conversation frequently had.

“We know synagogue budgets are tight to begin with,” she said. “Synagogues [already] subsidize education programs heavily.”

At Temple Beth Abraham, the reasons for teacher attrition are varied, Simon said.

One teacher retired. Another said they could no longer convince their full-time employer to let them leave early from work. Another lives in San Francisco and didn’t want to commute; and another “was willing to teach, but only online,” as many were able to do last year.

Rabbi Daniel Freedman, of Temple Sinai in Oakland, said he was faced with “so many” teacher openings that he decided, like Hetz-Crane, to actively recruit, rather than wait for responses to online ads or listservs to trickle in.

He scoured the synagogue’s Salesforce database, a repository for contact information for member families, looking for possible candidates.

“We’ve had to think in terms of, who is out there in our community that could be a good fit?”

He said he has achieved “positive results” with this method, but still has openings to fill.

On Thursday night, religious school directors will present their staffing needs to the community, and put their heads together to try to solve the problem. They also hope to connect with candidates.

Among the ideas to be discussed: Whether Bay Area synagogues can share teachers.

“It’s not just a problem one of us is having,” Freedman said. “It’s important to work as a community to address it.”

For his part, Asher Litschwartz, the star teacher who told Temple Beth Abraham he wouldn’t be available this fall, told J. he had already accepted three part-time positions at other Bay Area religious schools, and had rejected offers from two.

He called his scheduling predicament “the Superman problem.”

“While I would love to be everywhere, a lot of communities hold school at exactly the same time,” he said. “I can’t be two places at once.”

Gabe Stutman
Gabe Stutman

Gabe Stutman is the news editor of J. Follow him on Twitter @jnewsgabe.