We wish to congratulate the five principals of the Bergen County yeshivot/day schools on their insightful May 1 open letter. The fact that they could all agree to delineate their composite opinions into one text reflects well on the principals, their schools, and the Bergen County Jewish community.
The letter outlines their specific commitment to achieve the “highest standards of instruction and learning” as well as their schools’ maximum “efforts to be fiscally responsible.” We particularly applaud their recognition of the necessity to have “skilled and effective teachers.” It is in this area that we wish to offer some suggestions.
In these financially precarious times, qualified lawyers, doctors, and engineers are finding difficulty in securing or keeping previously safe, lucrative, and prestigious positions. We believe that because of the current problems in Jewish education, we should take advantage of this crisis and forge a concerted effort to successfully attract “our best and brightest to choose Jewish education as a career path,” as the principals wrote. What we need is a revolution in educational and professional goals for our children. Our rabbis and educators should take upon themselves the task of redirecting our children to the fulfilling and enriching career that blends the highest goals of Jewish theory and practice – Jewish education. This refers not only to Jewish studies teachers but to general studies as well. Maimonides wrote that there is no such thing as “secular” studies – all education leads one closer to God.
How can we bring about this revolution in education and professional goals in the Jewish community? There are many avenues that we can explore. One possibility is to learn from the success of the “Teach for America” project that is breathing new life into inner-city public schools. The number of college graduates who have applied for this program has tripled from 2008 to 2009. Of course, our program, tentatively called “Me’dor L’dor” (“Jewish Education for the Next Generation”), will be directed to fill positions in yeshivot and day schools. We will have to begin our preparation in eighth grade and not only interest parents and students, but excite them as well.
From the outset, it will be an “elitist” program, in the best sense. Candidates chosen to participate will have to be accepted by prestigious universities and take courses not only in Jewish and general studies, but also in educational psychology, pedagogy, and instructional technology. They will be given partial or full scholarships as needed (from community funding) and serve as tutors in yeshivot and day schools while still in university. The successful graduate of this program will be required to teach at least three years in a yeshiva or day school with his/her salary guaranteed (again from community funds). After the three years, the participant could opt out and choose another career.
Where will the “community funds” come from? With ingenuity, determination, and conviction, our lay leadership will find funds for this project (as they have for other projects such as Birthright Israel). The community will also find ways to meet some of the other challenges that may occur such as: What consequences will there be if a student completes the preparation program and chooses not to teach afterwards? What if a student begins his/her studies in one Jewish community and wishes to teach in another Jewish community? What requirements must each school meet in order to take part in this program? On what basis would the teachers be allocated to the participating schools? How will this complex project be administered successfully without succumbing to bureaucratic atrophy?
Obviously, these are only a few of the challenges. However the resourcefulness of the Jewish people is unlimited – as long as we focus on one goal, “encouraging the best and the brightest to choose Jewish education as a career path.”
We have outlined only one possible program. We are sure that if we, as a community, devote our effort and ingenuity to the solution of this vital challenge we will ensure the meaningful continuity of our people and tradition.