From payroll to morale to pensions

From payroll to morale to pensions

Torah Education Network tackles day-to-day issues of Orthodox day schools

Executive directors of Jewish day schools in Bergen County convene in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
Executive directors of Jewish day schools in Bergen County convene in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

Education is a calling; helping children grow.

Jewish education, with its spiritual component of guiding young souls, is even more so.

But it is also a day-in, day-out job.

And for whom in a school is that more the case than the executive director, who focuses not on the school’s vision but on its day-to-day management, even unto payroll?

Which is where the Torah Education Network comes in.

The story of how the executive directors of 10 local Jewish day schools found themselves in a room in Florida earlier this month, under the auspices of the newish Jewish network, begins with a conversation Rabbi Perry Tirschwell had with his financial planner two decades ago.

Rabbi Tirschwell then was the head of Boca Raton’s Weinberg Yeshiva High School, which he founded and led for 15 years before moving to Teaneck. The financial planner advised him to join the Rabbinical Council of America. Rabbi Tirschwell knew that many of his former classmates at Yeshiva University’s rabbinical school were members — those who had chosen to work in synagogue pulpits rather than as educators. What his financial planner told him was that the RCA’s pension plan offered a benefit he couldn’t get from a standard 401-K: the ability to take out retirement benefits as tax-free parsonage payments.

(Parsonage, to recap for those not familiar with clerical accounting, is income that clergy receive to pay for their housing. The original idea was that the IRS would not tax the cash-free housing benefits of priests and ministers who live in church-owned properties. This has expanded to include clergy who are paid in cash, and clergy has been defined broadly to include religious studies teachers, even if they are not ordained.)

Rabbi Tirschwell started thinking about parsonage plans — and how there was no retirement fund for Jewish educators that qualified, as does the RCA pension plan, as a church plan under IRS regulation.

He urged the RCA to open itself — and its pension plan — to Jewish educators.

No dice.

“RCA is a pulpit rabbi organization,” Rabbi Tirschwell said. “It’s like dermatologists and brain surgeons. They went to the same medical school but do vastly different things. We went to rabbinical school together, but we do vastly different things for a living.”

After leaving Florida for New Jersey — Rabbi Tirschwell taught at the Frisch School, where he had been a student, for two years at the beginning of his career — he realized that there was no forum that brought together different Orthodox Jewish educators, let alone that offered them a pension plan.

Rabbi Perry Tirschwell

So he founded the Torah Educators Network. Its immediate goal is to allow educators to network, and to share information that will help them in their day-to-day jobs. Its longer-term mission is to offer an IRS-compliant church pension plan.

Last year, Rabbi Tirschwell’s first conference for Orthodox day school executive directors brought 38 of them. This year, 64 executive directors came from across the country, including representatives of 10 Bergen County schools. The program was mostly presented by the executive directors themselves, with topics including budgeting, pay scales, and maintaining staff morale.

“All the research says that if your faculty’s happy, your students will be happy and your parents will be happy,” Rabbi Tirschwell said. “If your faculty is unhappy, that trickles down.”

Holding on to teachers will be an increasing challenge for schools, Rabbi Tirschwell said. “We have the tightest employment market in 50 years. Every year since 2006 the number of people applying to graduate schools of education has gone down. People are not going into teaching. YU’s Azrieli School of Education has the same challenge.”

In June, the network will hold its second conference for Jewish studies teachers from modern Orthodox schools. Last year, 125 teachers came from 22 high schools across the country. This year’s conference will include middle school teachers as well.

In May, TEN will revive a conference that NCSY ran in 2010 and 2011 for experiential Jewish educators from schools, summer camps, youth groups, and synagogues. “We’re trying to bring together people who do the same thing for a living, in this case trying to inspire teenagers,” Rabbi Tirschwell said.

So how does this tie into Prizma, the umbrella organization for Jewish day schools of all denominations? One difference is that Prizma is focused on schools as members, rather than on individual school staff. Its conference, Rabbi Tirschwell said, tends to bring in experts, as opposed to his peer-to-peer approach. “There has to be a venue for people just sharing good ideas from the front line,” he said. “I hope we’re complementing each other.”

And of course, TEN plans to offer a pension plan, “hopefully at some point later this year.” This week, because he was “making sure all the I’s are dotted and T’s are crossed,” he attended the Church Benefits Association convention in New Orleans.

“One of the lessons I took away from living in Florida is that people are living much longer but they’re not working much longer,” Rabbi Tirschwell said. “I know people who are playing tennis twice a week at 85, but not a lot of teachers going to work in their 70s. It’s not unusual to live after 100 now. The question is how are they going to afford that?

“If there’s a way to extend the savings of every Jewish studies teacher by a third” — that is, through tax-free parsonage payments — “a totally legal way, that every Roman Catholic priest has and every Protestant minister, that every pulpit rabbi has — someone should take care of it.”

Most of the day schools, he said, pay some of their Judaic studies teachers’ salaries as parsonage. This includes women, who are not ordained as rabbis but qualify under the IRS guidelines.

Rabbi Tirschwell said he expects the plan to be administered by an organization such as TIAA, the pension fund that many schools use. “People will have choices in how the money’s invested,” he said. “When they retire, starting at age 70 1/2, they’ll be able to put in for parsonage, whether they’re living in Century Village or Beit Shemesh or are still in Teaneck.”

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