Success of Jewish day schools breeds crisis

It was, I believe, a disarmingly candid statement during my interview in 1977 that helped get me my job as headmaster of Sinai Akiba Academy in Los Angeles.

“If I were on the board of a day school seeking to hire a headmaster,” I said, “I am not the person I would hire — yet.” At the time a pulpit rabbi interested in education, I made three promises to the search committee: I would go back to school myself, I would make good use of consultants and I would make mistakes.

I carried out all three promises. My board supported the first, funded the second and simply didn’t know what to do about the third. In the course of time, I developed an educational philosophy and vision, learned the ins and outs of daily life in school and the board and I figured out how to support each other by continually focusing on educational excellence.

Why did they take a chance on someone unproven? Unable to identify from the pile of resumes before them an individual with both the paper credentials and the moxie, the board decided to take a chance on someone who, in their judgment, could grow into the job.

Thirty years later, Jewish day schools find themselves facing the same dilemma — and often not succeeding. Directors of organizations like Ravsak (the Jewish Community Day School Network) and Solomon Schechter (the national association of Conservative day schools) report being besieged by calls from schools unable to fill principalships that too often resemble revolving doors.

Observers estimate the average tenure of Jewish day school heads at between two and five years. Having labeled the problem a crisis, a consortium of organizations, including the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education and the Avichai Foundation, recently invited 50 participants to convene at a think tank consultation in New York.

In the last 20 years alone, 300 Jewish day schools have opened in the United States, bringing the total to about 800. In 1980, Los Angeles supported only 17 day schools. Today there are nearly 40.

American Jewish educational history will recall the ’90s as the Jewish high school decade, when Jewish communities as small as Portland created Jewish day high schools. Between 1990 and 2004, some 25 non-Orthodox Jewish day high schools opened.

This is good news for the Jewish future, but we cannot staff these schools. Who would have thought that the solution to a problem would itself become a problem, let alone a crisis?

Two streams of analysis quickly emerged among the think tank participants. According to the first, we need to identify alternative pathways into the profession, creatively recruiting candidates from public and private schools and from other Jewish social services. Equally important, innovative programs could teach schools how to grow their own future leadership from within their teacher ranks.

The other stream of thought identified the problem as the failure of school boards to work in effective collaboration with their heads of school. The board oversteps its bounds, turmoil ensues, the principal is on his or her way out and the board embarks on still another search.

Training and mentoring programs for school boards and heads, according to this point of view, would lead to more stable governing relationships.

Far from contradicting one another, the recruitment analysis and governance analysis actually address different dimensions of the crisis. Those who work in national and regional independent school organizations regale listeners with governance and head turnover horror stories. But the scarcity of personnel for Jewish day schools is at least an equal partner in crisis, and it runs far deeper than the headship.

Probably the single-most frustrating activity of Jewish day school heads is searching for qualified Judaic studies teachers. Although many of us are blessed with gifted teachers, every teacher opening is a cause for hand-wringing.

When seeking general studies teachers, I compete against public and superb independent schools with lovely campuses and substantial salary and benefits packages. I am able to compete successfully. Most important, there are teachers to compete for.

When I need to hire a Judaic studies teacher, I don’t know where to turn. Graduates of Jewish teacher training institutions often lack the Hebrew skills needed for day schools such as mine. Teachers from Israel often lack a religious orientation and, in many cases, basic Judaica knowledge. Rabbinical students foresee greater satisfactions in the pulpit.

The dramatic shortage of well-qualified Judaic studies teachers calls into question the future effectiveness of the day school movement. If this isn’t a crisis demanding a solution, I don’t know what is.

We need to create a viable Jewish education profession offering multiple career tracks, attractive salaries and opportunities for advancement. Only a comprehensive set of initiatives can do this. Examples: identify promising high school students and begin promoting day school work as a future profession for them (one of the many fascinating ideas presented by the think tank organizers). Grab the attention of college and graduate students by creating prestigious, well-funded fellowships for future day school teachers and administrators. Create highly visible, prestigious leadership tracks that enable day school teachers to branch out to curriculum writing, training, administration and mentoring.

People choose careers not only for income but because they perceive opportunities to be challenged, to grow and to enter career paths of status and dignity. We will draw intelligent, able young people to Jewish education not only by offering more viable salaries but by stimulating their imaginations.

We will need funders to support innovative training and mentoring programs, incentive fellowships and promotional activities. We will need Jewish institutions of higher learning and model day schools to create more collaborative teacher and administrator internships and residencies.

Development of a viable life-long profession through a comprehensive set of such initiatives can yield the Jewish teacher and administrator corps necessary to secure the future of Jewish education in America. Fortunately, a critical mass of Jewish educational leadership and potential funding today exists to accomplish this goal, but there is no time for hesitation.

Rabbi Larry Scheindlin is headmaster of Sinai Akiba Academy in Los Angeles.