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Focus on Educators’ Qualities, Not Titles


Who should educate our children? 

As a head of school of a Modern Orthodox high school, I raise this issue because I fear we too often adopt a wrongheaded approach in answering that question.

This wrongheaded approach has, to my mind, been particularly on display during a recent — and largely manufactured — controversy at my own institution, Shalhevet High School, over the appropriate title for a newly hired, and female, member of my Judaic Studies faculty.

As is all too often the case, the controversy devolved into a discussion of what title to give the new faculty member, with some pressing my school to break with our current practice and use a clergylike title for a female faculty member. And while predictable volleys from outsiders were lobbed back and forth, the whole affair struck me as, by and large, a distraction.

My obligation when I wake every morning — not only as a head of school but also as a Jew and father — is to identify people with the right qualities to educate our children. Communally, we should focus less on what we are calling our educators and instead spend more time on ensuring we have educators who are following the calling of great education.

Communally, we should focus less on what we are calling our educators and instead spend more time on ensuring we have educators who are following the calling of great education

Limited school budgets, combined with preferred and more lucrative career options for prospective teachers, make Jewish education a tough sell to some of our best and brightest. But these challenges cannot serve as a crutch or an excuse.  Jewish education can — and must — provide our children with the right environment to become 21st-century Jews, leading lives infused with Torah values as well as both professional and personal satisfaction. To do that,  Jewish day schools must identify the right people to serve as the front line in this holy endeavor.

I raise this issue now because the challenge inevitably pulls us into hot-button topics like rabbinic authority and egalitarianism. But the truth is that even these weighty topics are, by and large, a distraction. If we are going to fulfill our communal responsibility, we must focus on the qualities of great Jewish educators.

So what are the essential qualities of a Jewish educator in a Modern Orthodox day school? It’s hard to narrow the list, and there are some really important qualities that I don’t have room here to mention. But if pressed, here are the three that I can’t live without: a love and passion for Torah and Jewish values; a constant and insatiable desire to improve as an educator; and a deep-seated love for our students.

Candidates with all three are hard to come by because attaining all three requires a range of personal experiences and professional training. But even that isn’t enough. I set aside a significant portion of my budget for professional development for each faculty member because I know that if I want faculty committed to professional growth, I need to put my institutional money where its mouth is and make that possible. All of this is a prerequisite to creating the educational environment that we desperately seek for our children.

But here is one thing that isn’t on my list: I’m not focused on what I’m going to call them. In recent years, I have hired an aspiring musician, an electrical engineer and a would-be lawyer. For each of them, the litmus test was not whether he or she had rabbinic ordination. To be sure, being a rabbi is a huge plus in that it is one of the best proxies for deep love and passion for Torah. But in the end, it is only a proxy. And as a head of school, I cannot become obsessed with proxies. There simply is too much at stake in Jewish education to abandon the ultimate objective — identifying educators with a deep knowledge of and passion for Torah, who are committed to refining their craft with unbounded love and care for our students.

Let me close with one last point. Lurking in the background of our perceptions about educators is an underlying assumption that non-rabbis are somehow second-class Jewish educators. And so when a particular Jewish educator isn’t called rabbi, there’s an unspoken assumption that he or she is lacking.

But here’s the truth: These clergy expectations are corrosive to Jewish education because they ask our educators to focus more on collecting a title than becoming a first-rate educator. And these expectations of our Jewish educators, in turn, serve to divide our community, pressuring Jewish educators to strive for clergylike titles and forcing educational institutions to make choices about those titles in a highly charged environment.

The reality is that our schools need educators more than they need clergy. Of course, it goes without saying that every Orthodox Jewish day school needs to have first-rate rabbis to provide halachic direction for  students and the school community. But the focus on rabbinic titles puts all the wrong pressures on our educators and distracts them from developing the tools they need to make our schools successful.

It is high time that we stop focusing on what our educators are called and start a far more thoughtful discussion about who we want our educators to be. Ultimately, if we stop worrying so much about what we are calling our educators, we’ll have more time to focus on education’s calling.

RABBI ARI SEGAL is head of school at Shalhevet High School.