Letters – Winter 2022

Responding To The Teacher Shortage

As a retired pulpit rabbi and educator, I found the article by Rachel Schwartzberg regarding the teacher shortage in day schools (“The Great Teacher Shortage,” summer 2022) informative. However, the author overlooked a resource that could provide a solution to the issue at hand.

Retired teachers may be willing to share their expertise with schools. Successful teachers are not relegated to a certain age group, and productive retired instructors need not be proficient in the latest educational gimmicks and techniques in order to be effective. If need be, these new methods of instruction can be learned by willing retired personnel.

The love of Torah study and the observance of the mitzvot, the goals of religious Jewish education, are cultivated more by the personality of the instructor and his or her dugma ishit [personal example] than by some arbitrary educational method. The retired educator may be that person who can inspire a future generation.

Rabbi Howard Finkelstein

Rabbi emeritus, Congregation Beit Tikvah, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada Emeritus head of Jewish studies, Ottawa Jewish Community School

 

I concluded my reading of Rachel Schwartzberg’s article with a resounding plea of “Yes, and…”

I believe there is at least one more critical piece of the puzzle we call Jewish education, and this involves changing the mindset of parents. If you will permit me, I would like to address them directly.

Dear Parents,

I understand why you do not want your children to become teachers. They are highly intelligent, talented individuals and you have invested so much money and time into their k–12 schooling and college. They could do anything; why should they settle for teaching? The pay is miserable, and the status is even worse. The day schools and yeshivot will hire almost anyone to teach, regardless of background or credentials. Anyone can teach, correct?

When I speak to undergraduate college students about why they should consider majoring in education, I often run up against candidates who tell me their parents will not let them major in education for many of the reasons cited above.

I believe that what is lacking in our communities is a fundamental respect for the profession, for the knowledge, skills and disposition that comprise the discipline of education. Yes, education is a social science. It is a field informed by rigorous clinical research and scholarship. Thinking you can teach because you went to school is like thinking you can practice medicine because you have been to lots of doctor appointments.

Pedagogy involves more than knowing the academic content of the grade level or subject. Teaching anyone anything is a complex endeavor that includes psychology, philosophy and the science of learning, in addition to knowledge of the content area. It is an awe-inspiring job that takes intelligence, creativity, compassion and humility. And it is absolutely thrilling. The intricate problem solving and critical thinking required to be effective in the classroom is a seriously demanding task. Horace Mann reminds us that “Teaching is the most difficult of all arts, and the profoundest of all sciences.” Unless parents let their children formally enter the profession, the quality, efficiency and future of our schools and institutions will suffer irreparable harm.

Dear parents, please ask yourself, “Who do you want to teach your children and grandchildren?”

We need to cultivate a renewed emphasis on the field of education. We can encourage our children to choose the profession of teaching. We can let those who are passionate about the field pursue their dreams. We can empower schools to hire and support qualified teachers. We can raise the status of the profession mindfully and deliberately.

So what can we do about this critical teacher shortage?

  1. Permit our children to pursue undergraduate and graduate degrees in education.
  2. Craft and fund scholarships for undergraduate and graduate programs in education.
  3. Encourage schools to hire highly qualified teachers, compensate them appropriately and support their professional growth and development.
  4. Shift the language we use when talking about teachers and teaching.
  5. Demonstrate respect for the discipline.
    Let’s join together to make this happen, b’ezras Hashem.

Miriam Hirsch, PhD
Associate professor of education
Chair, Educator Preparation Program
Stern College for Women, Yeshiva University

 

Thank you for highlighting the critical issue of staffing day schools and yeshivot. As always, Jewish Action comments on contemporary topics of importance to the Jewish community.

I believe there are innovative ways of dealing with the problem, beginning with, of course, the Torah. According to most authorities, the Levi’im were the mechanchim for the Jewish people. They were supported by ma’aser, communal funds.

Communities, especially outside of New York City, where the problem is most acute, can work with schools to help talented educators remain in the classroom. Communities can help with housing (I was once offered free housing for a teaching position in a Canadian community), and teachers deemed essential to the pedagogic goals of these institutions can be hired to assist with adult education and other projects within these communities.

Many of our children, especially in the Modern Orthodox world, don’t see chinuch as a reasonable career choice because of the pay scale, but also because of status. Many schools are therefore getting mechanchim from sources far to the right of the schools’ hashkafah, not by choice but by necessity.

When I was in NCSY and YU in the late 60s and early 70s, the strongest students were interested in rabbinics or medicine; today, the best and brightest are studying business and high tech, for reasons beautifully elucidated in the Jewish Action issue on the economics of frum life (fall 2021).

If we want the next generation of American Orthodox Jews to look anything like this one, we must find the right role models and keep them in the classroom.

Dave Walk

Yerushalayim, Israel
Semi-retired rebbi; former New Jersey NCSY regional director, 1974–75, and rebbi (Manhattan Hebrew High School, Hebrew Academy of Atlantic County, Yeshivat Hamivtar and Bi-Cultural Day School)

 

Remembering A Special Teacher

I would like to add to Lillie Mermelstein’s story (“Teachers to Remember,” fall 2022) about Mrs. Ruth Kalish [who enabled Lillie, who had been stricken with polio, to attend a Jewish school by promising to carry her down the stairs in case of a fire]. I was two or three grades ahead of Lillie. What the article didn’t say was that the staircase in the school was at least two stories high, with a landing only halfway up!

Mrs. Kalish also made it a habit to call each student by the Jewish name he or she was given at birth. Since many of the children came from non-observant homes, she wanted to make sure they all knew their Jewish names so that when it came to marriage (or divorce), the correct name would be used.

Miriam Levitz

Brooklyn, New York

 

Genuine Diversity

I would like to add a footnote to Moishe Bane’s excellent article about diversity (“Don’t Squander the Benefits of Orthodox Fragmentation,” [summer 2022]).

I was at Ner Yisroel when it started its Mechina division, an entry-level program, in 1957. There was an Iranian boy in the Mechina division who was allowed to take off his yarmulke when he left the yeshivah’s premises, as that was the custom in Iran. There was also a boy from Toronto who was an avid Bnei Akiva-nik, who was permitted to leave the yeshivah on Shabbos afternoon to attend the local Bnei Akiva program.

Marty Katz

Jerusalem, Israel

 

Orthodox And Liberal

In his article “The State of Jewish Outreach” (fall 2022), Rabbi Doron Kornbluth writes: “Liberalism is strong among many Jews today and can be a major hindrance to religious growth.” I believe it’s a mistake to view liberal political views as something incompatible with an Orthodox life.

If kiruv professionals approach unaffiliated Jews with the prejudiced belief that their liberal politics are a barrier for them to overcome, it will reflect negatively on their ability to connect with young Jews who could otherwise be seriously interested in living an observant life. People who are open to considering an Orthodox life need to see a potential future for themselves that does not require changing everything about their identity. If they feel that Orthodoxy is only for the political conservative, many won’t even give it consideration, and the makeup of the Orthodox community will become increasingly narrow. One of Orthodoxy’s strengths is how diverse our communities are by comparison to the non- Orthodox movements, which often represent quite-narrow segments of the community based on ethnic background, income level and political views. We should be united in our shared commitment to Torah and halachah and not divided over politics.

Steven Dubois

Chicago, Illinois

 

Rabbi Doron Kornbluth is to be congratulated on his well- written and engaging essay on Jewish outreach. However, I have two concerns about the article.

Rabbi Kornbluth implies that there’s a conflict between American political liberalism and Orthodox Judaism. It is true that some positions taken by liberalism, such as on abortion and homosexuality, are deeply problematic from a Torah perspective. But on many other issues, such as climate, the environment, poverty, immigration and access to health care, liberal positions can be quite compatible with Orthodoxy.I certainly hope so, as I consider myself to be both strictly Orthodox and politically liberal. Since the American Orthodox Jewish community tends to be politically conservative, there is a danger that some prospective ba’alei teshuvah may feel
that they must surrender all of their political sensibilities and positions to become frum. I don’t believe this to be true.

Secondly, while Rabbi Kornbluth may be right that students are spending less time in Israel and that we need to adjustvto that reality, we must nevertheless teach the centrality
of Eretz Yisrael in Jewish thought. Jews should not be allowed to think that an ideal Jewish life can be lived anywhere but in Eretz Yisrael, even if there are good reasons for them to live elsewhere (I live in Brooklyn). In fact, many ba’alei teshuvah understand this better than those who are born frum, and they therefore make aliyah.

Despite these concerns, I found Rabbi Kornbluth’s article very encouraging and optimistic, and wish him and other outreach professionals the very best success as they work to strengthen Torah observance and the Jewish people.

Michael H. Klein

Brooklyn, New York

 

Rabbi Doron Kornbluth Responds

Many thanks to both Steven Dubois and Michael Klein for taking the time to write and help me clarify (to myself as well!) the liberal/Orthodox relationship.

Both letter writers’ points are well-taken. Liberal positions on issues such as access to medical care and climate change (just two examples of many) do not impede religious growth, and there is little reason to see a contradiction between them and Torah thought. Nevertheless, nearly all of the outreach professionals with whom I consulted when researching the article mentioned liberalism as being a block to their students’ religious growth. This indicates to me that when many young people refer to themselves as “liberal,” they are thinking of issues such as homosexuality, transgender and other identity issues, abortion, and myriad “social justice” issues, not more “pareve” political positions. These “controversial” liberal issues do seem to prevent many Jews from connecting to Torah.

With regard to Mr. Klein’s point concerning teaching the centrality of Israel, I agree with it, albeit that was not the focus of the article.

Thanks again for sharing your thoughtful responses to my article.

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This article was featured in the Winter 2022 issue of Jewish Action.
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