I recently came across a number of articles in which Jewish educators lamented the challenges of being a teacher in a Modern Orthodox day school. While I was saddened by the pain the authors expressed, I was disappointed by their failure to articulate any of the factors that can make Jewish education a wonderful profession. In order to bring some balance to this communal conversation, I would like to outline some of those aspects. I hope other educators who share my positive experiences and feelings will add their own perspectives to this vital conversation.
Figuring Out the Finances
The most obvious challenge cited by teachers in Jewish day schools is the limited compensation. Truthfully, teacher salaries vary widely from school to school and even among teachers within the same school without any transparency, and I can’t argue that this is not a serious challenge. Nevertheless, I would like to note a few relevant details. First, teachers generally go into work around 180 to 190 days a year. As my graduate school supervising professor liked to say, “The three best things about this field are June, July and August.” When a young person is considering Jewish education as a potential career, it would be misleading to compare educator salaries with those of professionals who work 240 days a year or more. Of course, any teacher who takes his or her job seriously will spend plenty of time working on school-related responsibilities at night as well as during weekends and summers. However, the fact remains that after subtracting 104 days for weekends—most professionals have those days off anyway—we teachers still have around 70 days a year on which we officially do not have work. That time allows for a lot of flexibility, which can be used for more family time (unavailable in many other professions), learning and personal development, or supplemental employment. Indeed, teachers interested in increasing their income often find additional employment opportunities during the summer.
It is somewhat problematic to simultaneously bemoan the oft-cited “tuition crisis” on the one hand, and on the other hand place the onus of raising teacher salaries solely on the schools. The numbers don’t seem to work out. (Of course, schools should certainly provide teachers with the best financial package they can afford.) When we think creatively, we can identify numerous reasonable opportunities interested teachers can pursue to earn some extra income, depending on their skill set, proclivities and the time they’re willing and able to invest. These need not be permanent commitments either; a teacher who has fewer responsibilities at school may take on an additional role in shul or tutor until advancement opportunities at school present themselves. In any event, many of us are familiar with doctors and lawyers who work excessive hours in order to maintain their professional standing and earn the incomes they do. If we need to hustle a little to support our families while also having the privilege to teach Torah to Jewish children, is that not worth it?
Secondly, those of us who teach in Jewish schools never have to worry about the consequences of missing work for chagim, nor do we need to explain why we can’t come in or even answer an email for yet another day in September or October. Most of us typically have off on erev yom tov as well, avoiding the stress experienced by our less fortunate friends who need to be in the hospital or the office while we are able to prepare for the holiday. This also means that for those of us with children, we are not scrambling to figure out childcare on the days when our children have off but most other parents have to be at work. But it’s not only Shabbat and yom tov. Most teachers (unless they live very far from their school) are able to be home for dinner, bath time and bedtime almost every night of the week (if not every night). Again, the same cannot be said for many of our friends in fields such as law, medicine and corporate accounting.
Thirdly, those of us who have children and receive a tuition discount (I understand that the percentages vary based on school policy and other factors), experience a significant financial benefit. Teachers and potential teachers should keep in mind that this can easily amount to far more than the income of an additional part-time job, and since a “professional discount” is not income, it is not taxed (so a penny saved is more than a penny earned). For some teachers, this benefit entirely closes the gap between their current income and the hypothetical income they would be earning had they gone to law school like their parents wanted them to (except if they went to law school, they’d have a lot more debt).
Social at Work
Most of us take for granted that which we have grown accustomed to. I, too, often take for granted the incredible social situation I enjoy at work. In my experience, teachers in general, Jewish or not, are kind and pleasant to be around. Working with such colleagues tends to create a warm and positive work environment, where people care for each other and enjoy spending time together. Of course, this varies to some degree depending on where one works, but I know many Jewish educators in various cities and I’d be more than happy to count myself as one of their colleagues. At the same time, I know plenty of non-educators who experience their work as a lonely place. They are cordial with their colleagues and may even be fortunate enough to work in a place with strong camaraderie. However, few people they work with really understand them. Surely, that may create opportunities for a certain kind of kiddush Hashem, but in many ways, we are seen as exotic and strange. It’s isolating to feel like the “other” every day. For me, most of my closest friends are the people I work with at school.
If we need to hustle a little to support our families while also having the privilege to teach Torah to Jewish children, is that not worth it?
Beyond that, though, when you work in a day school or a yeshivah high school, you are surrounded by people who have chosen, as you have, to dedicate their careers (and likely more than that) to the Torah education and spiritual growth of Jewish children. What are the conversations that take place daily in the teachers room and when we “talk shop”? Yes, we’re people—we talk about what we’re making for Shabbat, what happened in last night’s game and what we’re doing for winter break (yeah, teachers get winter break). But we’re also engaged in a constant dialogue about the most effective ways to inspire Jewish children, which of our holy texts will be the most meaningful to teach, and how we can strike the proper balance between Torah learning skills and Torah literacy. That’s our water cooler talk. That’s our “scuttlebutt.” “Ashreinu mah tov chelkeinu! How good is our portion! How pleasant is our lot!” Choose another profession. I doubt you’ll have a chance to fulfill “nasiach b’chukecha. . . uvahem nehegeh yomam valaylah, we will discuss Your statutes. . . on them we meditate day and night.”
Obviously, a major part of a teacher’s social experience at school is defined by his or her relationships and interactions with students. For me, that means spending a lot of time with adolescents. Exchanges with teenagers can be exhausting, frustrating and even aggravating. But interacting with students is also rewarding, exhilarating and often hilarious.
There are heartwarming experiences that only fellow teachers can identify with. There is that moment when a guest speaker mentions something you taught and fifteen heads turn and look around the room to give you that nod and smile that says, “You taught us this! I guess it is a real thing!” There is the one-of-a-kind feeling when a student who struggled academically or behaviorally is wearing his cap and gown and holding his diploma with a gigantic smile on his face. Whether or not he says anything (and they often do), you and your colleagues know what you did to get him there and can say with a full heart and eyes tearing up, “Baruch shehecheyanu v’kiymanu v’higianu lazman hazeh! Blessed are You Who has kept us alive, sustained us, and brought us to this season.”
You don’t get that in many other careers. Every few months, I get a WhatsApp from alumni, now in yeshivah, seminary or college. They ask for recommendations of sefarim to learn, for citations I taught them, for answers to important questions, and on rare occasions—sometimes when I’ve needed it most—they express hakarat hatov, gratitude, for the time and Torah I shared with them over the years. Do these experiences make it worth putting up with the challenges? For many of us, they certainly do.
If you are an individual who, like most Jewish educators I know, places particular value on personal growth and finding meaning and purpose in your life, I challenge you to find a career better suited to meet those needs than chinuch. I had a rebbi in yeshivah who used to say, “If you want to learn, don’t go into chinuch.” In my experience, there is some truth to that. Some of the people I know who spend the most time learning and learn on the highest level are in professions other than chinuch. They are free to spend non-working hours learning whatever they choose and are not burdened with preparing content and lessons that are geared toward children. However, in my estimation, even those of us whose learning is primarily focused on preparing for our classes are actually spending more time learning than most “balabatim.” I can’t speak for others, but I can say with confidence that I learn significantly more Torah because I am in chinuch than I would if I had chosen another career path. Along these lines, like some other professionals, I, too, think about work when I should be having kavanah during davening. However, for us mechanchim, thinking about work doesn’t mean analyzing stock prices or rehearsing closing arguments. It means trying to figure out how to get kids to internalize Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik’s approach to the spiritual message of the Akeidah or how to help them understand a Tosafot in Arvei Pesachim. As far as yetzer haras go, I’ll take mine.
However, my own personal learning is almost beside the point. A school or yeshivah is a place where personal growth is in the very air we breathe. It is the purpose of its existence. Of course, I experience self-doubt. I question whether I am really making a difference, whether my work is having an impact. But never do I wonder if what I’m trying to accomplish makes a difference. As mechanchim we are attempting to strengthen the future of Am Yisrael. We are working to secure the mesorah of Torat Moshe. Our mandate is to ignite Jewish souls. Personally, I’d rather struggle my way up this hill than sit comfortably atop another. There is dignity in many professions, and certainly in providing for one’s family. But I have never awoken in the morning and asked myself: “Does it matter if I show up to school today?” It matters every day. And that is both an awesome responsibility and an incredible privilege. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks used to say, “If you want to save the Jewish future, you have to build Jewish day schools.” What can be more personally fulfilling than a career dedicated to building those schools and bringing them to life every day?
It is true that making a difference in our students’ lives does result in some inconveniences—as does everything that is truly worthwhile. Over the years—and in recent months—I have heard and read Jewish educators decry the notion that we should be expected to make certain sacrifices in the name of our mission. Of course, communities and administrators should never take advantage of their teachers or burden them with unreasonable expectations, and they should show them proper respect and appreciation. However, if participating in a tisch, oneg or Shabbaton or seeing your students in shul feels so onerous to you, then you are probably in the wrong profession. There is nothing wrong with not enjoying these things—some of my best friends chose not to be in chinuch. But to those who have raised these objections, I implore you—please don’t complain as if your hands were forced and you were bamboozled into spending time with your students outside of school. From my perspective, going to a tisch or learning with students on Shabbat afternoon—even without being paid specifically for it—is indeed extra work and is not necessarily how I would always choose to spend my time. But that is what I signed up for. Expecting this from teachers (within reason, of course) is not taking advantage, and we should not pretend that it is.
I have argued that choosing a career in Jewish education has several benefits both materially and spiritually, and that being a Jewish educator does not demand as much sacrifice as one may have assumed. However, I won’t pretend that you will make as much money or receive as much appreciation or honor as you could in any other field. It’s true: being a mechanech does involve some sacrifice. In summarizing the essential message of the Akeidah, Rabbi Soloveitchik wrote, “Of course, the idea of sacrifice is a cornerstone of Judaism . . . G-d demands that man bring the supreme sacrifice, but the fashion in which the challenge is met is for man to determine . . . G-d wills man to choose the altar and the sacrifice.” As Jews, avoiding sacrifice is not an option. I’ll take an altar that involves teaching Torah and investing in the Jewish future every day. What altar do you choose?
Rabbi Rick Schindelheim has taught Gemara, Tanach and Jewish history at Fuchs Mizrachi School in Cleveland since 2013. He works at Camp Stone in the summers.