2006 Rethinking the Standards in Jewish Education
Chananya Weissman
December 20, 2006, The Jewish Press

Now that the issues of unaffordable yeshiva tuitions and youths who opt out of Jewish observance have reached “crisis” proportions, the Jewish community is finally willing to admit that there is a problem. My pessimistic side wonders what calamities must still befall us before all the pontificating will finally turn to meaningful, courageous action. After all, as the saying goes, talk is cheap.

However, one must observe that, despite the increased quantity of Torah study, our generation lacks a strong, influential Gadol Hador who transcends political considerations, petty controversies, and factionalism; who is actively involved in addressing the many critical issues facing the Jewish people today; who is proactive in seeing that problems are actually solved; who, quite frankly, will go down in history for doing more than telling people whether the chicken is kosher or treif (or, more likely, that we should treat it as treif just to be safe).

This observation is immediately squelched for being sacrilegious, despite no supporting evidence to the contrary, and the world marches blissfully on.

But the burning question remains: if more people are learning Torah today than ever before, shouldn’t we have more and greater talmidei chachamim than ever before? And if one will counter that it is spiritually impossible for that to occur due to an inevitable decline in generations (an analysis I would dispute based on the ebb and flow of Torah scholarship and observance throughout the ages), shouldn’t we at least have more and greater talmidei chachamim than we have right now? Shouldn’t the decline to this generation from the previous few in terms of outstanding Torah leadership have been far less precipitous?

The only conclusion, if one is going to be honest about it, is that there is something fundamentally wrong with the way Torah is being taught and studied.

Further, one must also counter the glowing remarks about the “kiruv movement” with the observation that the already-observant community is hemorrhaging with dropouts. This observation is usually brushed away with diatribes against television, the Internet, secular studies, and anything else that can’t be viewed in the nearest mirror. Is it sacrilegious to consider the possibility that the observant community bears at least part of the blame for the disaffection of many of its own members?

There are too many things wrong with the way the Torah is being taught and studied to adequately address in a single article. Problems of great magnitude and scope can’t be neatly reduced to a few hundred words, nor do sound bites make effective solutions. If we are truly interested in addressing the needs of our generation, we must think deliberately, then act decisively “ not the reverse! Here’s a start.

The two most striking problems with Jewish education that no one seems to be talking about are: 1) A lack of appreciation for the unparalleled mission that is entrusted to teachers, and 2) A lack of professionalism and accountability in the way schools are run.

Everyone innately knows that teachers are vitally important to the educational process, yet the way people tend to relate to teachers reveals a casual, dismissive perception of teachers and their profession. Look no further than the ads for teachers in the back of the Jewish Press. More than a few of them boast that they pay their teachers ON TIME. That’s one of their main selling points to prospective teachers. Wow, sign me up!

Honestly, would we imagine ever not paying the custodian on time? Would we expect the custodian to return to work month after month without receiving his salary? Yet somehow it’s become accepted, even expected, for teachers to continue performing at their jobs “ and always on time “ without getting paid in a timely fashion. (It should also be noted that withholding the wages of a worker is an issur d’oraysa.) We expect teachers to go without pay as part of the inherent “sacrifice” of being a teacher, and schools exploit the dedication (and desperation?) of teachers when money is a little tight. We expect teachers not to quit, and we don’t expect this of anyone else.

It is also not unusual for yeshivos to change the terms of the compensation (inevitably for the worse) after the school year has begun “ when it is too late for a teacher to realistically find another job. It is perfectly acceptable for a yeshiva to inform its faculty that money is tight, and therefore the salaries will have to be lowered, but a teacher can’t tell the school that money is tight, and therefore he expects a raise. (It should also be noted that changing the salary of workers after an agreement has been made is reminiscent of Lavan “ not exactly the role model our yeshivos should be emulating.)

Now that we’re on the topic of compensation, a full-time teacher in the yeshiva system does not earn enough money to support a family. Period. While we expect our teachers to be brilliant, knowledgeable, and multi-talented, we fail to realize that such people are particularly likely to notice that they can be compensated far more adequately in nearly every other profession (including the public school system). How can we expect our best and brightest to become teachers if we don’t pay them a living wage? And how can we expect our teachers to believe the complimentary platitudes we may shower upon them if we don’t show our respect where it counts most?

Not surprisingly, the yeshiva world tends to lure new teachers into the fold by two methods: impressing upon people from an early age that it’s a noble “sacrifice” to become a teacher, and depriving those who study Torah of the skills to get a “real job”. Indeed, it is the policy of many yeshivos to not hire a Rebbe who has attended college, even if he might be the greatest talmid chacham and the best teacher around. Better an inferior Rebbe to teach Torah to our children than one who has the stain of secular knowledge! The Jewish day school system is surely one of the few employment systems in the entire world that as a matter of official policy will not hire the best available candidate. This is aside from the widespread practice to hire Rebbeim with a familial connection to the administrators, regardless of their competence or lack thereof.

Being a teacher is often viewed as a great handicap in the shidduch world, and the lower earning potential of teachers is why many a Jewish mother discourages her son from pursuing teaching as a career. Of course, we highly respect and value teachers, but we wouldn’t want our own son to be one or our daughter to marry one. Let someone else sacrifice a decent lifestyle for the continuity of Jewish education. Can you entirely blame people for feeling this way? Bear in mind that not only must an effective teacher be brilliant, knowledgeable, and multi-talented, but an effective teacher must be: an excellent speaker; a master of conflict resolution; able to deal with a variety of personalities in children and adults; highly organized; entertaining; efficient; punctual; sensitive; and so much more. Again, if you have all these qualities, are YOU signing up to work in your nearest yeshiva for a pittance, or are you applying to become the CEO of a major company?

Since not many of you opted for the former, yeshivas must scramble to find minimally qualified candidates, and generally wind up with kids just out of seminary who have no intention of pursuing teaching as a long-term career. The turnover rate tends to be extremely high; how many teachers do you know who last more than 5 years in the same school? This situation benefits no one, and further underscores that the attitude toward teaching and the treatment of teachers is very, very wrong. Even the most idealistic of teachers will burn out after a few years of being mistreated and grossly underpaid.

Worse still, many yeshivas content themselves with constantly rotating a staff of untrained, uncommitted neophytes. Their main concern is not with hiring and retaining the best teachers money can buy, but with hiring the lowest bidder. The assumption is that all teachers are pretty much the same and anyone can teach Chumash and Rashi. This couldn’t be more wrong, and goes a long way toward explaining why our generation is ignorant of the fundamentals of Judaism and generally apathetic, if not cynical and turned off. You get what you pay for, and many yeshivas insist on paying for glorified babysitters and entrusting them with the minds and souls of our children. Even yeshivos that value professional training expect the world of their teachers, yet neglect to compensate accordingly. It’s just not realistic.

This leads us to the other problem mentioned above: the disorganization and lack of professionalism of many of our “finest” yeshivos. One of the high-ranking administrators at Yeshiva University advises not to bother applying to yeshivos until after Pesach; otherwise they are guaranteed to lose the resume (instead of just likely). Indeed, the lack of professionalism and basic derech eretz that teaching applicants regularly encounter with yeshiva administrators is astounding, and can fill an entire column all by itself. And it’s not as if they pay enough to buy one’s dignity....

If one suspects that these are merely the gripes of a disgruntled teacher, I invite you to consider your own experiences with your neighborhood yeshiva. Is the atmosphere one of warmth and sensitivity, of dignity and respect for all people? Do you feel that the appropriate people have time and interest for you and your children when there is a problem or a concern? Are you comfortable approaching them, or apprehensive? Do you in your heart of hearts believe that your local yeshiva would go out of its way to help you and your child, even if you have nothing special to offer them? Shouldn’t your child’s neshama be the most special thing you can offer them?

I know, I know, there isn’t enough time or money to be there for everyone. So they say, and to a certain extent it’s true. But does your yeshiva come across as empathetic and truly distressed that they can’t do more for you and your child, or are they anxious to be rid of you and your issues? Can we afford for an institution that purports to transmit Torah to children not to be a truly warm and caring place with dignity and respect for all? If those running some of our institutions are too harried and overburdened to find a moment for basic derech eretz, perhaps they are the ones who need to be replaced. Perhaps they need to rethink why they entered the world of chinuch in the first place, if not to be involved in Torah and chessed during normal business hours.

In sum, the Jewish day school system has incorporated the ruthless, cutthroat mentality of Wall Street, but not the professionalism. We have taken the bad and discarded the good!

As for money, it is inconceivable to me that tuitions can increase without end, yet teacher salaries remain essentially the same. The Jewish public must know what money is coming in and where it is being spent. Parents seeking financial assistance are put through the ringer. The schools must open up as well if they claim there isn’t enough money.

People should also realize that if a school finds some extra money they are more likely to use it to beautify the front lawn than to give teachers a financial boost. Where are the priorities? If there is not enough money to provide the best of everything, then ensuring that schools can hire and retain the best and brightest teachers, ensuring that teaching is an attractive long-term career for our best and brightest, must be the absolute first order of business. If there is money left over, then we can provide state-of-the-art gymnasiums, computer labs, extra-curricular activities, extravagant field trips, and other non-essentials. A generation ago none of these perks were available, yet students were more Jewishly committed and, I would suspect, happier as well. What everyone remembers most about their years of schooling is their teachers. The best teachers — and, God help us, the worst.

As for gedolim, instead of trying to mass-produce them in factories, the emphasis should be on providing an authentic and meaningful Jewish education for the greatest number of people, while eliminating the callousness and myopia from our institutions. The natural effect of creating an atmosphere in which all students have a positive experience and can reach their potential is that those with the greatest potential will become gedolim. Trying to force the issue with the most brilliant children while dismissing or destroying others doesn't seem to be working out very well.

History and our current generation have shown that the Jewish community only acts when its back is against the wall. We might be able to stagger on this way for a little while longer. But I dearly hope that people will care enough about the future of the Jewish people, if not their own children, to step out of the anonymous shadows and bring meaningful change to the system.

Chananya Weissman is proud to be a Rebbe, and is the founder of EndTheMadness (www.endthemadness.org). His collection of original divrei Torah, “Sefer Keser Chananya”, can be obtained by contacting him at admin@endthemadness.org.