Teacher Recruitment Among Graduate Students in Jewish Studies

Jan 24, 2006

This article originally appeared in Ten Daat 1996, 9:1, pp. 83-86. Reprinted here with permission.
Over the last several years, two trends have emerged-one in the general culture and one in the Jewish-which pose an interesting and unprecedented challenge to day school education in America.
Despite the rising costs of college tuition, which substantially outpaced the rate of inflation over the last fifteen years, many institutions of higher education find themselves facing severe budgetary crunches. Since the recession of the early 1990’s, universities and liberal arts colleges have been forced to mimic for-profit businesses and “downsize,” in many cases imposing hiring freezes on departments for the foreseeable future, and hiring the academic equivalent of “office temps” (graduate students and adjunct professors) to offer the variety of courses to the students. In this contracting market, students with advanced degrees are finding it harder and harder to secure tenure-track positions; typically, an advertised academic position will attract hundreds of applications.
Jewish studies is no exception to this trend. Graduate students who have spent three or four years after coursework specializing in a particular area of Jewish history or thought are finding fewer and fewer openings, except, perhaps, Holocaust studies. In what was once considered an ever-expanding field in academia, Jewish Studies at most major colleges and universities already has its faculty in place, with few prospects for expansion. Furthermore, the occasional opening in a far- flung college is often unattractive to these recent Ph.D.’s; these jobseekers generally have a higher degree of Jewish identity and affiliation (reflected in their academic pursuit), and require a more developed Jewish infrastructure than these locations can provide.
In stark contrast to this academic austerity and pessimistic prospects for employment, Jewish education at all levels has received a long overdue financial infusion. Without inspecting or analyzing the merits or the nation-wide campaign for Jewish “continuity,” it is evident to every identity-conscious Jew that the organized Jewish leadership has finally decided to devote more resources to Jewish education. The major concern or most Jewish educational institutions today is finding qualified professionals in education who are prepared to assume these much-needed roles. At the risk of sounding trite, it seems that this is a match made in heaven: those with advanced degrees in Jewish Studies could staff the day schools and synagogue programs which so desperately need greater numbers of qualified educators.
To be sure, many Hebrew schools and Jewish high schools have employed graduate students as part-time or full-time teachers, offering them income to supplement their usually meager financial aid or scholarship money. While this threatened to extend the time it would take to finish their degrees, students who married and even began small families had no recourse but to find employment which would offer them an income, (in most cases) medical coverage, and relatively flexible schedules which would allow for continuing one’s research, particularly during the summers. However, most of these teachers (while certainly not all) left their positions to seek the academic posts which had, understandably, been their holy grail since they first enrolled in graduate school. The luster of the title “college professor” certainly outshone that or “high schoolteacher.”
Nevertheless, I believe that the confluence of factors I outlined earlier suggests that there is a shidukh here between a community in need of Jewish educators and the army of Jewish Studies masters and doctoral students who are either unemployed or are reluctant to accept (or remain at) positions where the Jewish infrastructure is underdeveloped. But this match will require more than a singles shabbaton in the mountains. Nothing short of active recruiting and other measures are required to court these candidates and offer them positions which will make Jewish education an attractive alternative to the ivory tower.
As in any business which seeks to lure qualified candidates for jobs, lay leaders in Jewish education must appreciate who these persons are and what they seek. For the most part, these graduate students and recent awardees have become accustomed to intellectual discourse at a rather high level, reading specialized literature and conversing with colleagues and mentors in relatively narrow fields. In short, they were being socialized into the academic community, with expectations of continuing to be stimulated in this way and even ultimately to contribute to it. Jewish institutions must offer support to allow these teachers to maintain their connection to a particular field of expertise, whether in the form of attending conferences, having one or two free afternoons to work in research, subscribing to professional journals, or providing typing services for professional papers. With a relatively minimal expenditure of funds, yeshivah high schools can make these people feel that their academic activities are appreciated and valued.
Perhaps the most serious concern is the academic’s expectation to be teaching college and graduate students. But while high school students are younger, they are usually taking Jewish studies at a higher level than that offered in most college-level Jewish Studies courses. Their language skills coupled with their general knowledge of Judaism make primary Jewish sources available to them in ways rarely matched on college campuses today. This is an important recruitment tool that should not be overlooked. Moreover, if a school offers, say, the Yeshiva University Advanced Placement Program in Jewish History, a Ph.D. in that field has the opportunity to teach a rather sophisticated course, usually to a group of highly motivated seniors; CEEB-AP in European History might be another course that a trained historian could teach in a challenging and satisfying way. For the schools which offer electives to juniors and seniors, more specialized courses in Jewish philosophy or biblical literature could be constructed which would not only provide additional teaching opportunities for such teachers, but would also have the advantage of revitalizing the school curriculum. Another area for intellectual challenge can be found in arranged adult education for the parent body, local congregations, or the city’s JCC.
Virtually every person with a graduate degree in a non-professional field is painfully aware that graduate education entirely ignores developing the skills required to teach. While academics may learn pedagogy over time (often at their students’ expense), Jewish educators require competence in classroom management, writing tests, making up assignments and discipline almost immediately. Intensive in-service and teacher supervision must be provided to these academics in order to ease their transition into an educational environment vastly different from the one to which they were accustomed. “Crash courses,” whether in-house or at local teachers’ colleges, may be required the summer before they begin in order to prepare them for what lies ahead. These would also be appropriate for kollel and yeshivah students who begin teaching.
Without a doubt, trained academics who enter Jewish education are making a profound shift in their vocational paradigm. Rather than attempt to cushion that change post facto, it is also possible to approach this issue more globally by actively entering the Jewish Studies programs around the country and identifying those students who may be interested in Jewish education. On the model of the Jerusalem Fellows Program (which funds teacher development and enrichment in Israel in return for a commitment to teach several years in the Diaspora), individual schools or regional Federations may choose to fund a graduate student in return for a commitment to take certain courses in education and commit several years to teaching within Jewish education. Wexner Fellowships do this on a national level and in a very limited way; it should be duplicated on a more local level to include scores of potential teachers. Of course, schools or synagogues would have to guarantee spaces for these candidates, which may not always be possible. But this is, in the end, a mere technical problem. In any event, a program such as “Jewish Education Fellowships” would ensure a pool of highly qualified Jewish educators who would be entering the field every year, to the benefit of all concerned.
To be sure, several if not many Jewish Studies majors are dedicated to a life of scholarship and research, mining archives or collecting data in order to reveal every nuance and shade of Jewish culture throughout the millennia. For those who see their true vocation among the library stacks, college teaching is more or less their only option. However, life is often more complex, involving spouses with careers, children with educational needs, and basic financial considerations. In the complicated calculus of choosing a career, Jewish education is able to offer graduate students in Jewish Studies a reasonable and even attractive alternative to the university. The call of the hour is for Jewish leadership to develop methods to actively recruit these talented young men and women, shemah yahtefenah aher.