WALTHAM, Mass. — The Talmud teaches that if a king of Israel dies, all Jews are eligible to succeed him. But if a scholar dies, we are told, he cannot be replaced.
I hope this is not so.
Like the talmudic sages, today’s Jewish educators have made it their life’s work to ensure safe passage of our age-old tradition from one generation to the next. But they have become increasingly scarce. The growth we have seen in Jewish day school enrollments over the past two decades is truly a blessing. With it, however, comes an increased demand for qualified Judaic studies and Hebrew teachers — a demand that, sadly, we have not yet met. There simply are not enough of them to meet current needs. Indeed, it is possible that there never were.
This shortage includes administrators and heads of school, to be sure, but there is also growing competition among day schools for engaging and knowledgeable teachers who can educate and excite young minds on topics from Alef-Bet to the Zohar. Such teachers are increasingly hard to come by.
Synagogue religious schools have also long suffered from just such a shortage. In “A Serious Man,” the new film by Joel and Ethan Coen, an elderly man whose accent makes clear he hails from somewhere in Mitteleuropa stands before a synagogue classroom mechanically conjugating Hebrew verbs for bored students. The scenario is so ingrained in our culture that it has now found its way to the big screen.
This is where we find ourselves: on the flip side of a gold coin, struggling to meet wonderful new demands whose emergence would have seemed altogether unlikely just a few short years ago.
The Jewish community must move quickly to prepare more, better teachers for both day- and religious-school classrooms. We must place a greater emphasis on encouraging our bright and talented young people to consider the field of Jewish education as a serious career opportunity. We must recruit and train them. And then we must work hard to compensate them fairly and to retain them.
A number of positive signs have emerged recently indicating a move in the right direction.
In September, the Jim Joseph Foundation announced $12 million in grants to three leading academic institutions that train Jewish educators. The Jewish Theological Seminary, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and Yeshiva University will receive the funds in an effort to increase the number of future educators, and to improve the quality of professional preparation and Jewish education they receive.
The initial grants will be used as financial aid for students pursuing education degrees or certification in programs that prepare them to work with Jewish youth and young adults, and to assist each institution in planning new and enhanced programs that will attract more educators to the field.
For the next five academic years, the foundation will give $700,000 per year to each of the seminaries. The rest of the grant money will be divided among the institutions to be used in the 2009-10 academic year for planning and innovative programs. Uniquely, the grant encourages JTS, HUC and YU to collaborate on projects to provoke creative new directions in Jewish education and a renewed commitment to educating future Jewish educators.
This is a welcome development. Even as the difficult economic climate forces institutions from coast to coast to cut back, rein in and shut down, this grant allows these three major institutions of Jewish learning to expand and to innovate. Further, according to Arnold Eisen, the JTS chancellor, the collaborative nature of the grant has led the heads of the three schools to engage in more conversations over the past year-and-a-half than their predecessors did during the prior decade or more.
Our tradition teaches us that “kol Yisrael areivin zeh la zeh” — “all of Israel are responsible for one another.” This grant has inspired a meaningful realization of this beautiful ideal.
Generous individuals and foundations are funding day schools at very impressive levels today; this is very, very good. The non-Orthodox Jewish movements are trying to freshen their religious school curricula. This, too, is good. Indeed, things are going very well in several different realms of Jewish education — so well, in fact, that we simply cannot meet the demand for high-quality Jewish educators. Doing so will take smart marketing and more money.
The Jim Joseph Foundation is placing a large bet on the future of U.S. Jewry, and this grant truly offers a bright ray of hope. But it cannot stand alone atop the hill as a light unto the nation. Other funders concerned for the Jewish future must follow its lead and step up with similarly targeted grants. It is going to take a concerted effort on the part of Jewish leaders across the spectrum — from funders to first-grade teachers, from the presidents of our schools to their principals, from YU to JTS to HUC — to reach the promised land.
It is not enough if we successfully replace the scholars we lose. We need more and better, still.
(Jehuda Reinharz is president of Brandeis University and the Richard Koret professor of modern Jewish history.)