Being a Jewish educator: Is it a career or a calling?

July 22, 2021

Source: eJewish Philanthropy


This week CASJE (Collaborative for Applied Studies in Jewish Education) begins to release findings from its Career Trajectories of Jewish Educators Study. The study, funded by the William Davidson Foundation and the Jim Joseph Foundation, was designed to provide useable knowledge about the recruitment, retention and development of Jewish educators.

The title of the study is not accidental. A key decision that framed the study design and research was to characterize work in Jewish education as a career. As the authors from Rosov Consulting described in a white paper published by CASJE in 2020 “Beginning with the work of Bellah and his colleagues, in their landmark study Habits of the Heart, sociologists have distinguished people’s relationships to their work as jobs, careers and callings.” Put succinctly: a job is something one does to pay the bills; a career involves a commitment to professional growth and advancement within one’s field of work; and a calling is work related to one’s larger sense of purpose.

CASJE’s study found that those who launch a career in Jewish education are highly mission-driven: they share a love of Jewish learning and a commitment to helping others (see the first strand of the study, Preparing for Entry). They seek work that is meaningful and provides fulfillment. This sense of mission and quest for meaning can sustain educators when their work or workplace environments are especially challenging. But is that resilience, grounded in deep commitments, always a good thing for Jewish educators or for Jewish education?

Certainly Jewish education is a profession in which your work might actually love you back. Many educators form deep bonds with their learners, whether they are children or adults. These relationships are among the great rewards of the work.

Yet when an educator’s commitment to Jewish learning, love of their students and community, and sense of identity and purpose, are wrapped up in their professional role, evidence suggests that warm feelings can become a means of tying the educators to less-than-supportive workplaces while also subverting investment in the technical know-how and professional learning teachers need to succeed.

Our study found that Jewish educators are highly mission driven and care about the work and the communities they serve. Yet, as the reports and briefs we will release over the next few weeks show, Jewish educators are also overall dissatisfied with their compensation, supervision, and opportunities for advancement. They report inadequate access to high-quality professional development. And, increasingly, the professional learning offered to them emphasizes the affective and relational over content and skills to effectively do their work.

For the frontline educators themselves who make up the workforce in our day schools, preschools, synagogues, summer camps, museums and community centers— those whose positions don’t command the compensation and status that typically come with administrative roles—it was the burdens that stem from framing teaching as a calling that came through most clearly in our study.

Further the study also illuminated what Jewish education might lose when it’s seen as a personal mission and not a profession: fewer opportunities for sustained, ongoing professional learning and lack of access to supervision and support from instructional leaders.

Jewish educators are Jewish educators because they care. The CASJE study lays out the many rewards that Jewish educators find in this work of care: love of Jewish learning, satisfaction in serving others, finding meaning in their work. Investing in Jewish educators through compensation and benefits, professional learning, constructive supervision, and career advancement opportunities, won’t make them care less – it will show that we care.

Read the entire piece in eJewish Philanthropy.

Updated: Aug. 01, 2021