Our Chinuch in Crisis — Who Will Teach Our Children?

Summer 5781. Cicadas buzzed in the trees, and preparations for the coming school year were well underway. The rooms were cleaned, burned-out bulbs replaced, supplies ordered, bus routes arranged. Yet one piece of the puzzle was conspicuously missing: Where were the Rebbeim, Moros and secular studies teachers?

Hamodia reached out to many experienced Menahalim and Menahalos, Rebbeim and Moros, as well as others involved in placement of qualified personnel to fill various positions. Crisis, urgent, catastrophe and similar words were used to describe the situation and the possible reasons for the dearth of candidates. Some of the root causes are obvious while others are more subtle.

Suggested solutions for these vexing problems will require investment of time, effort and resources on the part of all stakeholders. Shining a light on the key issues and clarifying various avenues of resolution will hopefully inspire those with the ability to resolve them to do so.

Rabeim

“There was a time not long ago when if we had an opening for a Rebbi, we would have over 100 applicants, with as many as 90 of them capable of filling the position,” said a Menahel as he wistfully remembered the good old days.

“Recently, when we had an opening, we only had a dozen applicants and, of those, only a handful had the necessary skills to even consider for the job. Lately, the pool of yungeleit interested in chinuch has plummeted, and finding a competent person to fill an opening has become a nightmare.”

Moros

“The crisis the girls’ schools have in attracting high-quality candidates has reached crisis proportions, and if it is not addressed in a meaningful manner, we will be left with classes without Moros,” said Mrs. Flohr* and Mrs. Lock*.

“Whereas becoming a teacher was once the lofty aspiration of many Bais Yaakov graduates, today it is a rarity. It behooves the entire community, which includes Rabbanim, Menahalim and parents, to address this issue in a meaningful way.”

Teachers

“It is becoming harder and harder to fill the positions in our secular studies department,” a principal in the New York City metropolitan area lamented. “When I attended school in a previous century, we had licensed teachers from the public school system come in for the afternoon classes, and the students received a solid education. When the contracts of the public schools eliminated that pool of teachers, we were able to fill the positions with a combination of Rebbeim and others. In the past few years, it has become nearly impossible to get anyone qualified to teach secular studies. Afternoon sessions are in disarray due to the lack of interest and unruliness, and as a result it is impossible to attract qualified staff.”

* * *

Is it a condition or a symptom?

“For the past few years, we have had a chaburah of Menahalim who share their challenges and triumphs in our monthly emails,” Rabbi Markowitz*, a Menahel of a Chassidishe cheder in Rockland County, reported. “From time to time, when a mosad needed a melamed, we were able to help out one another by forwarding names of candidates to those in need. Often, I interviewed several candidates and found many to be qualified, and after I hired one, I would suggest the others to different mosdos who were searching to hire. This year, I found that nearly every mosad was short on staff, and there was a lack of qualified people to fill the slots. We all panicked, and many could not begin the year with Rebbeim in all classes.

“There may be several reasons for this. Sometimes, a yungerman is learning in kollel and wishes to remain there as long as he can. Even as his family grows and he needs to bring in a larger income, he still wants to remain in klei kodesh, and so he begins his quest for a position as a melamed.

“This year in particular we found that fewer and fewer yungeleit were willing to apply for open positions. Some felt that with the extra funds they received from the government they could manage to remain in kollel another year, which is commendable. If that was the only cause, then it should right itself as time goes on. However, as a wise person said, inflammation is not simply a condition; it is usually a symptom of an underlying problem that must be addressed.

“The average salary of a melamed starting out in the Chassidishe mosdos in Rockland was $700 a week, and an experienced melamed received $750 per week. Do the math and you’ll see it is between $36,400 and $39,000, which is certainly not enough for a growing family to make ends meet. We were able to raise it to $900 a week, which is close to $47,000. This is not a salary that will attract qualified yungeleit. While those who have a burning passion to be a melamed will endure, many others who could contribute are discouraged. With runaway inflation eating away at the meager salary, these people are looking elsewhere for parnassah, and we have a very hard time filling the positions.”

Rabbi Markowitz explained that a Rebbi in one of the above-mentioned mosdos works 12 months a year. “They work around the clock, throughout the day, the entire week, every month and the whole year,” he said. Although they receive two weeks paid vacation per year, the cheder continues while he is out, and a substitute takes his place. “Finding a substitute has become a difficult parashah as well. We have what we call a kollel melamdim, in which we train yungeleit to become Rebbeim. In the past, we used these yungeleit as substitutes, but lately we really do not have a selection of applicants. We are forced to get an untrained person to act as a substitute for the vacationing melamed, and the melamed has to deal with fallout when he returns.”

Besides the low wages, there are other factors that discourage yungeleit from entering the field. One complaint often heard is the lack of esteem shown to melamdim. “My staff is not looking for kavod, but they do not want to be disparaged or treated with disdain,” Rabbi Markowitz shared. “One Rebbi mentioned how during hakafos in Kiryas Yoel, they called up all the melamdim to receive a hakafah. It is a small gesture, but it shows that they consider them as important as the various gevirim who received such honors. I heard that in Yeshiva Chaim Berlin, the pesukim of Atah Hareisa by the daytime hakafos are given to the melamdim of the cheder. Again, it is a small gesture to show that they value them. But how common is this?

“When it comes to shidduchim, the Rebbeim get hit from all sides. Besides facing overwhelming expenses, they feel they are shunned, because ‘I don’t want to be meshadech with a melamed.’ This might be one more reason that we are having such difficulty attracting the smart and talented people into the field.”

* * *

Dwindling applicants

“I felt quite a bit of pride when my son-in-law, who learned many years in kollel, informed me that he wanted to take a Rebbi training course and planned to begin a career as a mechanech,” Rabbi Yosef*, a long-term Menahel, said. “Although it was a bit late in the year, I made the initial phone call for him to the person in charge of intake at a prestigious course, hoping to use my influence to squeeze him in at this late date. I was shocked to find out that the course had dwindled in size, and they were desperately recruiting yungeleit to join. Each year, they help fill between 40 and 50 slots in yeshivos, and I’m not sure how they will be able to keep this up in the future.”

While some of the factors present in Rockland may apply to Lakewood as well, Rabbi Yosef suggested other reasons for the slowdown. “Last year, the mosdos realized they could not find anyone to teach limudei chol in the mosdos. They almost doubled the salaries of the secular studies teachers, which brings a teacher within $10,000 to $15,000 of a Rebbi’s salary for working only 10 hours. If, in addition, he tutors or teaches in one of the mesivtaos that have secular studies for five hours a week, he can earn another hefty sum, which may even bring up his salary to more than a Rebbi. This fellow can keep a first seder, teach 15 hours a week, and have the same income as a Rebbi. He does not have to prepare sheets, since the textbooks come with accompanying sheets. Some suggest that this is one of the causes of the dearth of applicants.”

Rabbi Jacobson, a first-year Rebbi, sees things differently. “If my wife did not have a successful job, where she earns a nice salary with benefits, there would be no way for me to become a Rebbi,” he admits. “Take a look around our neighborhoods and you will see how financially well-off people are building extravagant houses. Although not everyone is inclined to follow suit, nevertheless, the standard of living has filtered down. In my days, many of my friends wore hand-me-downs, but now, those are a relic of the past. The pressure to live up to the standards of the neighbors makes it increasingly hard to live on the salary of a Rebbi despite the increases they have received lately. Without the support of an eishes chayil or parental assistance, most people are precluded from choosing such a career path.”

* * *

Financial security vs. financial independence

Rabbi Mordechai Bernfeld.

Rabbi Mordechai Bernfeld, who heads Talmud Torah Darchei Avoseinu in Lakewood, has begun a campaign to prioritize the status of Rebbeim both in terms of their esteem and their financial situation.

“It is getting harder and harder to attract high-quality candidates to fill the needs of our burgeoning mosdos, and we must make serious adjustments in order to attract talented Rebbeim who will teach our most precious commodity, our children,” he says with passion. “This involves both short-term and long-term investments to demonstrate that we, as parents and mosdos, understand and appreciate what they do, and that we respect them and are committed to their financial security as well.

“We began a campaign in which we publicized this idea, exhorting parents to show the Rebbeim, both in attitude and in deed, that they are a priority. In addition, we have instituted several initiatives to help alleviate some of the financial pressures they face. Financial planners say, ‘No one plans to fail; they fail to plan.’ We began to plan ahead in three areas: a simchah fund which will provide a meaningful subsidy to defray the cost of celebrating a family simchah, a pension fund to provide a nest egg when a Rebbi retires, and an emergency expense fund to help when they are faced with unexpected bills.

“Most Rebbeim live month to month, meaning they budget carefully and try to make it to the end of the month before this month’s paycheck runs out. Numerous mosdos have instituted a policy of providing money for a Rebbi who is making a chasunah in order to cover the extra expenses. The standard way of dealing with this is to scramble to raise money when the Rebbi announces that his child is engaged. We are trying to stay a step or two ahead. When a Rebbi has a child, we will begin contributing monthly to a savings plan so that in 18 to 20 years, there will be adequate funds available to provide substantial assistance for the simchah.

“The same concept applies to a pension plan. For the past few decades, many mosdos have provided a simple pension for retiring Rebbeim that is commonly known as ‘chodesh l’shanah.’ Simply put, for each year the Rebbi worked at the mosad, he receives one month’s salary as a pension. If his salary was $60,000 a year and he worked 30 years, he will receive a month’s salary, which is $5,000 times 30, or $150,000. If we take that month’s salary each year and invest it in a pension fund, his retirement package should be several times more. So, by planning ahead, we can help the Rebbi achieve a comfortable pension.

“The third area we are addressing is an unexpected expense fund. Imagine a Rebbi who, as we said, is living month to month. A broken refrigerator or a boiler that needs replacing is catastrophic. We want to tell the Rebbi, ‘We are looking out for you. We, as parents and as a mosad, will help you cover it, and you can concentrate on teaching our children.’”

Although these ideas were received enthusiastically at his mosad, with the parents and supporters stepping forward to help implement them, Rabbi Bernfeld admits that there has been some resistance. “A leading philanthropist told me that you are working on providing financial security by giving the Rebbeim a handout. I would like to provide them with financial independence and pay them the salary they deserve so they can afford to cover these expenses on their own,” he reported. “It sounds very nice, and it might be a worthwhile goal for the long-term, but until that happens, we must supply financial security in the short term or we will be unable to attract the Rebbeim that our mosdos desperately need.”

At last year’s dinner of Yeshiva Torah Vodaath, executive director Rabbi Yitzchok Gottdeiner announced that as they had done a few years earlier, the yeshivah would be raising the salaries of the Rebbeim by $10,000. The audience reacted with a well-deserved standing ovation as they showed their appreciation both for the dedicated supporters who made commitments to cover the raises as well as the Rebbeim who work so hard and deserve to be paid accordingly.

* * *

Chol or chillul

“I taught secular studies in a boys’ yeshivah for several years, but I stopped when I realized the pay was too little and the stress of the job was too much,” said Rabbi Samuels*, a successful Rebbi who used to teach secular studies in the afternoon. “I switched to an afternoon desk job at a firm that pays me substantially more, and allows me to avoid the aggravation I had from trying to teach simple life skills to elementary school children who had little interest.

“As a person who has been in chinuch for over 10 years, I understand that by the time afternoon rolls in, students are tired and not always in the mood to learn. For years, I compensated for this by providing fun and interesting activities, which enhanced the learning experience. Lately, however, there seems to be a bitul — a complete negating — of the value of learning these subjects. This attitude is not only prevalent in older grades, where you might ostensibly say the bachurim would rather be in the beis medrash shteiging away. It has filtered down to the younger children, and many are defiant in their resistance to attending afternoon classes and participating in a meaningful way. Unfortunately, parents are often uncooperative, and this leads to a breakdown in decorum.”

Secular studies principals bemoan the fact that they simply cannot find capable staff to cover their afternoon classes. “In the younger grades, where we have female teachers, we can still find teachers, albeit with greater difficulty than in the past,” Rabbi Katz*, a secular studies principal, said. “When it comes to the older grades, it is impossible to attract suitable teachers. We are forced to hire young men who are looking to earn some pocket money while they pursue their degrees. Even when these teachers are competent, they often leave after a year or two, and we must constantly replace our staff with a new crop of young men. The steady turnover is not good, and the students are not receiving the education that they used to get.”

* * *

How can we fill the void?

At a meeting in October, 22 Menahalos of Bais Yaakov schools from around the country were asked to raise their hands if they were not yet fully staffed. Eleven of the principals raised their hands.

This message was recently sent by a Bais Yaakov that was experiencing a teacher shortage:

We are hereby asking all our parents. If you happen to have any suggestions of qualified teachers who would be interested in substituting or teaching English in elementary or high school, or to be a teacher’s assistant, please reach out to Mrs. ___________________ at _________________ Thank you very much.

What is conspicuously absent from this desperate call for teachers? “We are willing to pay well.”

The difficulty of attracting women to teach in Bais Yaakovs may be the most serious shortage faced by the world of chinuch. A generation ago, many girls dreamed of the day when they could stand in front of a Bais Yaakov class and open the minds of young students to the Torah while inspiring them to grow in Yiddishkeit. Sadly, times have changed, and the goals and aspirations of young Jewish women have turned to other careers.

The cause of this paradigm shift can be summarized in one word: salaries. “How can I convince a talented girl to take a position as a teacher when the domestic help in her home is likely receiving more money per hour than [a teacher does]?” Mrs. Batya Krasnow, the Menaheles of TAG, said. “A teacher’s starting annual salary is in the range of $15,000. If she is spending 20 hours a week in the classroom, it averages out to below $20 per hour. This is besides the hours upon hours she is expected to spend preparing, marking tests, and speaking to students and parents.”

As a teacher gains more experience, she can expect a raise, but it is in no way comparable to what she could expect in another field. “A secretary in a successful company can earn over $40,000 a year, and with additional skills they can earn even more,” said Mrs. Miriam Tress, a Lakewood resident who has joined others to take up the call of teachers. “A medical biller, who receives on-the-job training, can earn twice that amount. A physical therapist or occupational therapist can earn $60 or more per hour. A girl who wants to help her husband learn by being the main breadwinner for the first years of their marriage will have a hard time choosing teaching as a career as opposed to the other opportunities available these days.”

As more and more successful businesses operate within the environs of Jewish neighborhoods, the proprietors of these businesses searching for workers have gone out of their way to hire and accommodate Jewish women. “In order to attract a talented staff, business owners have taken to recruiting students before they complete their year in seminary. They offer them solid starting salaries with opportunities for advancement, and a working environment that adheres to strict standards of tznius. They get to work and socialize with likeminded girls and can earn a respectable salary with which to support a husband who is in kollel,” Mrs. Tress said. “With opportunities like this, convincing girls to take up teaching has become nearly impossible.”

* * *

Are Moros being left behind?

numerous initiatives have been implemented to help Rebbeim financially, including Chasdei Lev, which supplies Rebbeim with subsidized staples for Yamim Tovim, reduced rates for simchah halls, and other programs that help alleviate the strain on the budgets of Rebbeim. “While these are wonderful, they are presently only offered to Rebbeim. The hard-working Moros, who are often breadwinners themselves, are shut out from these programs,” said Mrs. Krasnow. “Many justifications are being suggested, [but] little has been done to include the teachers. They do not get free tuition for their children like many Rebbeim do, they do not get to use the simchah hall of their school like some Rebbeim do, and they do not receive other perks given to Rebbeim. Perhaps offering at least some of these benefits will make teaching more attractive and will induce girls to enter the field of chinuch.”

* * *

At a Torah Umesorah convention held several years ago, a question was posed at a Q&A session for Menahalim and Menahalos: May a school offer more money to a Rebbi or a Morah teaching in another mosad in order to lure him or her to switch to their school?

Tavo alav brachah!” replied the Rav who was asked the she’eilah.

“But that’s not fair, because it will cause a ripple effect, and it will force all mosdos in town to raise the salaries of their Rebbeim or Moros,” a Menahel protested.

Tavo alav brachah!” replied the Rav once again.

May all our Rebbeim, Moros and mosdos merit such brachah.

* * *

*Names have been changed.