When continents break apart: Recognizing a new landscape of Jewish education

We see the role of educator very, very broadly. We would say everyone is a Jewish educator or can be a Jewish educator…I believe anyone in a position to impact someone’s perspectives in general is a Jewish educator, within Jewish constructs.

To be an educator is to help people engage with big meaningful Jewish ideas. We don’t see everyone as Jewish educators. We recognize that many people don’t see themselves that way and aren’t trained to be thinking about these ideas and we want the Jewish educators to do that.

These divergent comments were collected during interviews with more than 35 different providers of professional development to Jewish educators as part of the Mapping the Market strand (to be released in two weeks) of CASJE’s Career Trajectories of Jewish Educators study conducted by Rosov Consulting. Offered by program directors in parallel organizations, these comments intimate how work as a Jewish educator today has acquired a dizzying variety of meanings. 

It is still true—due in large part to the field’s historical origins—that the majority of those who work full-time as Jewish educators are teachers in supplemental schools, day schools, and early childhood settings. But the work of Jewish education as experienced by children, young adults, and adults is carried out in such a variety of sectors and settings, and often looks so different in those places, that it prompted the research team that conducted this study to wonder whether the term “Jewish educator” has lost all stable sense. 

The following analogy, informed by our work, helps convey the extent to which the field has fragmented:

If until the start of the 20th century it was possible to conceive of Jewish education as a unitary landmass largely characterized by a set of uniform practices, today, different continents have broken off, each with its own distinct ecosystem. This tectonic process has meant that in some sectors it is more fitting to describe the work of Jewish education as Jewish engagement—an activity centered on cultivating a connection to Jewish life and living. Those who inhabit such places believe that almost anyone can be a Jewish educator. The work does not require a special or specialized craft-knowledge; it requires a more generalized set of dispositions and life skills. For these reasons, when employers in such places look for new staff, they prioritize the personal and dispositional (who educators are) or the relational (how educators interact with others). These are the assets that enable Jewish educators/facilitators/engagers to fulfill their employers’ purposes.

In other places, however, those from which new continents separated, Jewish education continues to be concerned with cultivating cultural literacy and religious or ethnic commitment. The individuals who are educators in these places are expected to be reasonably knowledgeable about Jewish life and relevant content themselves and sufficiently adept in the educational practices they’re supposed to employ. This is not work that everyone is expected to be able to do. When employers look for new staff, of course they’re interested in who educators are and how they relate to colleagues and customers. But they place a greater emphasis on professional or technical know-how (what educators know). Day school leaders, for example, want to make sure that educators come with subject-matter knowledge and early childhood education leaders want their educators to they have an understanding of child development.

These developments have a wide variety of implications as found in the different strands of the career trajectory study. They shape, for example, how challenging it is to find appropriate personnel. In venues where Jewish educators are expected to possess specialized skills and distinct pedagogic content knowledge, educators are more difficult to find than if their most desirable assets are an ability to communicate, relate engagingly with peers, and model an appetite for Jewish growth. To put it succinctly, engagers are a lot easier to find than are educators, although they’re also harder to retain.

The personal biographies of educators mirror the sectors in which they work too. Our data suggest that those who work in day school, supplemental school, and early childhood education were socialized in much more positive, educationally rich Jewish environments than their peers in other sectors of Jewish education. The career narratives of those who work in the innovation sector or in social justice organizations more commonly highlight experiences in college, on a trip to Israel, or with an organization much like the one where they work today. Those who work in informal Jewish education tend to highlight inspirational early experiences at camp.

The tectonic processes described above impact almost every aspect of the marketplace for Jewish educators, including where employers look for staff, how they recruit, and how long people are likely to stay in the work once hired. These shifts have profound implications for the kinds of professional development staff are encouraged or required to experience once they’re hired. Because innovation sector and community organizations frequently choose from a surfeit of candidates or take their time to find the ideal candidate, they tend to assume that their hires are already quite competent. In these settings, where the prized attributes of educators are personal and relational, rather than technical, professional development is much more about sustaining the overall personal and intellectual growth of team members or is intended to upgrade their sensitivities and skills in relation to specific topics or issues. 

However, a different dynamic exists among those who hire teachers or informal Jewish educators, especially in organizations that struggle to hire optimal candidates. For these employers, professional development takes on more of an educative or even remedial function. In the case of supplemental schools, for example, where many of those who serve as teachers or facilitators of learning do not have an educational background, professional development focuses heavily on inculcating core practices or developing pedagogic content knowledge. 

While staff who work in these various sectors might all be characterized by the term “Jewish educator,” their professional development needs appear to be ever more distinct. We call attention to this fracturing of the field of Jewish education believing that it constitutes a historic shift that will deeply impact the work of educators. In this changed reality, employers seek wholly different sets of skills in those they hire and educators have significantly different professional development needs, depending on where they each work. It would be presumptuous in a piece of this kind to propose what a changed landscape of educator preparation and professional development might look like in light of these evolutionary changes. Yet we want to call attention to this new landscape and urge systematic discussion about what it will take to thrive within it.

Alex Pomson is principal and managing director of Rosov Consulting.

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