“What kind of job is that for a Jewish boy?”
These were the words that greeted a friend and mentor when he chose the profession of Jewish educator almost 50 years ago. Two basic assumptions stand behind such a question: (1) Jewish boys are destined for greatness; (2) Jewish education is certainly not the path to achieve that greatness.
Indeed, I have no doubt that the great aunt who posed this (presumably) rhetorical question believed, quite strongly, that this young man (who is now over 70) would achieve far greater success pursuing a career in medicine, law, accounting, or public school education.
Most believe that we as a community have progressed beyond the aforementioned question; that it reflects a time when Jews struggled and clawed to lift themselves out of the projects and into the middle class – a time when choosing the path of melamed would mean retaining the status quo and rejecting the opportunities offered by the postwar American economy.
In our current age, we still believe strongly that Jewish boys and girls are destined for greatness, yet seemingly accord more respect to the position of Jewish educator: our schools expand; more teacher training is planned; we excessively recruit the most talented men and, now, women in the field.
Nevertheless, my experience in an admittedly brief career in Jewish education leads me to believe that though our communal mentality has progressed somewhat, we still cling to the initial question, merely rephrasing and redirecting it. When confronted with an aspiring young mechanech, we now ask “What kind of job is that for a Modern Orthodox Jewish boy?”
It seems that our sundry communities (with notable exceptions) still discourage their young people from becoming Jewish educators and guide them toward alternative careers, under the assumption that mechanech as a job title represents a less than adequate achievement for our children.
Even a cursory glance at the current Modern Orthodox educational landscape reveals a severe imbalance as to who constitutes the ranks of our Judaic educational professionals.
Most of the young and even older teachers and administrators are men and women who make their homes in communities philosophically to the right of Centrist Orthodoxy. Certainly, I do not question their abilities. To the contrary – in my time working at Yeshivah of Flatbush and other institutions, I have found that the haredi community has produced educators of the highest quality, idealistic in their goals and inspiring in their methods. Indeed, my greatest influences as a young teacher were men who graduated from Ponovezh and ITRI, not Yeshiva University.
My purpose here is to explore why we in the Modern Orthodox community, committed as we are to transmitting our religious values to our children, have failed to produce a sufficient number of quality educators and have implicitly relegated chinuch to a second-class status. What steps must be taken to expand the ranks of Jewish educators who come from and reflect the ethos of our community?
Our initial problem, as I’ve already alluded to, is philosophy and attitude; we do not view Jewish education as an ideal and an opportunity to achieve success. Though we pride ourselves on our commitment to yeshiva education, we balk at the notion of our own children entering the field. For many, though not all, a child who chooses the educational track has shifted “to the right” and rejected a certain degree of worldliness that we value.
Such a perspective undermines our own philosophy which demands a commitment to depth and breadth: an unflinching commitment to the Torah and its precepts and at the same time openness to the “best of what has been thought and said” in the world. An individual who chooses chinuch commits him/herself to deepening our community’s dedication to Torah and allows us to proceed with greater confidence into the modern world.
We must recognize that Jewish education represents a true manifestation of a Modern Orthodox philosophy. Achieving the goals of Modern Orthodoxy demands battalions of teachers committed to teaching and disseminating Torah. The field of teaching must be assimilated into and accentuated within our weltanschauung, or worldview.
More practically, we must recognize that belittling the status of Jewish educators severely discourages talented individuals from entering the field. As an example, a classmate of mine left Orthodoxy and ultimately married a non-Jewish woman. Before the marriage, his father begged that he speak with a rabbi. My classmate responded, “For the past 20 years I heard you complain constantly about how terrible these rabbis were, and now you want me to listen to them!”