Are Careers in Jewish Education Appealing?

August 18, 2021

A key contribution of the CASJE Preparing for Entry study is its close examination of why high-potential candidates leave the field early on or never enter at all. As a researcher who studies people considering entering Jewish communal work more broadly, there are several findings here that resonate with my own research. There is much to be learned from “promising candidates” who ultimately seek other career paths. Those who try out Jewish education and leave and those who ultimately never give the field a chance can be excellent informants, positioned to give critical insight into Jewish education as a career. Generally, these individuals value (parts of) their Jewish education, want the field to be successful and positioned to offer a positive experience for future generations. Yet, ultimately, they also don’t want to stay. Why?

In Preparing for Entry, these promising candidates reflect on the “forks in the road”, the structural and circumstantial inhibitors they encounter along the way, that lead them to the off ramp. One key finding echoes a theme that comes through even more strongly in my own research a widely shared perception that working in Jewish education, to put it frankly, sucks. I can recall being warned by many Jewish professionals across the years to never work in the field.

Preparing for Entry touches on several barriers that can drive people out of the field. These include work that is viewed as low status or the challenges of navigating a toxic work environment. I want to add a few other barriers that emerged in my own research that may also figure in attracting people to Jewish education: (1) a perception that progressive ideologies (for example, on the conflict in the Middle East, anti-capitalism, or agnosticism) are not welcome; (2) a concern that there are other communities in the US or the world in more dire need of service and support; and (3) a lack of interest in pursuing smicha and/or committing to being “Jewish enough” to work in the Jewish community. These concerns feel especially relevant to those new to or in the early stage of their career.

Even those who participated in significant Jewish educational experiences do not know if they are “Jewish enough” to enter the field as a profession – be it in Hebrew competency, textual knowledge personal relationship with traditions or in the lifestyles they lead. In my research, I found that people positioned to be the field’s biggest advocates don’t necessary feel empowered enough by their education to become its teachers and leaders. The very people the field may see as promising often write themselves out because of concerns that their values are out of sync with communal expectations or because they don’t think they will measure up.

The root cause of the dwindling interest in careers in Jewish education is not, in my view, or in the stance of Preparing for Entry, only related to perception of working in the field. I agree with the distinction the report makes in cautioning the reader to not label “leavers” and “nevers” as “dropouts” or “failures of Jewish education”. By design, Jewish educational spaces, need a large proportion of alumni to not become “professional Jews.” They hope to have alumni with positive experiences that they will serve as future parents, board members, donors, etc. with a diversity of leanings, backgrounds, and income brackets.

It is not my intention to put the Jewish communal service landscape “on blast”, but it is necessary, from my vantage point, to highlight that perceptions of the field among “promising candidates “-- the very people who ought to be its biggest fans -- are not great. This will need to change if we are committed to improving Jewish education, both as an enterprise and a professional field. I see the field prioritizing data and continuing to develop and implement strategies for improvement – which will in turn, to the next generation of Jewish leaders, maybe make careers in Jewish education more appealing.

Amanda Winer is a social psychology researcher who will soon receive her Ph.D. from New York University.