Survey of Research in Jewish Education
Crises in Contemporary Orthodox Education: Part 1
A Teacher Shortage?
Dr. Yoel Finkelman
Director of Research and Projects, ATID

Where available, surveyed research is linked in the text and endnotes.

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Jewish education often operates in a state of crisis, radically concerned about real and perceived problems that prevent students and institutions from living up to their potentials. Studies of the state of Jewish education often open with sentences such as "The Jewish community of North America is facing a crisis of major proportions."1 A Google search of the terms "crisis", "Jewish", and "education" reveals over 1.2 million results, and adding the word "Orthodox" to that search only lowers the number to a mere 850,000.

At the moment, there are a number of crisis issues that occupy contemporary Orthodox education: a financial crunch on schools and parents, student dropout and delinquency, a teacher shortage, and student ignorance of basic Torah knowledge are ones that seem to be at the center of today's agenda. Each of these topics has been subject to some, but not enough, empirical research. The lack of research may lead us to exaggerate the seriousness and extent of the problems. We may find better solutions to problems if we pause for diagnosis and consideration than if we respond in panic and crisis.

This "crisis mode" which is so pervasive in Jewish education may be the result of having an unending task that must be fulfilled in the ever-changing and difficult conditions of the real world. Our standards for success are so high – students who know much Torah, who are imbued with yirat shamayim, who are careful in their observance of mitzvot, and who are poised to take roles as Jewish laypeople and leaders in the modern world – that we may overestimate the difficulties we face and underestimate the ways in which failure and error are inevitable in something as complex as religious education. Our goals are laudable as ideals, but the fact that we often fail to achieve them is not necessarily indicative of a crisis in the educational system. At one level, every less than perfect Torah teacher, each student who becomes alienated from mitzvot, and every student who emerges from our schools ignorant in basic Torah knowledge, is a disaster. But religion and education are those kinds of fields which consistently keep their eyes on unreachable endpoints.

Furthermore, not every failing is necessarily caused by the schools or educators fault, and may not be something that the schools can fix. We sometimes assume that it is the task of the school to assure that every student becomes a God fearing, knowledgeable Jew, and we berate ourselves when that fails to occur. In fact, however, as institutions schools may simply be incapable of filling that task.2 After all, the schools are up against enormous obstacles: limited funding, indifferent students and families, a general Modern Orthodox malaise and lack of passion, a pervasive general culture that often undermines the best of Torah education, etc. etc. While many schools succeed admirably under these conditions, when ideals are not met the crises may not be so much in schools, as in the environment in which those schools operate. Not every failing is necessarily an educational failing.

Furthermore, education is not a precise science, in which students could be isolated in a laboratory, and subjected to educational processes that will lead inevitably to the desired results. We work within the changing sociology of the Orthodox community, ever-varying conception of the psychology of the individual, fickle pedagogical trends, and the idiosyncratic relations of individual teachers to individual students, classes, parents, and other stakeholders. In this complex environment, it is not at all surprising that educators find themselves on unsure footing, unable to wrap their minds around the infinite complications of the profession. We spend much time improvising, allocating valuable time and resources to putting out fires, and we dream of a day when all will be in order in our schools. In fact, however, schools will never be perfectly ordered and planned.3 Yet, all this hard work, so much of it improvised, with still less than perfect results, can often lead to frustration and a strong sense of crisis.

Furthermore, Torah education may be part of wider trends in which American education as a whole is constantly berating itself for real and perceived failings. As educational historian Diane Ravitch put it, "It is impossible to find a period in the twentieth century in which education reformers, parents, and the citizenry were satisfied with the schools."4 According to Ravitch, the tendency to respond in panic to real and perceived failings leads to a tendency to blindly follow trendy plans for revolutionary educational reform, that in the end of the day, do little good.

It is worth considering the possibility that we overestimate the nature of the educational crises we face, and underestimate our strengths and successes. The discourse of crisis may help urge as to action, but it may also blur our vision. If our vision of the nature of the problem were more cautious, we might, in the end of the day, make different decisions than ones we would make when responding to perceived crisis.

In this and the next column, I would like to survey some of the current writing about key Orthodox educational crises in the United States, asking what we really know about the problems and assessing, however tentatively, realistic possibilities of improvement.

A Teacher Shortage?

Take the example of the manpower crisis in Jewish schools. Time and again, we hear of a "looming crisis in personnel"5 and an inability to staff our schools with dynamic, well trained, Modern Orthodox educators. While I would be the last to suggest that all of the day schools are manned by a full cadre of ideal teachers, things may not be quite as bad as they appear, particularly if we account for a full range of factors that influence the problem.

To begin with, the nature and extent of the shortage has yet to be surveyed with any kind of precision. Anecdotally, people involved in Orthodox education, particularly outside of New York, understand that it can be difficult to find ideal teachers for schools. But anecdotal evidence can sometimes be misleading. To more precisely measure the nature and scope of the problem, it is necessary to compare the level of training and skills, as well as the job turnover rate, of our limudei kodesh teachers to teachers in public or other private schools. Do Orthodox schools have fewer qualified teachers, or teachers who are less qualified, than public or private schools?6 How do Orthodox schools compare to public schools and other private schools in terms of their staff turnover rate? Are there fewer qualified applicants for teaching jobs in Orthodox schools than in other schools? Attempting to answer this question in a systematic way may help determine whether Orthodox schools are really struggling with a unique situation, or whether they are dealing with the symptoms of larger trends in the general American education market.

Historical perspective may also call into question the extent of the staffing shortage. As Susan Shevitz has pointed out, the American Jewish (though not specifically Orthodox) community has been discussing a teacher shortage crisis at least since the 1950s.7 Yet, the decades since then have witnessed dramatic growth in the field, as well as increased professionalism. There are more Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jewish schools than ever, and constantly increasing opportunities for professional training. The field of Jewish education in America is larger, more professional, and arguable more successful, than it has ever been. At one level, the growth in schools increases demand for teachers, which may be contributing to the shortage. At another level, however, decades-long discussion of a crisis, at the same time as the profession is thriving, may also indicate that the field of Jewish education is underestimating its own strengths.

Samuel Heilman has recently suggested that the problem is not so much a shortage of teachers, but a shortage of Modern Orthodox teachers. He considers this both the result and cause of what he calls a "slide to the right" in American Orthodoxy. Right-wing (or Haredi) yeshivas and seminaries are succeeding in the United States, and their Modern Orthodox counterparts are declining. Hence, the market is flooded with right-wing teachers. Those teachers enter Modern Orthodox schools and serve to undermine their message, replacing it with a more Haredi one. Heilman goes so far as to refer to these Haredi teachers as "agent provocateurs" in Modern Orthodox schools.8 By identifying the tensions that are created when teachers do not see eye to eye with parents and school administrators, Heilman is, to my mind, pointing to an important trend. However, I suspect that he may overstate the case. First, we have no survey of the backgrounds and hashkafat olam of Torah teachers in Modern Orthodox schools. Furthermore, the expression "agent provocateur" makes this process seem considerably more sinister and conspiratory than it is in practice. Graduates of more right wing yeshivas, with few job skills outside of Torah education, find work in Modern Orthodox schools not primarily in order to undermine Modern Orthodoxy, but in order to feed their families. Schools may choose to hire these teachers, but they may choose the more open-minded ones, or at least the ones more willing to toe the Modern Orthodox line. Schools may also find ways of laying down ground rules about how these teachers may speak, preach, and behave in their Modern Orthodox settings (though, it should be notes, we lack, to the best of my knowledge, any close and systematic observation of these right-wing teachers in Modern Orthodox contexts). They may not be entirely free to educate toward their personal hashkafat olam.

Another issue which has gotten some attention in recent years is a concern that too many Modern Orthodox teachers have moved to Israel, thus creating a shortage in the United States. Jonathan Sarna even considers this a threat to the future growth and strength of American Orthodoxy.9 Once again, this suggestion may overestimate the role of aliya in a teacher shortage. Even ignoring the highly problematic implication that American Modern Orthodoxy should discourage aliya (!), the rates of aliya from the United States are hardly high. According to Israel's Central Bureau of Statistics, just over 2000 people made aliya from the United States in 2006, indicating a slight rise over the past few years, but still fewer than in the early 1980s and certainly the peak years of the early 1970s.10 Furthermore, we do not know the ratio of educators and rabbis relative to the population of olim. It seems likely, based on anecdotal evidence, that educators and rabbis are over-represented among olim, but the extent of that trend, if it is in fact accurate, is not clear.11

The larger Jewish community has begun to address its own perceived teacher shortage, commissioning studies that both survey the existing situation, as well as suggest strategies for improving it.12 Some studies have begun initial surveys of Jewish teachers and educational leaders. They have tried to determine what background and training they have, what they like and dislike about their jobs, what kinds of salary and benefits they receive, and their plans for the future. These studies are based on the assumption that it will be impossible to improve the situation without first understanding the facts.

Building on this background, the Jewish community has commissioned policy studies that have examined the general literature on professional recruitment and retention, and offered suggestions for improving the staffing situation among Jewish professionals. Plans for improvement have fallen into several categories. 1) Recruitment – reaching out to young Jews on campuses and encouraging them to consider the field of Jewish education. 2) Professionalization – creating in-service and professional training programs, as well as working environments that make the profession more satisfying. 3) Increasing worldly benefits and remuneration, which will make work in the field more attractive and rewarding.

Whatever the extent of the teacher shortage in Modern Orthodox schools, if solutions are to be found, it would be wise for the Modern Orthodox community to follow the larger Jewish community in surveying the reality carefully, and in suggesting systemic programs that can help recruit more talented people to the field, and help grant them greater job satisfaction once they have entered.13

1 Report of the Commission on Jewish Education in North America, A Time to Act (Lanham, New York, and London: University Press of America, 1990), p. 15.

2 See James Traub, "What No School Can Do," New York Times Magazine, January 16, 2000, available at

3 In this sense, education may be similar to medicine, another field which works with imperfect resources and still feels obligated to do perfect or near perfect work. See Atul Gawande's reflections on the inevitability of error and even malpractice in the medical professions, in his Complications: A Surgeon's Notes on an Imperfect Science (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2002). His recently published book, Better: A Surgeon's Notes on Performance, deals with improving the situation under those complicated circumstances.

4 Diane Ravitch, Left Back: A Century of Battles Over School Reform (Touchstone: New York, 2000), p. 13.

5 Shalom Berger, Contact: The Journal of Jewish Life Network: 3:4 (Summer, 2001), available at

6 On the whole, Orthodox day-school teachers have more extensive Jewish education, but less extensive university-based teacher training, than do their non-Orthodox counterparts. See Adam Gamoran, et al. The Teachers Report. (New York: Council for Initiatives in Jewish Education, 1998), pp. 5-7. Gamoran does not distinguish between different shades within Orthodox education, and it may be that Modern Orthodox teachers more closely resemble their non-Orthodox peers than do Haredi teachers.

7 See Susan L. Rosenblum Shevitz. "Communal Responses to the Teacher Shortage in the North American Supplementary Schools." Studies in Jewish Education. 3 (1988), pp. 25-61.

8 Samuel C. Heilman, Sliding to the Right: The Contest for the Future of American Jewish Orthodoxy (Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press, 2006), Chap. 3.

9 Jonathan Sarna, "The Future of American Orthodoxy," Sh'ma, (Feb. 2001), available at Shalom Carmy also makes this suggestion in his "A View from the Fleshpots: Exploratory Remarks on Gilded Galut Existence," in Israel as a Religious Reality, ed. Chaim I. Waxman (Northvale, NJ: Aronson, 1994), pp. 1-42. Also see Reuven Spolter, "In Search of Leaders," Jewish Action, 64:3 (Spring 2004), pp. 38-44, available at

10 For the statistics from 2006, see Israels Central Bureau of Statistics press release, available here. The CBS statistics from previous years can be found in its yearbook. See For statistics and a discussion of aliya rates from the United States during the years 1949-1993, see Chaim I. Waxman. "In the End Is it Ideological? Religio-Cultural and Structural Factors in American Aliya." Contemporary Jewry. 16 (1995): 50-67 (Table of contents available at The Jewish Agency provides slightly higher numbers. See here. The differences between the CBS and the Jewish Agency numbers cannot be explained merely by the fact that the former is counting immigrants only from the United States, while the later is counting those from all of North America.

11 On this topic, see Yoel Finkelman, "Can American Orthodoxy Afford to Have its Best and Brightest (Not) Make Aliya," forthcoming in a volume of the Orthodox Forum, edited by Chaim I. Waxman.

12 This work was begun following publication of the Report of the Commission on Jewish Education in North America, A Time to Act. For an updated survey of the various aspects of this research, see Shaul Kelner, et al., Recruiting and Retaining a Professional Work Force for the Jewish Community: A Review of Existing Research (Brandeis University, 2004), available at Also see Gamoran, et al., The Teachers Report; Ellen B. Goldring, et al., The Leaders Report: A Portrait of Educational Leaders in Jewish Schools (New York: Mandel Foundation, 1999); JESNA's magazine, Agenda: Jewish Education 17 (Spring, 2004), on "Educator Recruitment and Retention," available at; and Contact: The Journal of Jewish Life Network, 3:4.

13 In a coming column, I hope to examine recent discussions of the tuition crisis in Orthodox Education.

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