During this year back in person at local Hebrew schools, teachers have been a little tougher to find, according to school leaders.
But that doesn’t mean that schools have faced shortfalls or failed to fill the gaps.
Most Philadelphia-area Hebrew programs are running smoothly in 2021-’22. If anything, due to pandemic-induced hesitancy about returning to social life, it just took them a bit longer in the summer to fill their teaching staff.
“I’ve never had a harder time than I had this summer,” said Beverly Socher-Lerner, the founding director of the Makom Community, an after-school program for Jewish youth. “We saw fewer applicants, and they came in later this summer.”
Socher-Lerner saw about 30% fewer candidates than she did in a normal summer. But she was still able to fill her staff by the end of August.
The director just needed to raise part-time pay by $5 an hour and full-time, entry-level pay by $4,000 per year. She used Makom’s federal CARES Act money and asked its board of trustees to dip into the community’s reserve fund to make the upgrades.
But it was worth it, Socher-Lerner said.
“It’s clear that the quality of our program sits on the educators we have for our kids,” she added.
Makom, though, is different from other area religious programs. It’s available five days a week after school.
Other Hebrew schools are more traditional in the sense that they offer programming a couple of times a week and don’t need full-time educators. But after a 2020-’21 year of mostly virtual learning, they, too, had a little more trouble hiring.
Gabby Kaplan-Mayer helps run the Jewish Learning Venture, a nonprofit that offers professional development to education directors as part of its mission. The organization works with about 50 area Hebrew programs.
Most, according to Kaplan-Mayer, had one or two teachers who didn’t come back and couldn’t fill those gaps until right before the new year started.
The chief program officer attributed the sluggish field to three factors.
First and foremost, teachers over 60 were hesitant to return to the classroom when students weren’t vaccinated yet.
“These are people doing it as a part-time gig,” Kaplan-Mayer said.
Secondly, during the pandemic, a lot of new part-time work emerged online. There were more ways to make extra money without driving somewhere.
“A lot of teachers might do online tutoring now,” Kaplan-Mayer said.
Finally, local education directors haven’t targeted younger people as potential teachers. In other regions, Hebrew schools work with college Hillels to find younger, engaged Jews.
“They’re really nurturing people to step in,” she said.
Kaplan-Mayer thinks it will benefit area Hebrew schools to begin recruiting new talent. Jewish Learning Venture is in the process of developing a program for helping them do that.
Local Hebrew schools will need those younger teachers when the older teachers stop coming back. But for now, those older instructors are enough for many synagogue-based religious schools.
“Most of our teachers have been with us for several years,” said Rabbi David Glanzberg-Krainin of Beth Sholom Congregation in Elkins Park. “The ones we’ve had have been willing to come back.”
Other rabbis echoed Glanzberg-Krainin. Some maintained staff consistency well enough during the pandemic to even grow their student bodies.
Ohev Shalom of Bucks County has 135 students, which Rabbi Eliott Perlstein described as “a little bit more than last year.” Congregation Brothers of Israel in Newtown has more than 30 students now, up from 22 or 23 before the pandemic.
Due to its own increase, Ohev Shalom hired one more teacher for the 2021-’22 year. Perlstein called hiring “a little bit more challenging than in past years.” But the synagogue got it done in time.
Programs that have fallen short of that goal have made it work.
Abigail Weinberg, the education director of the Germantown Jewish Centre, had to teach a class herself for the first five weeks of the year. The GJC was one staff member short but eventually found one.
Congregation Beth Solomon, also in the city, has three rabbis who share Hebrew teaching duties, and two contracted COVID-19 at different points. In each case, the school just rotated in another rabbi, Rabbi Solomon Isaacson said.
“No interruption,” he said. “It wasn’t difficult at all. It went very smoothly.”