As we all have been taught in our study of elementary economics, prices and values are established by the law of supply and demand. In theory, the greater the supply, the lower the price. We are witness to this fact of commerce in the current, still relatively inexpensive price of oil, due to the glut of all oil available on the world market.
This rule of commerce – supply and demand – applies to human resources as well. And currently in the religious Jewish world, the supply of capable young men and women who are willing to enter the field of Jewish education far outstrips the demand. For every teaching opportunity, especially in the higher grades of elementary school and in high school, let alone in the advanced yeshiva realm, there are far more applicants available than there are teaching openings and opportunities.
As a consequence, salaries for entrance positions in Jewish education are low and the competition to fill any teaching vacancy is fierce and often times disappointing. During my recent visit to the United States, quite a number of excellent young Torah scholars, who are searching for teaching positions in Jewish schools, bemoaned this fact to me.
It seems that in almost every school located in a large urban Jewish community, there are thousands of applicants for every position that needs to be filled. And because of the seemingly inexorable law of supply and demand, these highly sought after positions pay relatively poor salaries, certainly in relation to the responsibilities and demands of the position.
The problem is somewhat compounded by the fact that these young people are entering the job market rather late in life. Most of them already have a number of children already attending school and if one is convinced that one's child should receive a Lakewood education then it becomes difficult to consider taking a position that may be available in a smaller, perhaps less observant community.
The lack of a secular education and professional training also militates against this type of yeshiva graduate securing a meaningful position in Jewish education. We thus end up in a catch 22 situation of wasted talent. Entering the job market when one is already in his or her 30s with children to support and educate is a great challenge. And, when there are so few job opportunities available, this challenge becomes almost insurmountable.
In the United States many of these potentially great educators turn to other types of work in order to survive. Usually this creates a great deal of personal angst and spiritual and emotional frustration. I have been witness to such situations many times in my rabbinic and educational career. It seems that somehow our educational system is broken and because of many different pressures – religious, social, political, as well as feelings of inertia – there are very few who are willing to accept the challenge of fixing it. On an individual basis, a number of great and hardy young educators have created their own new institutions but this has done little to solve the general overall problem in the educational world of Orthodox Jewry.
Traditionally, the profession of the teacher had been viewed in Jewish life as being an exalted and noble one, while at the same time those who practice that profession are viewed as otherwise unsuccessful and uninspiring individuals. This schizophrenic view of the educators of our children also contributes to skew even more the law of supply and demand in Jewish education. Somehow we expect our teachers to be holy, altruistic, supremely competent and heroic figures. At the same time we harbor within ourselves a feeling that the cream of the crop of Jewish talent is in the field of hedge funds… and that those who teach our children do not really measure up to them.
These conflicting views manifest themselves in myriad ways from salary structure to tenure and social respect in the Jewish world. There are currently initiatives and programs financed by sources outside of the field of Jewish education to physically and socially improve the lot of teachers in the Jewish field. But these programs are palliative and not structural.
In the 1940s in the United States, a number of great leaders created the day school revolution, which saved Orthodoxy in America. They were able to inspire a generation of educators that sacrificed much in order to achieve the goal of Jewish survival and the rebirth of Torah knowledge and observance amongst American youth. Such a revolution is necessary again today in order to overcome the crushing pressures that the law of supply and demand has imposed upon us.