The latest Pew report, A Portrait of Jewish Americans, has given the North American Jewish community great cause for concern. The report compares the community’s demographics to those of the past and finds that fewer Jews see Judaism as important in their lives, fewer Jews observe Jewish traditions, fewer Jews marry other Jews and, when asked whether being Jewish is an important part of their lives, fewer (less than 50%) respond that being Jewish is a very important part of their lives.
The Pew Report did not examine trends in American Jewish education patterns, but other studies have highlighted the place that a day school education plays in the life of Jewish students. Recent studies conclude that students who attend a Jewish day school through 12th grade are more likely to marry a Jewish partner, remain connected to the Jewish community, and raise their children as Jews.
In most major Jewish communities, families are able to choose from a wide variety of Jewish day school experiences. The Orthodox community runs schools for Orthodox families and, in the large cities, these schools include both Modern Orthodox and more right-wing school frameworks. Many Hassidic groups operate schools for their own communities. The Conservative movement’s Solomon Schechter schools are K-12 institutions that provide a strong foundation for Conservative Jewish life. Many communities also operate community schools, which are, by and large, overseen and partially funded by the local Jewish federation. These community schools aim to involve an inclusive population of Jewish kids from all streams of Judaism.
Many parochial Jewish schools struggle with tuition costs, which are prohibitive for large percentages of the Jewish population. Other issues involve high parental expectations, as many parents expect the day school to prepare their child for the best universities and a successful professional life. Jewish schools make a great effort to hire and retain top teachers who will not only impart the subject material competently but will inspire their students and instill within them a love of their Jewish heritage -- this, even though the salaries for Jewish day school educators are below those of public school teachers.
No think tank or organization has managed to successfully address all of the issues with which the Jewish day school network grapples. The Milken Family Foundation (MFF) has addressed the subject of hiring and retaining top educators by motivating teaching staffs of Jewish schools with their highly coveted Jewish Education Award. Lowell Milken, who has previously started a number of other education programs for the public school system, created the award to ensure that the efforts of outstanding day school educators are recognized. The award aims to honor Jewish highly effective educators for their work, their community involvement, their leadership and their support of their students and the students' families.
The MFF Award acknowledges that a Jewish school education is the best way to encourage and nourish a child’s Jewish identity. Day schools guide their students as they develop Jewish values and learn how to maintain their Jewish heritage in a multi-cultural society. The Jewish Education Award (JEA) publicly honors talented and dedicated educators who work tirelessly within the Jewish educational system to create exciting and engaging experiences for students and their families. The goals of the JEA involve strengthening the Jewish Day School movement by honoring Jewish educators who contribute their heart and soul to the Jewish community.
JEA recipients include Jewish day school K-12 teachers, teaching specialists, and administrators. The Award has been presented to educational professionals representing more than 40 schools, recognizing the recipient’s scholarship, creativity and compassion in their teaching.
JEA aims to recognize an educator's originality in his or her educational methods as well as his or her leadership skills, which influence policies that affect their school’s children, families and community. In deciding on the award, the MFF committee considers a candidate’s educational practices in the classroom, their relationship with their student’s families, and their involvement with their Jewish community.
To be chosen, a teacher must teach in a Board of Jewish Education-affiliated school in their North American community. The award committee consists of professional educators and lay community members who present each year’s JEA recipients with $15,000 and the gratitude and acknowledgement of their community and the Milken Family Foundation.
Overall, the JEA is an excellent way to recognize teachers who go above and beyond for their students. Perhaps things like the JEA will help teachers encourage young Jews stay in the faith, and vitalize the American Jewish community.