At a time when the Jewish community was hard-pressed to recruit and retain educators because of meager salaries and benefits, and perceived low prestige, the Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education was designing a weeklong program introducing college students to the advantages of pursuing careers in Jewish education.Fifteen years later the Schusterman College Program, as the CAJE course is now called, released a study showing that 70 percent of alumni are employed in Jewish education or Jewish communal services, or they are planning to enter those fields.
The study also revealed that participants are far more likely to affiliate with a synagogue, volunteer for a Jewish organization, have a Jewish spouse and attain a higher level of Jewish education than the general Jewish population tracked in the 2000 National Jewish Population Survey.“You run an intense program for a week but always wonder, ‘How much difference does it really make?’ ” said Eli Schapp, assistant executive director at CAJE. “I was pleasantly surprised with the results.”Each year, 20 to 35 college students participate in the Schusterman program at CAJE’s annual conference. The students, who span the ideological gamut of Judaism, are paired with mentors, learn about career opportunities for Jewish educators and attend scores of workshops alongside about 2,500 professional educators.“Some of the young people think of Jewish education as a low-prestige job,” said Rabbi Yuri Hronsky, co-chair of the 2004 Schusterman program and a day school teacher in Los Angeles. “[SCP] is trying to change that paradigm.”Since it was established, 314 young adults have attended the program, and four years ago CAJE attempted to track its alumni. Working by snail mail, survey coordinators received responses from only 21 percent of former participants.
This time, however, organizers sent e-mail questionnaires to the 242 alumni they were able to locate, and 71 percent responded.
The 2004 study was commissioned by the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, which funds the SCP.Of the alumni who are pursuing careers as Jewish professionals, 60 percent are employed part- or full-time in Jewish education or another Jewish field; 23 percent are studying Jewish education or another Jewish field; and the remainder plan to pursue education in these fields within the next three years.To be sure, the program isn’t the sole factor that has influenced career decisions for the SCP alumni. Many had attended Jewish summer camps, day schools and Hebrew schools, were involved in campus Hillels and had relatives who were Jewish community professionals.Still, nearly 80 percent of respondents working in or pursuing a career in the Jewish community acknowledged the CAJE program was “somewhat important,” “important” or “very important” in shaping their career path.Of the total respondents, 82 percent “agreed” or “strongly agreed” that the program strengthened their commitment to the Jewish community. Many of the alumni who are not Jewish community professionals have strong ties to synagogues and Jewish nonprofit organizations, the study showed.“Even if they were predisposed, when we asked them, ‘Did the program make a difference?’ they overwhelmingly responded, ‘yes,’ ” Schapp said.
Just ask 1990 alumna Kim Beame, 36, the assistant education director at Congregation B’nai Israel, a Reform synagogue in Boca Raton, Fla.“Going in, I had already considered going into Jewish education, but attending the conference really cemented it for me,” Beame said. “As a college student, I was able to see the passion of all the educators at that conference and take that passion home with me.”Beame has attended a dozen CAJE conferences since 1990.A 1994 alumnus, Rabbi Ruven Barkan, has fond memories celebrating his 21st birthday at the CAJE conference. His then girlfriend/now wife bought him a kipa at the conference gift boutique and had the student participants sign it.
“There was such an idealistic and collegial sense among us,” said Rabbi Barkan, 31, rabbi-in-residence at the Conservative Chicagoland Jewish High School. “It was inspiring to meet other people who were passionate about the same thing I was passionate about.”
Rabbi Barkan called the CAJE program one of several contributing factors in his choice to become a rabbi.“The study shows that if the conditions are right, young dedicated Jews will enter the field [of Jewish education] when given the encouragement at the critical moments,” according to the study.Fifteen years after the Schusterman program was launched, recruitment and retention are still buzzwords in Jewish education. Even if many SCP alumni have opted to pursue careers in Jewish education, the program is still reaching only a small percentage of potential Jewish educators.“Is bringing in 35 better than zero? Yes.” Schapp said. “Will it change the world?