I’m writing this week’s musing from a very selfish standpoint. For the last few decades, I have primarily made my living as a Jewish Educator, especially supervising supplemental religious school programs or teaching for them. If you’ve been following my personal dramas, you’ll know that I’m taking a bit of a downward/sideways shift in my career, still involved in education, and still in a Jewish setting (a day school) however I’ll be teaching music.
Finding work as a Jewish educator (as a school director or similar work) is not so easy these days. (Religious school teachers, however, are always in demand, though the economic crisis is being felt by them as well. Many day schools are struggling as well.) Many of my colleagues are out of work, looking for work, working at reduced salaries and for reduced benefits, or are now working in other fields – some tangential and till in the Jewish community like mine, others no longer working as Jewish professional. Some are not working at all, a circumstance to which I can relate, having been through a two-year period of un/under-employment.
That’s not to say there isn’t any work in Jewish education, there are just many more people competing for those jobs. Many jobs have become part-time, many have few, if any benefits. If we were like ancient Levites, we wouldn’t be able to survive on the support the community was providing.
Now, admittedly, Jewish education has never been a field one goes into with expectations of generous compensation and benefits. All (and I mean all, not most) of the Jewish educators I know do what they do because they love it or feel compelled/obligated to do this holy work. (I suppose there may be some out there who chose the profession for other reasons, but I have personally never mey anyone like that.) All want and expect decent compensation, but recognize it’s not a profession from which they are likely to become rich.
I don’t want to upset any of my rabbinical and cantorial colleagues, most (being honest, I have to say most and not all) do what they do for its holy purpose, and not for financial reasons. I do not begrudge rabbis and cantors the salaries they make and the benefits they receive. They, too, suffer from a plethora of problems that pervade the institution of the synagogue when it comes to employment, contracts, ethics, etc. As a general rule of thumb, they are compensated better than educators – that’s just a basic reality (though there are exceptions.) They too, are being asked to accept salary or benefit reductions (or, at the very least, minimal increases or frozen wages) in many cases. Sometimes, I feel like we are modern “Levites,” except we aren’t landless (though many of us are apartment dwellers-does that makes us landless?)
Yes, I see the work that I and other educators do as of equal value and find the salary discrepancies (which, to us, indicate how we are respectively valued by the community) between us and ordained clergy bothersome. However that is not my focus here. I don’t want to get into a game of comparatives, because in many respects we would be comparing apples and oranges.
So I want to include the clergy as part of the issue I am prompted to raise as my response to encountering parashat Korakh this year.
We – the educators (administrators, teachers, specialists, and support staff alike,) and the the clergy are today’s “Levites.” We perform the essential services that enable the community to worship, learn, engage in the performance of mitzvot, and so much more. For a significant part of the liberal Jewish community, we are also their “surrogate Jew.” Viewed in this way, we, like the priests of old, are intermediaries between the deity/religious cult and the people. Clergy, in particular, perform what once were priestly duties, though not exclusively so. Clergy, educators, and the like (here a nod to synagogue administrators and support staff) also perform the work of the Levites.
Now it is true that we are living in an age in which clergy are not seen universally as intermediaries, and in Judaism we certainly don’t view communication with G”d as solely the purview of the clergy. In the parasha, we read that the priests are to handle all of the work “behind the curtain,” i.e. the altar and the holy of holies. Even before the destruction of the two Temples, people were starting to question this exclusivity, and with the advent of the rabbinical Judaism that replaced the Temple cult in the diaspora, holy obligations were certainly more decentralized. Rabbis were teachers, leaders, and advisors/decision-offerers, but they were not seen as intermediaries acting on behalf of the people to intercede with G”d (though, taking as an example the story of the “ovens at Akhnai” the rabbis may have seen themselves as the ultimate authority, even usurping G”d – G”d even admitting in the story that G”d’s people have defeated G”d.)
Today’s clergy do not, with rare exception, view themselves in this way. (I am chastened to admit that in addition to knowing a few rabbis that might possibly view themselves with such hubris, I have known a few educators and teachers similarly haughty.)
Anyway, to the nub of my musing. Today’s “Levites” (i.e. clergy, educators, et al) are not landless, and solely dependent on the community for their support and livelihood. That being said, the fact remains that, to a very large extent, they are dependent on the community for its support. That support is often inadequate, and it’s getting worse all the time.
Why is it that, to a great extent, Jewish educators generally do not receive compensation for their holy work that is anywhere close to that received by many, if not most, of the congregation’s membership? Yes, rabbis and cantors often make better salaries, and sometimes their earning are on a par with their congregants, yet this is not always the case, and I do not wish to exclude them from the modern “Levites” who rely on the community’s support.(Now, before you take me to task by assuming all congregants are wealthy – I have written in these musings and elsewhere many times about the Jewish community’s invisible Jews – the working class. I grew up in a distinctly working class Jewish family. It’s a phenomenon more widely found in the urban pales of American Jewish settlement in NY, Chicago, and a few other large urban areas. It’s less common in the suburban pales, and far less common outside the “pale,” – something I know from the experience of having lived in 11 states, in smaller communities in places like Indiana, North Dakota, Tennessee, etc.)
Nevertheless it is undeniable that Jews in America are, on the whole, living pretty good lives financially. People in America’s Jewish communities who are educators and the like are, in general, not living as good a life, at least financially. And yes, money isn’t everything. If it were, most of us might be doing something else.
Being Jewish in America is expensive (I’ve lamented about that before as well.) Nevertheless, a 2010 survey by The Forward found that churches and synagogues do equally well in raising funds despite the voluntary giving in churches vs. the typical dues structure of a synagogue. So I can’t really complain about Jews not supporting their institutions when compared to Christians. (The second article in the Forward series does, however, highlight the big discrepancy between the compensation of Jewish clergy compared to their Christian counterparts. Again, I’m not here to chastise my clergy colleagues, the the discrepancy is a bit troubling. In addition, I know any number of Christian educators, and they are generally compensated as poorly as Jewish educators-though the pay discrepancy is often smaller. In addition, a large number of them are volunteers.) Even though American Jews are generally, statistically, a somewhat wealthier class, I don’t believe the solution to the problem I am highlighting is simply to squeeze Jews harder for money to support its Jewish professional class.
So what do we do to insure that today’s “priests” and “Levites” receive the support they need? The question is a difficult one to answer, and is further muddied by today’s economic situation, plus the ongoing changes in the Jewish community (especially regarding its institutions) brought upon by technological and societal change.
The answer may involve a difficult if not impossible question to ask. G”d found a reasonable (though hardly perfect) solution for the priests and Levites of old. If we take our present situation, and resituate it terms of our biblical ancestors, we might well ask “what would G”d do to insure that today’s “Levites” receive what they need from the community to do the holy service they do? It’s time to write our own Torah on this question.
Adrian (aka Migdalor Guy)
©2011 by Adrian A. Durlester
Other musings on this parasha
Korakh 5770 (Redux 5758/62) Camp Rebellion
Korakh 5769 – And who Put G”d In Charge (or 2009: A Space Odyssey)
Korakh 5768-If Korakh Had Guns
Korach 5767-Who’s Afraid of the Big, Bad, Tabernacle?
Korach 5766 – Investment
Korah 5765 – Stones and Pitchers and Glass Houses
Korach 5764-B’tzelem Anashim
Korach 5761-Loose Ends