By Cantor Mark Horowitz, Vice President, Director of Sheva Center, JCC Association of North America
The women’s marches across the country this past week made my soul sing and filled my heart with hope and possibility in the midst of my great anxiety for our children and their families.
As an early childhood Jewish educator for much of my career, it rekindled my angst over a cause we spend a lot of time clucking about but have never taken up seriously as a community.
Most of the classroom educators across the country are women. These days, our educators require advanced degrees, many professional development hours and full-time work in our schools providing care and education to young children from birth through kindergarten. They study Jewish texts, spark families on their Jewish journeys and provide a daily environment filled with the values of Jewish life and living.
In spite of their professionalism, passion and commitment, most of them are not earning a living wage. Many of our classroom educators, (women and men) need to have two jobs to ensure their families will have food on the table and a roof over their head.
We spend a lot of time in rooms with early childhood professionals and funders where we use post it notes all over the walls to make lists of the important issues that need to be addressed in our early childhood Jewish world. The notion of fair wages is always at the top. We cluck about it together and shake our heads as we declare with great distress how awful it is.
The pipeline for excellent educators and administrators for our early childhood centers has dried up and is almost non-existent. Why would anyone see this as a viable career if they actually need to support a family? The public school systems or a day school career offers much more opportunity financially.
We declare that this dilemma is too big for us to be able to tackle and so it is tabled and put in some future pile of troubles year after year. Now the dilemma is a crisis. Our early childhood professionals are earning wages below the poverty level and our schools are facing a dearth of qualified professionals.
In Talmud Baba Metzia, 112A we read:
“Whoever withholds an employee’s wages, it is as though he had taken the person’s life from him.”
Shame on us.
What is the seed unplanted?
As we rightfully march for women’s rights to ensure that the next four years do not destroy the great strides we have made for our mothers, our partners, our daughters and our friends, let us not forget those in our Jewish community who are nurturing the souls and educating our next generation of leaders in our Jewish communities and in our beloved country. Let’s at least gather the seeds to begin the process of change.
As we approach our celebration of Tu B’Shvat, let us recall our ancestors who were expected to bring one-tenth of their fruits to the Temple in Jerusalem where they were offered to God to sustain the poor.
What is not growing is a solution to the restoration of respect and humanity to those who work selflessly with our youngest children and their families. Together, may we find the strength to plant these seeds that establish strong roots to finally take up the task of using our voices to take action and actually make a difference.