In the particular world of our family Monday is famous because it will be our youngest daughter’s birthday. But around the Jewish world generally, it is famous because it is Tu B’Shvat – the day well known as the “Birthday of the Trees.” (And I suspect that Shira is not at all pleased to have to share her special day with anyone.)
Tu B’shvat is probably the least understood day on the Jewish calendar. Technically, the only importance of the 15th day of Shevat is that it is the beginning of the “fiscal year” for trees. This matters because of the law of not eating from a tree for the first three years, and it matters for a few agricultural mitzvot in Eretz Yisrael. That’s it really. But in modern times all sorts of groups have latched onto Tu B’Shvat to make it Jewish Earth Day or to make it Jewish Arbor Day. I guess if you are going to stick Earth Day into the Jewish calendar Tu B’Shvat makes more sense than Purim or Tu B’Av. And I guess if the Kabbalists and the Chasidim can invent a seder and attach kabbalistic meaning into the day, then why shouldn’t people continue to evolve the day in a way that echoes with new meaning?
And with that in mind, in the spirit of noticing additional layers of resonance in this day, there is a well-known Talmudic story I want to focus our attention on. The Gemarah in Taanis 5b tells the story of two great scholars that had visited and studied together. As they were ready to depart and go their separate ways one scholar asked the other for a blessing. He responded, “Let me tell you a parable. Once there was a person who was walking in the wilderness and he was hungry, tired, and thirsty. He found a tree whose fruit was sweet and whose shade was pleasant and who had a brook flowing beneath it. He ate from its fruits and he drank from its water and he sat under its shade. When he was preparing to continue his travel he said, ‘Tree! Oh, Tree! With what can I bless you? If I say that your fruit should be sweet, behold your fruit are already sweet. If I say that your shade should be pleasant, behold your shade is already pleasant. If I say you should have abundant waters flowing near you, behold this brook that flows beneath you! Thus I say, May it be Hashem’s will that all of the shoots that grow from you should be just like you! And so I say to you my friend, with what can I bless you? With Torah? You are already a great Torah scholar. With wealth? You have wealth. With children? You have children! So I say, May it be Hashem’s will that all of those who come from you should be just like you.” (A somewhat free translation.)
The tree in the mashal is this particular Torah scholar as parent. The blessing is that all his children should be just as successful as he is, in both spiritual wealth and this-worldly acquisitions. Those of us blessed with children would appreciate that blessing, because we certainly bask in the success of our children as an outgrowth of our own success. (And we vicariously see their struggles as our own as well, as you know.) Interestingly, the Talmud says that just as parents tend not to be jealous of their children, so too a rebbe isn’t jealous of his talmid (student.) My talmidims’ success in Torah is my own success! In that sense, I think it’s not too much of a stretch to say that the bountiful and blessed tree in the mashal above can also refer to a teacher. What a wonderful blessing for a morah or rebbe to get! “All of your students should love Hashem and learn Torah and do mitzvos b’simcha, just like you! Amen! Wow!” Every Torah teacher I know (and I know a lot) would say, “Even more! Let them know more! Have more simcha!” Every morah and every rebbe I know would love for their talmidim and talmidot to outshine them just as they would love for their own children to grow beyond them, because they love these kids together with their own biological kids. Every. Single. One. They give time, and love and attention, and worry and davening, and time and time and time that they take from their own families. They give that time to these children, who at times don’t have biological parents that CAN give this kind of care. I’ve had to leave my house in the middle of the night to help a talmid, and I’ve had to help a teen figure out how to talk to a parent about important things in life, and I’ve had to cry with a talmid that is sitting shiva, and so have the majority of Torah teachers I know (and the minority of morahs and rebbeim who haven’t done this yet would do it, but they just haven’t lived long enough to have the kavod. They will.). These people don’t clock out at 4:15. They give up Shabbos and weeknights, and they open their homes to talmidim and talmidot, and they do whatever needs getting done, and they also do all the complicated things that teachers do from accommodating learning differences, to updating student’s therapists, to navigating anxieties and social complexities, and they do it with skill and respect.
And this is on my mind a lot right now and I hope it’s on your mind too, because we are in the middle of a crisis. And I want to be super clear about this. We are not EXPECTING a crisis with teacher shortages in the years ahead. We are RIGHT NOW already in a crisis. But like a patient who is anesthetized, our community is not feeling the pain yet. But when you wake up, you’ll feel it.
For several weeks now, a variety or Jewish publications have been discussing the struggle of finding and retaining morahs, for all the reasons you can guess. There was a time when sociologically, it was “pas nisht” for Orthodox women to be out there working in the world at large. In that world, being a morah was one of the few jobs that socially acceptable and common. But that’s not the case right now. Frum women, even if they don’t have advanced degrees, commonly work in the whole alphabet soup of therapies. They are highly skilled workers in jobs that allow remote work. The reality of finances in the 21st century is that, by and large, both parents work. And that means that right now, a frum young woman entering any field is unlikely to be the only woman that looks like her. And that means that there are A LOT of things that women can do that are socially acceptable in this community that pay A LOT better.
And it’s not just women. There is a reason that the majority of rebbeim in Modern Orthodox day schools are “to the right” of the school they teach in. Just do some quick back-of-the-envelope math and you’ll see the issue. The only way to come almost close to making a living as a rebbe is if 1) he works full time 2) he has some side hustle such as Bar Mitzvah tutoring or counseling to do at night 3) he works at a camp during the summer so he can afford to send his kids to camp and 4) his wife works at least full time. IF he’s lucky enough to fill in all those spots, he can do it. But if he has a kid with special needs, or just especially needs his father’s attention, then he can’t work nights and they end up living gasping for air.
(For the record, I’m not blaming the school system at all. Tuition is impossibly high for most parents to pay without assistance AND no teacher can make enough for that to be their only job. Everyone knows that tuition is the most prevalent form of birth control in the Orthodox community.)
The whole country had a teacher shortage before the pandemic and it is getting much, much worse. A soon to be released survey suggests that 43% of teachers are considering leaving the profession. Just imagine a world where 1/3 or more of the teachers in your children’s school decided not to come back next year. Even IF somehow, miraculously, you could find human bodies to be in the rooms, you’re not going to have experienced, professional, skilled teachers.
So what can we do?
It’s obviously a huge, systemic problem and I can’t imagine what one person can do to get this fly wheel of imploding doom to spin in the opposite direction for the whole of our community. But my school is beginning a small thing that maybe starts to change something, if only a little bit. We are on the cusp of going public with a Judaic studies fellowship program for next year. We are looking for talented young people who are thinking that maybe they want to teach Torah, and maybe they have had some good experiences already, in camp or other informal education. And if selected, we will offer them a fellowship where we PAY THEM to learn how to be a teacher. It’s only part time so they can finish their degree or smicha, and they can work as a fellow with highly skilled master teachers. Besides the gravitas of winning a fellowship, and besides the great experiences of having a mentor teacher, they never have to start at the pay scale of a “first year teacher.” They are already time tested and experienced on day one. (Keep your eyes open for information about applying for this fellowship – coming to Jewish publications and Jewish websites in the next couple of weeks.) Maybe this has some small impact.
If you happen to be a millionaire and you can help raise the salary of all teachers in your community to $100,000 for fulltime work, (which is obviously not enough money to be frum on, but at least it’s a reasonable wage for a person with two graduate degrees) then you should do that and the Jewish people will remember your name for good, for all times.
But if all you can do is this Tu B’shvat to say to a rebbe or morah, “May it be Hashem’s will that all those who come from you should be just like you!” then that’s something too.