When Laura Lauder was going through the Wexner Heritage Program in San Francisco, she learned about the importance of a Jewish day school education, which Jewish communal experts see as a remedy to rising rates of assimilation.
She had just given birth to her first child, and without a doubt, she knew that she and her husband would send their children to day school. That program about five years ago marked the beginning of her strong interest in Jewish education, which has led her to spearhead a new national effort to not only bring more Jewish teachers into the fold but keep them there.
The shortage of teachers that exists in public schools is even more pronounced in Jewish day schools, said Lauder, an Atherton resident. The challenges are twofold: For one, private school salaries are usually lower. In addition, individuals who would like to teach in a Jewish school often don't have the proper training.
Lauder's "New Teacher Initiative," offered under the auspices of the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education, is designed to bring potential teachers into a two-year training program.
On the local level, Lauder has long been involved with the Mid-Peninsula Jewish Community Day School, leading a $6 million campaign for the Palo Alto school. In 1999, she was awarded the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation's Lloyd Dinkelspiel Award for her efforts.
But Lauder's involvement has not been limited to the local level. Like other members of the Lauder family (philanthropist Ronald Lauder is her husband's uncle), she is active in Jewish causes on the national level.
By getting involved in organizations like the Jewish Educational Service of North America and PEJE, Lauder was able to network with philanthropists who had an equal interest in supporting Jewish education.
With the help of such heavyweights as Michael Steinhardt and Charles Bronfman, who funded Birthright Israel, as well as the support of local philanthropists Janet and Albert Schultz, Lauder's program has the necessary backing to ensure it will succeed.
"When major philanthropists get involved, you know it's going to happen," she said.
Additionally, the JCF's Jewish Community Endowment Fund is also helping the program get off the ground.
Phyllis Cook, JCEF executive director, said that Lauder is one of many Wexner graduates who has come up with their own projects.
"There are a lot of people with a lot of interesting ideas and we're trying to give them support," she added. While the fund hasn't given help in the form of financial backing, "there have been donors that we've introduced to her, and people are funding it as a result."
In June, Lauder convened a group of some of the top experts in the field of Jewish education, and they came up with the initial plan.
"The objective is to work in partnership with the schools so they can identify individuals who would have successful careers at their school but need training," she said. And because retention is such a problem, the reasoning goes that if these individuals are from the community they will serve, they will be all the more likely to stay.
"Keeping them is a bigger issue than finding them," Lauder said.
Most day schools have different teachers for Jewish studies and secular studies, she pointed out. The ideal is to have teachers who are well-versed in both. For example, when the children learn about Thanksgiving and the Mayflower, in an integrated curriculum, they would learn about the Exodus and the Holocaust as well.
"It's wonderful to have this correlation of having a positive American and a positive Jewish identity," she said. "The children emerge feeling good and strong about all of their identities, their self-confidence and understanding of who they are. That's what we want to give our children."
As envisioned, the institute will get under way in the summer of 2002. Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., and Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion's Los Angeles campus will host the program, and fellows will spend five weeks at one of the sites. After they finish, they will return to their communities and spend the year as a teacher's aide. Their salaries will be paid in part by the program and in part by the school where they work.
The fellows will also participate in a distance-learning curriculum, and report to a mentor at their school.
At the end of the school year, they will return to Brandeis or HUC for another five to six weeks of instruction.
They will then be required to teach at their school for two years, after which they can reapply for further help in obtaining a master's degree or receiving financial aid through loans.
"There will be a cafeteria list of options they can apply to us for," said Lauder. "We're hopeful they will want their credential and take this course."