Around this time last year, in a column titled “An Unusual Public-School Teacher,” I wrote about my cousin Evan Leibowitz, an Orthodox Jew teaching at an elementary school in the South Bronx. In Israel, too (except for the ultra-orthodox sector), male primary-school teachers are “unusual.” As I happen to be friends with such a teacher—he is the Rabbi of the synagogue in Givat Ze’ev where we used to live—I decided to write about him.
Rabbi Motti Simpson, 44, is married to Orit and they have four sons. Already at the age of 18, Motti (a nickname for Mordecai) knew that he wanted to be a teacher. Later, at a teacher’s college, he was trained for a career of teaching junior-high and high school. He says that back then this was the case for all male teachers: “no one ever told us that it was important to teach in primary school.” Motti notes that only recently was a program opened by the Ministry of Education to train men to teach in elementary schools (and “even with the new program,” says Motti, “it’s hard to get good, quality male teachers). Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that Motti’s entry into grade-school teaching was by accident: “I was asked to fill-in at an elementary school in Eilat, where I was studying in a yeshiva.”
Motti was immediately drawn to working with children: “I am a kid at heart, and this goes well with the dynamics of young children who make a lot of noise and are very expressive. The kids have a lot of original thinking, and they are innocent and it fills me up with happiness to teach them.” Motti stresses the importance of good primary-school teachers: “Elementary school prepares a person for life; the kids are open to everything and there is a need for people to shape the future generation, a need for exceptional people to teach them.” Motti continues: “A child’s world is complicated. There is a lot of imagination, there is a lot of emotion; it is a different world than adults. It’s not easy. Who has patience for the mishega’as of little kids? For a teacher to succeed they must have a lot of empathy.”
Motti teaches in a “Torani” public religious school in the city of Modi’in. These schools have separate classes for boys and girls, have more Judaic studies than regular religious public schools, and emphasize “modesty” in appearance. There are a relatively large number of male teachers in the school, and (as in ultra-orthodox circles) these have the respected title of “melamed” (respected enough to be used as a last name, see “Bernard Malamud”—it literally means “one who teaches”). Motti says that “there is a lot of support and respect from the parents of the children I teach”; however, he adds, “in the general world of the national religious, there isn’t this respect for a melamed.” And here we come to a serious problem facing Motti and all Israeli teachers: low salaries. Motti says that he sometimes even hears from his students (fifth and sixth graders): “If you are so smart, why are you teaching children?” On the one hand, Motti responds to them: “I think that it’s important that I am a teacher precisely because I am smart,” and he emphasizes for his students that he did extremely well in high school and could have gone on to study anything and to do anything he wanted. On the other hand, the financial sacrifice he has to make as a teacher is becoming more and more intolerable to him (I should mention that the remuneration that Motti receives for being the rabbi of the synagogue in Givat Ze’ev is extremely small). Motti says: “I don’t see anything else that I would want to do in life, but at the age of 44 I am definitely having a crisis due to my poor salary. I am surrounded by teachers who have spouses who all earn a decent salary, but my wife Orit is also a teacher. And I don’t see a way out if I stay in this field. The only option is to become a principal, but the additional salary is not much, and when you consider all the added hours that go with the job of principal, it’s just not worth it financially.” He adds ruefully: “I need other things to fill me up besides ideals.”
Motti still remains a melamed; he still feels it a great privilege to be able to “change and shape child after child.” Motti, speaking for all teachers, says that he is grateful for the attention: “We need the public relations; we are people too, who, in the end, also like to be told: Thank you.” Speaking as a parent and for all Israeli parents, I say: Thank you Rabbi Motti Simpson and thank you all teachers.
Teddy Weinberger is director of development for a consulting company called Meaningful. He made aliyah with his family in 1997 from miami, where he was an assistant professor of religious studies. Teddy and his wife, Sarah Jane Ross, have five children.