Remember Rabbi Motti Simpson, aka “The Melamed”?
Last year’s column on Rav Motti described a passionate, dedicated elementary schoolteacher, one who was increasingly frustrated by his low salary.
Back then, Motti had said: “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.”
Well, Motti recently completed his first year as an elementary school principal. To find out why he decided that it would, in fact, be worthwhile to go from being a melamed to being a menahel, I met up with him at the beginning of July.
Spoiler alert: Rav Motti’s cost-benefit analysis of the job of principal would not prove mistaken—neither in terms of salary nor in terms of working hours.
Motti told me that around the time that the column appeared he had indeed been close to leaving the field of education. Impelled by his poor financial situation, he had entered into discussions with a company that specializes in retraining educators for employment in high tech. But then he got a phone call from Rabbi Michael Yamer from Kibbutz Sha’alvim, located midway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
Rabbi Yamer is head of the Hesder Yeshivah at Sha’alvim, but as he also takes an interest in all the educational institutions there, Rav Motti knew why the rabbi had called: The boys elementary school needed a new principal.
Given his thinking back then, Motti said that he was not interested in a principalship; however, as Rabbi Yamer was a senior rabbinic figure, out of respect, Rav Motti agreed to a meeting.
Twenty minutes into his meeting with Rabbi Yamer, Motti was sold.
Now in hindsight, he realizes that, at heart, his crisis was not financial but emotional: “I had reached an age [then 44] when I needed to burst forth. I have always liked to lead; I was a commander in the army, and I was the lead rabbi at my school. I needed a new challenge; I needed someone to tell me, someone important and respected: ‘Come. We need you to run things here, we need you to take over.’”
After the meeting, Motti spent many hours talking things through with his wife Orit, who is also a schoolteacher. Orit, according to Motti, had felt that leaving education “would contradict every bone in my body.” And so, with Orit’s blessing, Motti became a principal.
The beginning was difficult; he says, “There was not one moment when I didn’t ask myself: ‘Why did I do this?’”
He relied greatly upon help from his former principal in the school where he had worked for a dozen years. Toward the middle of the year, a mentor-principal was assigned to him; also very helpful were the monthly principal workshops that he attended. Interestingly enough, the principals in these workshops were drawn exclusively from Jewish religious schools and from Arab schools—largely composed of religious Muslims.
When we met, Rav Motti was in the midst of planning for the 2023-2024 school year and was brimming with enthusiasm.
“Now that the year has ended, I really feel at home here,” he said.
“At my previous school where I was a teacher, I did not have overall responsibility; I was within a framework and the school’s problems were not my problems. Here, I am the one who constructs the framework of the school; the problems are my problems.”
What about his financial situation?
“We are still in the same financial hole,” Motti says. “It’s very frustrating, but I remind myself that I’m doing what I want to do. If you are doing what is essential to you, if you are emotionally and spiritually filled up, then the hard work and the limited salary are worth it.”
As for his new-found career and his goals for his school, Motti says: “My belief in ideals has returned. Being a principal is me; it is an ideological position. I want the Torah to enliven us, and I thus am working here so that the Torah will be more present in the school, so that the kids will be happier and more connected to the Torah, so that the teachers will feel that they are appreciated, and so that everyone will understand that Torah and excellence can go together.”
TEDDY WEINBERGER is a contributing writer to Jlife magazine. 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.