Special to the JTA Some 1600 North American Jewish Educators Hold Conclave to Discuss Alternatives I

“This is probably the largest meeting of Jewish educators held since… well, perhaps since Sinai.” That claim was made by Jerry Benjamin, chairperson of the Coalition on Alternatives in Jewish Education (CAJE) and the recently-named executive director of the Maimonides School in Boston, in referring to the fourth CAJE conference which took place at Rutgers University from Aug. 23-28. Over 1000 people involved in every major facet of Jewish education and representing the entire religious and ideological spectrum attended the conference.

CAJE, a four-year-old grassroots organization with over 1600 members in the U.S. and Canada, organized the conference and obtained the co-sponsorship of the Board of Jewish Education of Greater New York (BJE-NY). Financial support was provided by the Fund for Jewish Education (created by the New York Federation and administered by the BJE-NY, the World Zionist Organization, the EMET Foundation, and the Gimprich Family Foundation). Office space was donated by the National Jewish Conference Center.

Participants at this conference had their choice from among 158 modules (intensive pedagogic sessions lasting up to 12 hours and usually over several days) and 128 Lehrhauses (sessions averaging 90 minutes on one special theme or issue). Topics covered ranged from the practical (“The ‘How-Tos’ of Starting a Teacher’s Center”) to more effective areas of learning (“Judaism and Psychosynthesis: Personal and Spiritual Growth”), and included several lessons that were as witty as they are informative (“Laugh with a Litvak: Humor in the Talmud”).

Among the hundreds of session leaders were Ilya Goldin an activist in Jewish political and cultural affairs in Minsk who now lives in Haifa, Michael Berenbaum, deputy director of the President’s Commission on the Holocaust, and Samuel Norich, a vice president of the World Jewish Congress and doctoral candidate in sociology at the University of Wisconsin.

ECLECTIC NATURE OF CONFERENCE

The conference was the first CAJE conclave to include full-day “mini-conferences” on such wide-ranging subjects as “Adolescence,” “Day Schools” and “Women in Judaism.” Many in attendance expressed the view that no previous group of Jewish educators has ever been exposed to such extensive artistic and creative programming. On the evening of Aug. 25 alone, participants had their choice of attending one of two plays — one consisting of legends about and biographical sketches of the Baal Shem Tov, the other about the experiences of an unusual Jewish woman growing up — seeing the Rakdaneen, a dance group sponsored by the American Jewish Congress, or listening to either the Fabrangen Fiddlers — a “blue grass/klezmer” group based in Washington, D.C. – or singer/composer Debbie Friedman.

During the two evening plenum sessions, a number of speakers commented upon the eclectic nature of the conference. “This is the only place in the world where we have the participation of Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, secular, Zionist and Yiddishist Jews, Hasidim Mitnogdim — everyone, observed Robert Bergman, a Reform rabbi from Santa Ana, California.

Steven Show, a Conservative rabbi from Rutherford, New Jersey and consultant to the American Jewish Committee and National Jewish Conference Center, remarked that “The Alternatives Conference is the first major Jewish forum where the generation which came of age during the 1960s is doing most of the programming for the entire Jewish community.”

21 TASK FORCES ESTABLISHED

During the plenum sessions, participants voted to establish 21 task forces to help improve teacher training and the sharing of resources, develop new educational materials and explore specific areas of interest. These included: “Developing Effective In-Service Staff Training,” “Confronting Aging and the Aged Through Jewish Education” and “Developing Programs and Materials for Family Education.”

They also agreed to create a newsletter, help European Jewish educators (several of whom attended), organize a similar conference in 1980 or 1981, and investigate the possibility of holding a conference in Israel with in the next few years.

At their concluding plenum, CAJE members adopted a new governing structure and elected Rabbi Daniel Syme, currently national director of education of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, as the organization’s new chairperson.

Reflecting on CAJE’s importance, Benjamin told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that the organization represents “a new movement of people energized both by the problems they’ve encountered and the belief that, by working collectively, they can begin to end the isolation and frustration experienced by so many Jewish teachers.

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