Caje to Mark ‘bar Mitzvah’ Year with Six-day Conclave in Israel

At a regional “institute” conducted last week by the Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education, more than 400 educators attended sessions at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee on topics as diverse as family education, early childhood development, “experiential learning” and the art of teaching.

Simultaneously, more than 500 teachers, principals and administrators attended CAJE’s San Diego Institute at San Diego State University, where the study of Hebrew and Jewish spirituality were on the agenda.

By the time the 13th annual CAJE conference ends six days of sessions in Jerusalem next week, more than 3,000 Jewish educators will have taken part in what the organization’s executive director calls “an annual recharge of batteries.”

More than numbers mark CAJE’s migration from the fringes of Jewish education to the mainstream. The educational alternatives it promotes, once considered maverick, are now topics of serious attention at all levels of Jewish education: family involvement in supplementary Jewish learning, increased respect for the teaching profession and a larger share of the community budget going toward Jewish schooling.

Even its name reflects a change: the “A” in CAJE once stood for Alternatives.

The organization’s executive director acknowledges that CAJE cannot claim all the credit for changes in Jewish education. But Eliot Spack, in a phone interview before the Milwaukee Institute, said CAJE has played “a significant role.”

‘ASSAULT ON THE STATUS OUO’

Founded in 1976 by a small group of Bostonbased educators, CAJE then represented “a direct assault on the status quo,” said Spack.

The goal, he said, “was to place Jewish education as a higher priority item on the domestic agenda, gain status for Jewish educators and make it a more attractive career calling. CAJE wanted to help stem the personnel crisis” in Jewish education.

The annual conferences, whose attendance grew from 350 in 1976 to an average of 1,500 over the past five years, became “a wonderful support system for people who are in the field. They reduced a sense of isolation and gave them access to materials, colleagues, and professional development,” Spack said.

The Israel meeting, which opens Sunday and continues through Aug. 5, may well represent the most ambitious programming yet in what has certainly been a far-reaching bar mitzvah year for the organization.

Subsidized by the Jewish Agency’s Joint Program for Jewish Education, the conference will feature more than 300 sessions divided among 14 “programmatic divisions.” Topics to be discussed range from traditional subjects, such as classical Jewish texts, Israel and Zionism, to such contemporary concerns as special education and school administration.

The conference will also include two days of “havayot,” or full-day field trips, at sites around the country.

The basis for a conference in Israel now is at least two-fold, said Spack. Not only will American educators be better able to teach Israel in the classroom, but Israelis will be able to meet Americans and dispel prejudices about Diaspora Jewry, a community whose vitality is doubted by many Israelis.

“CAJE’s presence in Israel could give people an opportunity to see what we call a living model of ‘clal Yisrael,” or pluralism in action,” said Spack.

UNREST IS NO DETERRENT

The tourist drought that has confounded Israel as a consequence of the Palestinian uprising does not seem to have had much effect on the conference, which according to Spack will bring the largest single group of visitors to Israel this year.

Current enrollment is at 1,300, and Spack said that of 100 cancellations, fewer than 10 seem to be related to fears of ongoing violence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

“We suspect that 30 to 40 percent of the attendees have never been to Israel before,” said Spack, who hopes their presence will boost the country’s morale.

Despite his own good spirits — he was a proud participant in the Milwaukee seminar, manning CAJE headquarters in a “chief zookeeper” t-shirt — Spack acknowledges that CAJE has still to meet a number of self-appointed goals. The organization could be more aggressive in what he calls an “advocacy role” and in combatting the downward trend in the number of fulltime Jewish educational positions.

At the Milwaukee Institute, educators fretted about an erosion in educational programs and staff quality, especially in synagogue and “supplementary” schools (those in session on Sundays and weekday afternoons).

Joel Grishaver of the Los Angeles-based Torah Aura Productions, a producer of educational materials, acknowledged that “there are places all over where educational excellence is being taken seriously.” But he said that some schools are “radically cutting down” both the time and content of their courses.

“There are schools across North America that will look for any warm body to stay one chapter ahead of the kids,” said Spack. “Here’s the best indicator: At a gathering of Jewish parents, ask how many want their son or daughter to be involved as a professional in Jewish education.

“The sparse number of hands will tell you. Until that becomes a significant number, we’re in trouble.”

(Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle reporter Leon Cohen contributed to this story.)

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