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Focus on Issues: Communal Embrace of Education Leads Caje to Consider New Ideas

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The 20th annual conference of the Coalition for Alternatives in Jewish Education was equal parts study retreat, in-service training and camp reunion.

Some 2,100 women and men gathered at the University of Massachusetts campus here Aug. 13-17 for what has become the central annual event in Jewish education.

This year’s CAJE conference was a frenzy or more than 600 workshops and seminars concurrent with exhibits of pedagogical pointers and, each evening, entertainment ranging from a Zionist song contest to Jewish stand-up comedy to tales of traditional Jewish stories.

But after two decades of growth, some here expressed concern that the CAJE conference is not the source of Jewish educational innovation and creativity that it once was.

In many respects, some say, CAJE has become exactly what it was founded to challenge: the Jewish establishment. At the same time, the mainstream leadership in the Jewish community has caught up with CAJE’s mission.

Some of the issues raised first by CAJE in the late 1970s, such as family education and a focus on classical Jewish texts, are now viewed as priorities by the Jewish communal mainstream.

At last year’s Council of Jewish Federations’ General Assembly, half a day was devoted to studying Torah, a marked contrast to the 1977 assembly, when Jewish educators literally banged on the doors and were not permitted to enter.

Many, perhaps most, of North America’s Jewish federations are today putting a higher percentage of their dollars into all types of Jewish education than they have in the past.

The Jewish Federation of Northeastern New York, for example, gave a $32,000 “continuity grant” to subsidize the cost of attending the CAJE conference for 80 educators from Albany, Troy and Schenectady.

“They view this as the best thing since perforated matzah,” said Rabbi Don Cashman, the rabbi-educator at Albany’s Reform Temple B’nai Sholom.

The funding from the federation – most of which came from dollars that used to go to Israel, Cashman said – plus some additional funding from his own congregation, enabled half his staff to attend the conference. One member of his five-person delegation was the non-Jewish teacher of secular studies.

The fact that education is being viewed as a central priority by Jewish agencies is “mind-blowing, and a vindication of their (Jewish educators’) commitment,” said CAJE Executive Director Eliot Spack.

“The danger is that we become complacent,” Spack said. “We have to push on.”

Part of the “pushing on,” said Carol Oseran Starin, CAJE’s chairwoman, involves “taking a serious look at where we at CAJE are going in the future.”

“Some of the models created in the early days of CAJE may not be the best for now,” she said in an interview at the conference.

She pulled out a copy of the first CAJE conference program, held at Brown University in 1976: six mimeographed pages, three of which were a roster of which educators would be serving the food in the dining room at each meal.

The topics addressed at that conference, including music, teaching Israel, and sexism in text and curricula, are still part of CAJE’s agenda.

The annual conference, which has evolved into a much more elaborate affair, still is “a one-time shot in the arm” for Jewish educators, Starin said. “We need to look at ways to help with more substantive, long-term development on a national level.”

With next year’s main CAJE conference slated for Jerusalem to celebrate the Jewish capital’s 3,000th birthday, two smaller gatherings are planned for the United States.

One will be a Jewish study retreat and the other will be devoted to practitioners of informal education, such as camp leaders, who are always too busy working in August to attend the regular conference. These will be the first steps in CAJE’s exploration of new forms and formats, said Starin.

CAJE is also stepping onto the information superhighway with a task force named “CyberCAJE.”

“If we don’t plug in we’ll be left behind,” said CAJE’s Spack.

Nearly one-third of CAJE’s members now have an e-mail address, said Starin, a proportion that “we expect to grow exponentially.”

CAJE is also putting course curricula on-line. The CAJE curriculum bank, which holds 10,000 lesson plans at its home at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, is currently accessible only by phone, fax and mail.

“This will give teachers in isolated and small communities access to the world,” she said. “The idea is to get Jewish information into the hands of Jewish teachers.”

At the CAJE conference here Jewish education professionals chose between dozens of simultaneous workshops and seminars.

Topics covered an enormous range: from administration to education for adults, families, young children, teens and those with special needs; from art and drama to history and culture; from prayer to text to multimedia; from continuity to pedagogy.

Some of the sessions were led by the Jewish community’s top teachers, scholars, researchers and spiritual leaders; others by producers of computer software, texts or prayer books to promote their own material.

In preparation for what many of educators will be teaching their students in coming year, the conference’s theme was “Jerusalem 2999.”

Half a day was devoted solely to this theme, with 90 minutes devoted to text study in any of 28 different microcourses, and another 90 minutes devoted to 31 different workshops focusing on specific teaching ideas. The day ended with an Israeli-style dinner.

Also at the conference was a room-sized interactive exhibit called “A Walk Through Jerusalem,” which will touring Jewish communities in the coming year.

There was also a media room and a computer and technology center.

An Educational Resource Center offered educators the opportunity to see what other teachers use to teach. There were exhibits about Purim, the Western Wall and how Jewish studies can be integrated with secular studies in day schools. For example, there was an exhibit discussing how to talk about Jewish creation stories as students study American Indian creation stories during a history unit on American Indian traditions.

One family education project was built around first-graders and their parents at a day school. At the same time as the children were learning the morning prayers, their parents came to an evening session to explore the same text as their children. At the evening meeting the parents created book covers for each of the kids’ newly acquired prayer books.

At another gathering for the entire family, soon after that, the parents presented the uniquely covered prayer books to their proud first-graders, who then led their parents in the prayers.

The resource center also offered teachers the opportunity to learn how to tie- dye a silk tallit or to marbleize paint on cloth to make a challah cover.

For many educators, especially those in communities with few Jews, the CAJE conference is a vital antidote to the isolation they feel the rest of the year.

“Coming from my world, where hardly anybody’s Jewish, I love being somewhere where everybody’s Jewish. I can relax here in a way that I can’t at home,” said Hannah Bernard-Donals, the principal of a Reform temple supplementary school with 100 students in Columbia, Mo.

“It’s the only time we’re together with such a large group of Jewish people,” said Steve Liverman, a physician who teaches Sunday school to fifth- and sixth- graders at a Reform temple in Jackson, Miss.

“Every time I come back from CAJE I’m fired up,” said Liverman, who was at his third CAJE conference.

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