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FOCUS ON ISSUES Conference pumps up educators in search of Jewish inspiration

Jewish Bulletin of Northern California
PALO ALTO, Calif., Aug. 19 (JTA) — Gluing pink rubber eyes on his nearly completed hand puppet, Rabbi Jack Paskoff was as delighted and proud as any kindergartner. “I’m always looking for gimmicks for my youth services and family services,” the leader of Congregation Shaarai Shomayim in Lancaster, Pa., said Monday afternoon as he sat at a table littered with scraps of red corduroy and dozens of markers. Paskoff was one of 1,800 teachers, administrators and lay leaders attending the Conference on Alternatives in Jewish Education, which was held this week on Stanford University’s palm-lined campus. The 22nd annual conference offered everything from the latest CD-ROMs on the Holocaust to a debate over creating a national core curriculum for religious schools. On Monday alone, CAJE-goers, most of whom are involved with synagogue-based education, could choose from 200 workshops. They could browse through a bazaar with thousands of children’s books, as well as rubber challahs, jumbo Hebrew-letter puzzles and enough Magen David necklaces to outfit every Jew at the conference. Elsewhere, they could test drive the Internet in one of two computer labs. Or like Paskoff, they could spend a few minutes in the “Make ‘n’ Take Center.” Because of the voluminous number of choices spread across several acres, the conference didn’t feel as immense as it was. But a kipah on every tenth person hiking across campus was a reminder that something atypical was under way. CAJE-goers — three-quarters of whom were women — uniformly offered no-holds-barred endorsements of the conference. “It gives me an injection of ruach (spirit). It takes me through the year,” Ellie Greenberg, a veteran religious teacher from Denver’s Community Talmud Torah, said as she sipped coffee in the shade outside the student union. “There is always something new and relevant for me here,” said Greenberg, attending her seventh conference. “It’s almost like going back for a mini-master’s.” Others were similarly enthusiastic. “This is the Graceland for Jewish educators,” said the Birkenstock- and kipah-clad Dave Perkel, a tutor at Congregation Ahavat Achim in Atlanta. Though most workshop-goers seemed to be in their 30s and 40s, the conference also attracted teens like Perkel and Nathan Majeski, both 15. Majeski, a teacher’s aide from Temple Emek Shalom in Ashland, Ore., said he’d already picked up a great idea to boost tzedakah-giving at his synagogue. Instead of just asking kids for change each week, Majeski said a workshop leader suggested letting the students first decide where the money would go and even designating three charities. The workshops — topping 500 altogether — included the expected topics: Israel, Hebrew, Holocaust and Torah. But they also threw in such cutting-edge subjects as meditation, attention deficit disorder, post-feminism, dreaming and yoga. Sometimes the workshop titles were creative enough themselves to inspire interest. They included “Rashi’s Rangers: Adventures in Talmud,” “Punch Me in the Stomach!,” “Don’t be a Chicken! Evaluate!,” “Jewish Tales of the Supernatural,” and “Randy’s Navel Piercing: Halachic Adventure,” which studied Jewish sources on body piercing. The goal of many of the workshops was to help CAJE-goers with common dilemmas by offering solace and solutions. In “Straight But Not Narrow: Dealing with Homophobia in Our Classrooms and Communities,” a teen in the audience asked what to do when a group of friends laughs and decides a girl with a short haircut must be a lesbian. Workshop leader J.B. Sacks-Rosen, an openly gay rabbi at Congregation Shaarei Torah in Arcadia, Calif., said dealing with groups can be difficult. If violence is a possible reaction to speaking up, he first warned, stay quiet. “I don’t think being beat up will save the world.” Otherwise, he said, pull aside the ringleader or a follower later on. Then ask why he or she felt the need to comment, explain that a haircut has nothing to do with someone’s sexuality, assert there’s nothing wrong with being homosexual, or offer help if the person feels confused about his or her own sexuality. A few classrooms away, an educator from Mobile, Ala., lamented that the Friday night football game always takes precedence over Shabbat celebrations. Rabbi Cherie Koller-Fox, who was leading the workshop called “Home Interventions: Empowering Parents to Deepen Jewish Participation at Home,” responded with a knowing nod. A few years ago when Koller-Fox would mention Shabbat observance to her congregants at Congregation Etz Chayim in Cambridge, Mass., she said, “they would just laugh.” Then she started a program to teach the youngest children and their parents about the rituals of Shabbat. And whenever someone would complain about the stress of being constantly on the run or not having enough time with the children, Koller-Fox would offer the solution of Shabbat. Slowly, more and more congregants have taken the time to celebrate. “Your job is to open their eyes,” she said. “I didn’t have to foist Shabbat on them.” On the second day of CAJE, few could say specifically what they could take back to the classroom. Susan Protter, director of teen services at the Albert L. Schultz Jewish Community Center in Palo Alto, was one of the exceptions. After attending a workshop about Judaism’s emphasis on speaking in ways that don’t hurt people, Protter was inspired. With teens, she said, gossip and rumor always crop up. “I am going to create a whole curriculum,” she said.