CAJE: Up from the Ashes

[cross posted to TAPBB]

On the poster that changed CAJE’s name from the Coalition for “Alternatives” in Jewish education to the Coalition for the “Advancement” of Jewish Education was this Midrashic quotation picked out by Stuart Kelman.

At the end of the great persecution our teachers met together at Usha… They sent to the elders of Galilee saying, ‘Whoever has learned, let him come and teach, and whoever has not learned, let him come and learn.’ They came together and studied and took all necessary steps.
[Song of Songs Rabbah 2:18]

It perfectly captured the dream. CAJE started out as a dream. There were a bunch of us sitting around on the sofas at Boston University Hillel talking about the teaching we were all doing in Hebrew Schools. (We hadn’t yet gotten to Supplemental Schools or Congregational Schools or the other “reconceptualizations” of the process). The insight came from Cherrie Koller-Fox. She said, “We all have something to teach each other.” We began to imagine a local teacher’s conference where each of us would teach stuff, and get to learn stuff from others. Nothing came of that particular conversation. I don’t know how many times it was repeated. Eventually it made it the Network of Jewish Students who decided to hold a first Conference on Alternatives in Jewish Education at Brown University, to a Continuations committee who held a second conference at the University of Rochester, and then an organization was birthed. A few of us on the West Coast (Wolfson, Kelman, and Grishaver) put together (with a single staff person, Jody Hirsh) a West Coast Conference on Alternatives in Jewish Education. That was the third. And from then on the national organization took root and created its annual conference. It was all very Woodstock.

The midrash from Song of Songs was speaking of the Hadrianic persecutions, the Roman reaction to the Bar Kokhba revolt. When CAJE was formed, we were speaking about a tyranny of formality and the chains formed by the status quo. Today we are suffering from famine. Dire famine as nourishment for Jewish education shrinks and fades. There is no Egypt, there is no Joseph to go to. We have only ourselves as a resource. No single foundation is going to save us. This puts the obligation on us. With CAJE not happening, our job is to gather (not this summer, but soon) to teach and learn. Our reaction to the floundering of CAJE can’t be sadness but motivation. What had been taken care of for us, we must now do for ourselves.

The international growth of Limmud and the success of the Hazon Food Conference show that the basic CAJE model (the model away from which CAJE has drifted) is still viable. To a large degree, CAJE’s shift away from this model was a big contributor to its present state of decline.

Here’s what I believe:

1. The North American Jewish Community needs an annual trans-ideological, pluralistic education conference.

2. It needs to be lead by 20-30 year olds, not late 50 and 60 year olds. We who founded CAJE have a role as mentors and elders.

3. I don’t know whether what follows will still be called CAJE or not, but I do know that it must travel light and lean, and return to an emphasis on volunteerism.

4. I know that it must be accessible and desirable to lay people as well as educational professionals and that means an emphasis on Tikkun Olam and Torah l’Shma needs to be more prevalent in the mix.

5. Whatever we restart will need to involve coalitions between the educational organization and other players in the Jewish community—including a lot of new organizations.

6. The words, “we’ve always done it this way” need to be banned.

7. The keys need to be a fusion of “big names” and a renewal of the chance for “new voices.” The notion of grassroots needs to be revived.

8. We need to speak to all of those “who outgrew CAJE” not with a few new elements, but with a fundamental reconsideration.

We sit in a moment where much of what we know is collapsing. We have no choice but to rebuild. We need another gathering at Usha.

2 Responses to CAJE: Up from the Ashes

  1. Thanks, Joel, for your thoughts. Here is the posting that I wrote in my blog,

    Mourning the CAJE Conference

    After more than three decades, the Conference on Alternatives in Jewish Education has decided not to have its trademark annual conference this year. Many Jewish educators in my age category [i.e., “veteran”, but still young enough at heart to have a blog, and to be considered an innovative and creative educator] came of age professionally through CAJE conferences. Long before LinkedIn, Twitter or Facebook, CAJE was the ultimate social network for those involved in Jewish Education, linking thousands of us to one another for learning and sharing that moved far beyond the week of the conference.

    CAJE redefined the “Jewish educator.” Starting at a time in which other professional organizations tried to limit who could legitimately consider themselves a “real” Jewish educator, CAJE conferences eagerly opened the door to all comers, recognizing that the realities of Jewish life called for career professional Jewish educators, avocational teachers, arts educators, librarians, educational technology specialists, volunteer leaders and others to move Jewish teaching and learning forward.

    In its heyday, CAJE brought together educators across denominational lines and across educational settings. For me, it was the first true learning experience about the varieties of Jewish expression. For many, it was the first recognition that “real” Jewish learning was occurring in all sorts of locations: schools, synagogues, camps, retreats, concerts, JCC’s, libraries, and more

    CAJE offered leadership opportunities to members regardless of their economic status. Anyone committed to the field and to the organization and willing to give of their time was invited to lead. Some have surmised that this strength was also part of its financial downfall, but that’s another conversation. And without that approach, it would not have been CAJE.

    Jewish educators used CAJE as their touchstone for creativity. Teachers in non-BJE locations used the conference as their central agency or teachers’ center. Many colleagues also saw CAJE as an alternative to more staid, conservative agencies that served their communities.

    Regardless of the long-term future of CAJE conferences or of the CAJE organization, a gap now exists in the Jewish educational picture. The loss of the CAJE conference means that

    Professional learning for Jewish educators needs to be reorganized in meaningful ways. While Jewish Educators’ Assembly, National Association of Temple Educators, and Reconstructionist Educators of North America will continue to be places of learning for educators in leadership positions (mostly school directors), and Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education will do so for day school leadership, learning that cuts across job and movement lines only exists in unlinked bubbles.

    Support for front line pedagogic creativity and innovation, likewise, exists in some particular initiatives, but is not well organized overall. Teachers’ centers, once the mainstay of teacher creativity, have folded or morphed into something else. Central agencies, which carried the ball locally, have, in the best cases, reinvented themselves to meet changing needs. But support for the work on the ground and on the micro level are sketchy at the moment.

    We live and practice our craft at a time of great change. CAJE may have been the victim of changing times. Its members – past and present, and the remnant of the organization can choose to lead a group of architects in envisioning the next great idea for professional learning for the emerging future of Jewish education.

    Gary Marx, in Future Focused Leadership, defines educational leadership in terms of planning for the future, and leading educational institutions, communities, and, or course, our students, into a changing future, while engaged in actually shaping what will actually emerge.

    It is time for us, as Jewish educators and leaders, to use this time to think, imagine and plan for the future.

  2. Ira Wise says:

    Amen and amen, sela.

    I’m in. Who else?

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