Is CAJE conclave providing new ideas

AMHERST, Mass. — The 20th annual conference of the Conference on 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 of 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 traditional Jewish stories.

But after two decades of growth, some are concerned 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 Jewish community leadership has caught up with CAJE's mission.

Some 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 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.

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. Funding from the federation — most of which came from dollars that used to go to Israel — as well as from his own congregation, enabled half his staff to attend the conference.

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

Topics addressed at that conference, including music, teaching Israel, and sexism, are still part of CAJE's agenda.

The annual conference, now 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. 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 have e-mail addresses, said Starin, a proportion that "we expect to grow exponentially."

CAJE is also putting course curricula online. 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 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 material.