Diversity, the Net among topics at CAJE confab here

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A self-described "three-ring circus" of Jewish education will descend on Palo Alto this month.

The 22nd annual Conference on Alternatives in Jewish Education is returning to Northern California for the first time since 1984. About 1,600 teachers, administrators and lay leaders, including 250 from the Bay Area, will gather from Aug. 17 to 21 at Stanford University to learn about classroom innovations and to revitalize before the school year kicks in.

The barrage includes 500 workshops, 10 keynote speeches, a 72-film festival, a 95-vendor bazaar, an art expo, a do-it-yourself crafts center, two computer labs, a pluralism debate, a celebration of Zionism's centennial, an outdoor concert — and, not surprisingly, a printed program as thick as a big-city telephone book.

"There are so many components. It's such a huge, huge, huge effort," said Zvi Weiss, a San Francisco resident and one of four conference co-chairs.

For the especially devoted, a three-day "pre-conference" and Shabbat observance is available as well.

CAJE workshops zero in on nearly every imaginable subject — from the perennials such as teaching Hebrew, Torah and the Holocaust to more timely topics such as exploring the Internet, Jewish multiculturalism and sexual orientation issues.

Some of the catchier workshop titles include: "How to Reach B'nai Mitzvah Students and Their Families Without Tearing Your Hair Out," "Hebrew Without Tears," "Straight But Not Narrow: Dealing with Homophobia in Our Classrooms and Communities," "Putting God on Your Classlist," and "David, Bathsheba and Woody Allen."

This year's conference theme is "Gather the People Together."

Within CAJE, there is also a mini-conference for lay leaders. It includes workshops on evaluating school programs and applying for grants, and a discussion of the pros and cons of a national curriculum.

Despite the abundance of offerings, the conference goal is simple.

"CAJE is about sharing successes in the classroom…and sharing failures," said Weiss, the former assistant director of the Bureau of Jewish Education of Greater Los Angeles.

The conference is sponsored by the Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education (also known as CAJE). The coalition, with nearly 4,000 members, is the largest Jewish educators' organization in North America.

This year, the conference is co-sponsored by the S.F.-based Bureau of Jewish Education, the Center for Jewish Living and Learning of the East Bay, the Jewish Education Council of San Jose, Stanford Hillel, Stanford's Jewish studies program and the Stanford Concentration on Research in Jewish Education.

Besides conference co-chairs Weiss and Debbie Findling, dozens of other Bay Area Jews are leading workshops or helping organize the massive undertaking.

Brad Lakritz, the technology coordinator for the S.F.-based Bureau of Jewish Education, is overseeing two computer labs and 22 sessions on computer literacy. His work will make this the most technology-intensive CAJE conference yet.

One computer lab will focus on Jewish educational software and CD-ROMs; the other will teach educators how to surf the Internet.

Lakritz hopes Bay Area computer whizzes can spread their expertise far beyond the Silicon Valley and ease the burdens on the average teacher.

"I think there are places across the country that are just as high-tech as here, but I don't know of any that are more high-tech," said Lakritz, who is also on the 50-member conference coordinating committee.

Not only can educators increase their personal knowledge via Internet courses, for example, but they can also cut preparation time using Hebrew word-processing software, or excite students with build-it-yourself Web sites.

On the less technical side, Berkeley educator Loolwa Khazzoom will lead a six-hour "intensive" on Jewish diversity and co-facilitate a three-hour workshop on the effects of internalized anti-Semitism on education.

Both facets spring from Khazzoom's mission of spreading information about Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews. Most Jews of Ashkenazi origin know little of other Jewish customs, Khazzoom said.

Her methods will include unveiling non-Ashkenazi traditions, such as eating Purim pastries called sambousak, filled with cheese and egg or chickpeas and meat. She also hopes to meet other educators interested in creating a multicultural curriculum.

"People don't even realize there are other traditions and histories," she said. "They need exposure to realize what they're missing."

Conference registration costs $605 for adults, plus a $50 late fee and another $75 to become a CAJE member. Anyone wanting to stay on Stanford's campus pays another $100.

There is also space available in the Aug. 17-18 mini-conference for lay leaders. It costs $65 for one day, or $100 for both days.

For an application, call the CAJE office in New York at (212) 268-4212 or visit its web site at www.caje.org