1,800 educators seek ideas, inspiration at conference here

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 felt-tip markers.

Paskoff was one of 1,800 teachers, administrators and lay leaders attending the Conference on Alternatives in Jewish Education, which took place Sunday through Thursday.

Held this year on Stanford University's palm-lined campus, the 22nd annual conference offered everything from the latest CD-ROMs on the Holocaust to arguments in favor of creating a national core curriculum for synagogue religious schools.

On Monday alone, CAJE-goers could choose from 200 workshops. They could browse through a bazaar stocked with thousands of children's books and religious texts, 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 CAJE's voluminous number of activities were spread across several acres, it wasn't immediately apparent that a massive Jewish event was taking place. But a kippah on every 10th person hiking across campus was a reminder that something atypical was under way.

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 are issues that always crop up.

"I am going to create a whole curriculum," she said.

CAJE-goers — three-quarters of whom were women and most of whom work with synagogue-based education — offered nothing but no-holds-barred endorsements of the conference.

"It gives me an injection of ruach [spirit]. It takes me through the year," said Ellie Greenberg, a veteran religious teacher from Denver's Community Talmud Torah, 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 kippah-clad Dave Perkel, a tutor at Congregation Ahavat Achim in Atlanta.

Though most attendees 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 that a workshop leader suggested letting the students first decide where the money will go and designating up to three charities, instead of just one.

The workshops — topping 500 altogether — included the expected topics: Israel, Hebrew, the Holocaust and Torah. But they also threw in such cutting-edge ideas as meditation, attention deficit disorder, post-feminism, dreaming, yoga and eco-Zionism.

Sometimes the workshop titles themselves were creative enough 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 Action Adventure."

The goal in many of the workshops was to offer solace and solutions to CAJE-goers facing common dilemmas.

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 the Los Angeles County town of Arcadia, 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 beaten up will save the world."

Otherwise, he said, pull aside the ringleader or a follower later on. Then either ask why he or she felt the need to comment, explain that a haircut has nothing to do with someone's sexuality, say 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 precedent over a Shabbat celebration.

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 parents at her Congregation Etz Chayim in Cambridge, Mass., "they would just laugh," she said.

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 their children, Koller-Fox would offer Shabbat as a solution.

Slowly, more and more congregants have taken the time to celebrate.

"I didn't have to foist Shabbat on them," she said. "Your job is to open their eyes."