A New Vision Rooted in Change

by Leora Koller-Fox

In this issue of TAPBB, we’ve invited a number of people to share their thoughts on the future of CAJE. This is one in that series. To read them all, click here.

The Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education (CAJE) announced it will not hold its annual conference this year due to monetary problems. Now is the time to have a new vision for CAJE. This is mine.

CAJE will be a place where anyone involved in formal or informal Jewish education can meet to share ideas. Because of CAJE, Jewish education across the world has come to include Tzedakah education, ecology, rich Jewish music and art, textbooks and materials, family education, storytelling, and the expanded use of media and technology. Did you teach the alef- bet to your students through a song? You probably use the tune Debbie Friedman taught to educators at CAJE who taught it to you. Without an environment in which all are encouraged to bring innovation, good ideas are contained to their originators.

CAJE will be a think tank for the Jewish people, where we unite as a people, in the most fundamental and essential piece of Judaism—its transmission to the next generation. It will bring together all parties that contribute to education. This will include educators from all denominations of Judaism, all educational settings, as well as laypeople and parents. The heart of our people, Israel, is being attacked both with words and with bombs. Jewish-focused terrorism, like the most recent attack in Mumbai, proves once again that banding together as a people is the key to our survival. CAJE serves as a place to not only to survive, but to drastically move Judaism forward.

CAJE will be an outspoken advocate for Jewish education and Jewish educators. The American Jewish community does not give proper respect to our educators. Education is the core of our being—Torah, Talmud, ritual, traditions, language, and yet we do not respect those we have entrusted to teach us those things. Respect means first-rate salaries and benefits and an honored status in the community. Love for children does not pay the bills and passion for education does not sustain a lifelong career. No one goes into this field to become wealthy, but my generation of highly educated and committed Jews will not even think about a job without status, respect and at the very least, the most basic of benefits. Let’s discuss the possibility of CAJE becoming a union, or something like a union, so that we can speak together with a strong voice to advocate for ourselves on economic issues.

The bottom line is that we must invest in our educators if we want Judaism to continue. And that means investing in CAJE and in advocacy. Right now, teachers have little monetary or professional incentives to get into, let alone stay in, the field of Jewish education. Subsequently, there is such a shortage of Jewish educators that communities use volunteers to fill classrooms, hire some teachers that have no formal teacher training and little Jewish education. With a strong CAJE, we can recruit and retain qualified educators.

But we can only do it together and we have a proven model of how. His name is Barack Obama, a president elected by a country that doesn’t trust its government. People flocked to D.C. to celebrate a new government, not demonstrate against it, because we made the change happen. Yes WE did. WE contributed 10, 20, 50 dollars. WE knocked on doors. WE organized and came together around the idea that this is OUR country and we must take the reins. Now, CAJE has no money and it is not attracting a new generation of educators and many people aren’t sure of its purpose – is it really advancing the field of Jewish education or is it just the same people batting around the same ideas?

CAJE in its current state is not the CAJE to nurse back to health. No bailout plan needed here. Just as we as Americans hope to change America in the years ahead, not fix it, so too as Jewish educators should we change CAJE to meet the needs of a new generation of Jewish educators. Now it’s time for US to say this is OUR Judaism. WE need to make a change in CAJE and to take charge. I ask my colleagues: Do you want to work in isolation or do you want to be part of a community that encourages innovation, provides a forum for you to exchange ideas, and gives you opportunities for professional and personal growth? If, like me, you’d rather be part of a dynamic community, let’s work together to restore CAJE’s original vitality and reenergize it. Let’s bring it back to the philosophy of making Jews excited about their Judaism and making Jewish education the number one priority for the Jewish people. I believe we can do this together. YES WE CAN!

Leora Koller-Fox is a former Tzedek Associate with Hillel International. She has worked as a fellow at the American Hebrew Academy and as a teacher at the DCJCC preschool. She is a graduate of Brandeis University where she played a key role in creating pluralistic forums as well as multi-faith avenues for discussion and celebration.