And now for something (almost) completely different…

by Ira Wise

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.

Let’s try something different. Let’s move forward. Let’s focus on goals and outcomes, on growth and on moving Jewish Education and the role of the teachers and lead educators to the next level. Facebook, e-mail in boxes and phones have been busy for much of the past week with friends and colleagues talking about, wondering and speculating about what will happen to CAJE—the Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education—now that they have announced the cancellation of this summer’s Conference on Alternatives in Jewish Education.

The difference I am suggesting is that we not get bogged down in history, gossip or recriminations. I believe that the lay and professional leadership of CAJE is doing everything they can to solve the fiscal dilemmas that led to the decision. And I have tremendous respect for them and for CAJE Executive Director Jeff Lasday in particular. I am not a finance person. I don’t have the answers. I call upon everyone who cares about Jewish Education to be part of that solution. If you have ideas or access to serious funds, contact CAJE directly.

I believe we cannot wait for that solution before beginning the conversation. So let’s have another conversation at the same time. Let’s talk about what’s next. The conversation might be helpful in revitalizing CAJE. It might be useful in figuring out where our field is going. We can’t wait because our students are not going to be able to wait for us to figure it out.

Enduring Understandings

CAJE was born amidst the protests and self-assertion of the young people of the Sixties. The founders wanted the Jewish Communal Establishment to pay attention to and fund the development of teachers and of innovative methodologies. The history is written elsewhere – and it is worth reading. As educators we should approach the dilemma of where next by wiping the slate clean.

[By “educators” I am referring to classroom teachers, directors, principals, clergy, bureau/agency personnel, JCC folks, informal educators, college teachers and program professionals, artists of all kinds serving early childhood, synagogue schools, community schools, day schools, camps, Israel programs, adult learners…you get the idea. The whole gamut of people engaged in transmitting our heritage and identity from all movements and non-movements. The usual suspects!]

What are our goals for the first half of the 21st century?

1. We need to develop the skills of new teachers and recruit lead educators from their ranks. We need to connect them with the vatikim – the veterans – so they can learn from the masters.

2. We need to develop the skills of the vatikim. We need to connect them with the newer, younger teachers so we can learn from their creativity and enthusiasm.

3. Moore’s Law says that that the data density of integrated circuits double every 18 – 24 months. That means computers continue to get faster, more complex and able to store more data more cheaply. Just as computer capacity has expanded, so too have the lives and capacities of our learners (and their teachers). Remember “Alternatives?” It’s not such a counter-culture term any more. We need to foster creativity in and out of the classroom and in the design of our learning structures. We need to be nimble and we need to talk about how we do that, share best practices and brainstorm together. Some of this can be done on Facebook, wikis and blogs. Some of it needs to be done face to face. Perhaps in smaller local meetings as well as at a conference

4. We need a place where we can gather as a learning/teaching community. Some have suggesting regional conferences. Others – myself included – believe the impact of a national conference is essential. While the expenses to individuals might be greater, the ability to bring teachers and scholars and artists to a single location once in a year and the economies of scale make a compelling argument. I remember the impact on me as a first year religious school teacher at CAJE 10 in DeKalb, IL when we sang La’asok B’divrei Torah over Voice of America to the Hebrew teachers of the Soviet Union. The impact is significant.

5. Finally, we have to lose the “The way we have always done it” or the “we don’t operate that way” approaches. They lead to stagnation. There is something valuable in consistency. There is also something valuable in responding to current realities. Maybe summer is not the best time to meet—or maybe it is. Perhaps there are alternatives to college campuses—or perhaps they are best suited to our needs. I don’t know. I just know we need to see what works now. That doesn’t mean we have to repeat every conversation every year. We just need to check in once in a while and compare our actions to our goals. When they don’t match, one of them has to change.

The Challenge

As many have been, I have been re-inspired by the candidacy and election of President Barack Obama. I am not particularly moved by his ethnicity or politics. I am moved by his message of hope, by the idea that we can each live the American dream if we work for it together.

So here is the take-away. I was not elected for anything. I am not more or less skilled or knowledgeable than you are. I do not have all of the answers. But I believe that together we do have them I have shown you preliminary list of what I think we need to do for our teachers and ourselves. I am still expanding and refining it. Join me. What are your needs as a teacher? As a learner? As an educator?

Let’s begin the conversation. At some point—very soon—we will need to figure out how organize and implement those needs and how to pay for them. Hopefully, while we are learning together, our colleagues will right the ship of CAJE and that can continue be our community’s vehicle. Kein yehi ratzon…

[I want to thank my friends at Torah Aura for giving me a larger platform than my Facebook status to share what I have been thinking and discussing with a few people for the past week. I am not running for anything. I just wanted to go beyond the usual “someone-ought-to-do-something” in which we all engage from time to time. Someone ought to. Someone is you and me.]

Ira Wise is Director of Education at Congregation B’nai Israel, a Reform synagogue in Bridgeport, CT.