CAJE from the Bottom Up

by Joshua Mason-Barkin

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.

A lot has been said and written about the recent cancellation of what would-have-been CAJE’s 34th annual conference. I have my own thoughts about what caused this to happen, though it seems clear that the conference’s non-existence this summer is mostly about financial management and the current economy, and little to do with the conference itself.

That being said, the absence of CAJE 34 presents a unique opportunity to look at the conference from a distance and to think out loud about what made CAJE great, what will make it great in the future, and what we can do to develop a conference that reflects that vision.

Rabbi Beth Nichols, an educator who is assistant rabbi at Temple Israel of New Rochelle, NY, taught the best session at last summer’s CAJE 33 conference in Burlington, Vermont.

Beth’s session was entitled “Evolving Bulletin Boards: Constructing the Big Ideas on Our Walls.” A few nights beforehand, she was up late putting together sample bulletin boards. She brought pictures, she brought handouts, and she shared her ideas about how to make bulletin boards that “help students construct knowledge throughout the year.” Beth spent her session sharing her own ideas — best practices for using bulletin boards as curricular tools — and soliciting discussion from colleagues who also have given some thought to using the walls of their classrooms in interesting ways.

CAJE used to be a conference full of sessions like Beth’s. It was about professionals and not-so-professionals in the field of Jewish education spending time to learn with each other and from each other. But things have changed, and CAJE has become a “top-down” sort of conference.

There are plenty of examples of the “top-down” model in conferences for professionals in Jewish education. Here’s how it works: An esteemed expert (a university professor, a government official with experience in the mideast peace process, a well-published author, etc.) stands in front a lecture hall full of people and imparts wisdom about his or her particular subject of expertise before taking questions from the audience. These speakers are not necessarily invested members of the gathered community; rather, they are hired experts who are flown in to deliver a keynote address and maybe sit on a panel. In these sorts of conferences, participants are, for the most part, passive. They are the recipients of knowledge and expertise.

In the “bottom-up” model, things work a lot differently. The classroom teacher’s expertise is valued right alongside the university professor’s. Every voice has a chance to speak and present, and every attendee is there to listen and learn.

Let me be very clear. The world of Jewish education needs “top-down” opportunities for teachers and educators to learn from experts. We need experts — people who’ve done research, who’ve studied the field, who have a breadth and depth of experience that can be shared — because experts help us to do our jobs better.

And there’s plenty of room for experts in the “bottom-up” model. For many teachers and educators, CAJE is an opportunity to learn with an impressive array of top-notch educators and academics. There’s something thrilling about the interplay between demographers, professors, idealogues and on-the-front-lines classroom teachers. We have a lot to gain from that relationship. It’s just that we need to return to a conference model that is conducive for real free exchange, dialogue, and learning. I’m advocating for a conference that revolves a lot more around workshops and a lot less around keynotes.

We already have lots of conferences based on the “top-down” model. Annually, NATE and the JEA hold conferences where they invite experts to lecture and teach to assembled educational leadership. So does RAVSAK, and so do a number of other nationally-publicized conferences and “institutes” held annually. Local bureaus of Jewish education host community-wide in-services where local teachers can hone their skills. In a recent JTA article, Jonathan Sarna suggested that CAJE should be allowed to whither away because other organizations are basically doing the same work, sometimes with more innovation. And he’s right, because he understands that CAJE has become just another “top-down” conference where teachers and educators can come and listen to the experts.

Recently, I was sitting at a table at the RAVSAK conference with acclaimed artist Mordechai Rosenstein. Mordechai was lamenting the withering of CAJE. “All those folks used to be the subversive ones. They were out to buck the system. Now they are the system.” He’s right. The “bottom-up” generation that created CAJE went and became experts. And the conference has slowly transitioned to become “top-down.”

CAJE used to be a grassroots organization that was all about being “bottom-up.” It’s time for a new generation of leadership to re-envision the conference and re-adopt that role. Here’s my plan to make that happen:

1. CAJE, as a conference, should cease to exist. It should be replaced by a new conference. I’d call it NGAJE (pronounced “engage”) — A New Generation for Alternatives in Jewish Education.

2. The new conference should feature “experts” in Jewish education, but those experts should be encouraged to teach lots of workshops and participatory sessions, not deliver keynote addresses. Conference leaders should be charged with protecting the balance between bringing in established experts and providing opportunities for everyone to teach and learn. The new conference should be a place for new Jewish educational leadership to emerge.

3. The new conference should start out small, be volunteer led, and be extremely cost efficient in every possible way.

4. The new conference should be without specialized “tracks” or “conferences within a conference.” Again, the conference should be about engaging, discussing, and exchanging ideas. It should not be a place where participants come to hear experts talk, or where they can seclude themselves within a particular bubble.

5. The new conference should not need to be profitable enough to cover the expense of maintaining a full-time staff and year-round initiatives.

6. The new conference should be totally inclusive. Anyone who wants to assume a leadership role should be afforded the opportunity, and anyone who wants to be invested should be part of the dreaming and planning process.

That’s what I know… for now. There’s probably a lot here I’m naïve about. But I think that might be the point. I think we need to dream big to develop a new national conference for people who are deeply invested in Jewish education. I’m very interested in engaging in discussion, in hearing what others have to say, and in being part of a vanguard that shapes the next generation’s version of CAJE.

Joshua Mason-Barkin, MAJE/MAJCS is Director of School Services at Torah Aura Productions. He is a graduate of HUC-JIR in Los Angeles, where he received masters degrees in Jewish education and Jewish communal service and as an undergrad, he was one of the only Jews at Ripon College in Ripon, Wisconsin. Josh has been a page designer and sports reporter for the Oshkosh Northwestern (Oshkosh, Wis.) and has worked at the World Union of Progressive Judaism in Jerusalem, the Bureau of Jewish Education of Greater Los Angeles, and a number of L.A.-area congregations. Josh has also served as a faculty member, staff trainer, and curriculum consultant at URJ Camp Newman in Santa Rosa, Calif.