CAJE: Up from the Ashes

by Joel Lurie Grishaver

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.

On the poster that changed CAJE’s name from the Coalition for “Alternatives” in Jewish education to the Coalition for the “Advancement” of Jewish Education was this Midrashic quotation picked out by Stuart Kelman.

At the end of the great persecution our teachers met together at Usha… They sent to the elders of Galilee saying, ‘Whoever has learned, let him come and teach, and whoever has not learned, let him come and learn.’ They came together and studied and took all necessary steps.
[Song of Songs Rabbah 2:18]

It perfectly captured the dream. CAJE started out as a dream. There were a bunch of us sitting around on the sofas at Boston University Hillel talking about the teaching we were all doing in Hebrew Schools. (We hadn’t yet gotten to Supplemental Schools or Congregational Schools or the other “reconceptualizations” of the process). The insight came from Cherrie Koller-Fox. She said, “We all have something to teach each other.” We began to imagine a local teacher’s conference where each of us would teach stuff, and get to learn stuff from others. Nothing came of that particular conversation. I don’t know how many times it was repeated. Eventually it made it the Network of Jewish Students who decided to hold a first Conference on Alternatives in Jewish Education at Brown University, to a Continuations committee who held a second conference at the University of Rochester, and then an organization was birthed. A few of us on the West Coast (Wolfson, Kelman, and Grishaver) put together (with a single staff person, Jody Hirsh) a West Coast Conference on Alternatives in Jewish Education. That was the third. And from then on the national organization took root and created its annual conference. It was all very Woodstock.

The midrash from Song of Songs was speaking of the Hadrianic persecutions, the Roman reaction to the Bar Kokhba revolt. When CAJE was formed, we were speaking about a tyranny of formality and the chains formed by the status quo. Today we are suffering from famine. Dire famine as nourishment for Jewish education shrinks and fades. There is no Egypt, there is no Joseph to go to. We have only ourselves as a resource. No single foundation is going to save us. This puts the obligation on us. With CAJE not happening, our job is to gather (not this summer, but soon) to teach and learn. Our reaction to the floundering of CAJE can’t be sadness but motivation. What had been taken care of for us, we must now do for ourselves.

The international growth of Limmud and the success of the Hazon Food Conference show that the basic CAJE model (the model away from which CAJE has drifted) is still viable. To a large degree, CAJE’s shift away from this model was a big contributor to its present state of decline.

Here’s what I believe:

1. The North American Jewish Community needs an annual trans-ideological, pluralistic education conference.

2. It needs to be lead by 20-30 year olds, not late 50 and 60 year olds. We who founded CAJE have a role as mentors and elders.

3. I don’t know whether what follows will still be called CAJE or not, but I do know that it must travel light and lean, and return to an emphasis on volunteerism.

4. I know that it must be accessible and desirable to lay people as well as educational professionals and that means an emphasis on Tikkun Olam and Torah l’Shma needs to be more prevalent in the mix.

5. Whatever we restart will need to involve coalitions between the educational organization and other players in the Jewish community—including a lot of new organizations.

6. The words, “we’ve always done it this way” need to be banned.

7. The keys need to be a fusion of “big names” and a renewal of the chance for “new voices.” The notion of grassroots needs to be revived.

8. We need to speak to all of those “who outgrew CAJE” not with a few new elements, but with a fundamental reconsideration.

We sit in a moment where much of what we know is collapsing. We have no choice but to rebuild. We need another gathering at Usha.

Joel Lurie Grishaver is co-owner of Torah Aura Productions. He was a founder of CAJE.