More on CAJE: A Vision Undone

Last week, we published five essays answering the question “What’s next for CAJE?” We invited readers to send us their thoughts. This is one of several responses we received from TAPBB readers.

by Peter Stark

The announcement that there would be no CAJE conference this coming year is sad, but it is the inevitable conclusion of the drift of the organization away from the vision of teacher support and teacher participation. There is certainly nothing wrong with principal participation nor with principal support, or lay person support, but there are other organizations with that mission.

The new American Colors of Limmud, meanwhile, are springing up like wildflowers, and more power to them. Their mission is Jewish learning, one CAJE shared, but one which CAJE transcended, because CAJE was (I hate writing about CAJE in the past tense!) an organization for Jewish education, not only for Jewish learning.

The purpose of these comments is to not to dwell upon the past, but (the phrase is Churchill’s) to lay the lessons of the past before the future. In other words, to look at some critical turning points along the way to where we are in order to chart a course toward building a future. They reflect my own opinions and perhaps those of others, but they are being written only by me at one go as a reaction to the news.

There were several episodes of handwriting on the wall.

The first was the alteration of the title of CAJE from Conference on Alternatives in Jewish Education to Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education. This was a step backward, toward the very models which served the background for the founding of CAJE as an ALTERNATIVE organization. If CAJE had begun as the CONFERENCE OF SAME OLD CONFERENCES, I wonder how many people would have attended the first conferences. And the business school exercise of arguing about name changes and writing new goal statements as a way of creating the illusion of participatory democracy while the real decisions are taken by a powerful elite contributed to the current economic malaise as well as to the sad news about CAJE.

From the middle years of CAJE, a chorus of Jewish educational experts derided its openness, its very hallmark, as “not paying enough respect to quality.” These included prominent executives of other organizations whose own conferences were moribund and/or deliberately self-limiting. As if the establishment organizations have a monopoly on quality! As if (in a few cases) they have more than a clue about quality! (There are some that take quality and participation equally seriously, but of those, CAJE was the best.)

But their words were taken very, very seriously, and CAJE was put in the position of nickel and diming itself to death. There is no single culprit, nor are the CAJE professional staff to blame. The present state of affairs was the result of deliberate steps taken by CAJE boards and some officers.

I quote from Seymour Rossel’s History of CAJE:

In 1996, just prior to its twenty-first conference, CAJE convened a special event at the Concord Resort Hotel in the Catskills. A small group of self-selected CAJE-niks gathered under the tutelage of a number of outstanding Jewish scholars for the express purpose of studying text. As a model of a smaller, more intensively-focused conclave, the success of the Concord event opens up new possibilities for CAJE’s future.

Note the wording: “self-selected” and then the comments that follow. This tiny gathering fostered a great deal of the change which has led to CAJE’s demise. In the interest of full disclosure, let me say as the chair of CAJE 20 (1995, Amherst) that the wording is both dismaying and revealing:

Dismaying, in that CAJE 20, only months earlier, centered on “texts and technologies” and had many, many more high-quality text sessions, more interactively, with more participants and I daresay more effect, as well as a more distinguished group of session presenters than did the “small group of self-selected” people who then foisted their model of bringing in great experts at the expense of participation upon the organization as a whole. (CAJE 20’s emphasis on text was the deliberate result of a mutual vision developed by the conference chair [me], the co-chair, and the two program chairs, who implemented the vision magnificently. CAJE 20 was not only a deeply serious conference, it was also CAJE’s largest conference to that point, by far, and it emphasized sharing. This somehow escaped the attention or slipped the minds of the self-selected few.

Revealing, in that the conferences before and after this little coterie’s gathering, though the changes were incremental, began gradually to move away from CAJE’s original vision, and the leading movers and shakers in that direction were among those who convened the gathering.

As for me, as with a number of conference chairs, with some notable exceptions who had the strength to fight the good fight over and over again, I took time off after chairing a conference, and I have only attended three or four in the years since 1995. (To be fair, I chose to spend 6 of those years as the principal caregiver for my folks, who were in their 90s, and I did not get out much.) The last conference I attended was the last conference at Ohio State, at which I was asked to participate in a session of “experts” evaluating the CAJE Curriculum Bank.

It became clear almost immediately that the purpose of this meeting was to pronounce the Curriculum Bank treif and to abandon it in the name of Quality. Such, at least, was the opinion of the learned experts who one after another fulminated against the teacher-created materials, which indeed did vary in quality. But teachers were spoken of in such derisive terms, with such contempt, that I found it difficult (as usual) to keep my mouth shut, and I asked, naming myself as a classroom teacher, when was the last time any of the great experts around the circle had actually used teacher-created materials from the Curriculum Bank in teaching real children in real classrooms. I looked up at a circle of angry faces, and I stated that from my point of view, there were no materials in the Curriculum bank that I would adopt without adapting, but that there was a great deal that classroom teachers could use as points of departure for their own lesson planning, the sparks of ideas that different teachers would develop differently. Alternatively. if you will. At the end of the meeting, which was the first of a series, one of the 1996 self-selected CAJE-niks sent a prominent rabbi to inform me that my views were highly negative, entirely discordant, and that I was no longer welcome in their halls of Quality. I did not weep.

However, a few years later, the Executive Director asked me to review the materials in the Curriculum Bank with a view to revitalizing it. With the exception of materials that were simply out of date (4th “R” radio scripts, for instance, if anyone remembers that old program), material of uncertain provenance (meaning that parts of material now in .pdf form might be in copyright of someone other than the contributor), and a few Christological text programs that had strayed into the Curriculum Bank somehow, the vast preponderance of the material would indeed be useful for teachers as sources of ideas. That was all it was ever supposed to be. By now, however, almost ten conferences had passed since the Curriculum Bank had been a central feature of the annual conference, and the lack of prominence led directly to a dearth of contributions. Moreover, the Conference staff no longer knew of the Curriculum Bank as a vital conference component, and so the idea of reviving it as such died on the vine, despite some valiant efforts by CAJE volunteers (Again, for purposes of full disclosure, I was at the time a part-time staff member, so the valiant volunteers I am lauding do not include me.)

As these changes took place, establishment figures from some organizations who from the beginning had been scared to death by the life in CAJE began to circle in for the kill. And once again, the rallying cry was “CAJE does not have quality control.” An answer might have been given that CAJE’s emphasis was more on having an effect in the real world, the front line classrooms, but the CAJE board chose gradually to permit these nay-sayers to have their way.

The more they had their way, the fewer participants in conferences. The fewer participants, the higher the quality! I suppose this could ultimately have led, per the cosmology of quantum physics, to the shrinkage of the conference to a single point of ecstatic, unitary quality without dimension(s), i.e., without participants. But the world of CAjE conferences has a lot to learn from its own Big Bang AND from its own Big Crunch.

The trend noted above, plus the current economic crisis, put paid to the Conference on Alternatives in Jewish Education.

I recall many years ago, in 1970 if memory serves, a group of brave Jewish students led a sit-in at the GA, calling upon the leaders of major Jewish organizations to act loudly and decisively on behalf of Soviet Jewry, and not to allow the “backroom influence” approach of the 1930s and 1940s to become the policy of the 1970s. That group led to a remarkable flowering of creative organizations in Jewish education and Jewish communal life. It also led to poison-pen letters from the leaders of certain moth-eaten organizations that stood to lose their influence if the flowering succeeded. I was in those days responsible for films, filmstrips, and other media at a central agency. A great many films of Jewish interest were available to us, by directive, only from a national agency that had long held rights to rental copies which in some cases had been circulated for decades without cleaning or sprocket maintenance. The executive director of that agency circulated violently angry letters among directors of central agencies denouncing the young hooligans who were successfully leading a renaissance in the use of media materials in the Jewish classroom. His invective was incessant, and the young Jewish Media Service, which was thoughtful, creative, and above all really helpful to schools and teachers, was eventually cut to shreds.

That, I submit, is similar to what has happened to CAJE, with the unwitting collaboration of some CAJE board members.

What is to be done? The same thing as at the beginning of CAJE: a grass-roots effort with a democratic vision, along with strict attention to the purse strings. Continual regreening. Real adherence to the old CAJE policy of no khazokehs, no inevitable repeats of popular sessions, no glorification of experts at the expense of sharing. If you build it, they will come, as long as it’s air conditioned and inexpensive enough. CAJE would never have been created without the vision of its founders, but it also would not have continued as long as it did without attention to fund-raising and to fiscal responsibility. Ahad Ha’am not only would have said that a new CAJE will need both a Priest and a Prophet, he already did. We need both Priests and Priestesses, Prophetesses and Prophets, we need them now, and we need a mechanism to see that a balance is maintained. And if a great rabbi didn’t say that the same goat can only be milked so many times, he or she should have. Participation and grass-roots organization are a key also to fund-raising. Has anyone been watching the Presidential election?

The shrinking of the core of conference to a tiny parade of reruns of the allegedly expert selected by the self-appointed few, is history. It’s time for a Big Bang again.

One caveat: A new conference will bring alive all the old demons. In this, if only in this, Trotsky has a contribution to make to Jewish education. An Alternatives Conference needs to be in a perpetual state of revolution. OK, Trotsky without the Red Army: An Alternatives Conference needs to stay Alternative.

FInal thought: I would start small (again), start in New England (again), and I would permit no internal cliques to seize control (again).

PS: New England because of the proximity to two great centers of learning, and because of its innate liberalism. The first US president and first lady to advocate creation of a modern Jewish state (no kidding) were John and Abigail Adams.

Peter A. Stark was chair of CAJE 20.