Mourning Becomes CAJE

by Adrian Durlester

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.

Thousands of us lost a good friend recently. With sadness, the leadership of CAJE, the Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education, announced that there would be no annual CAJE Conference this year, canceling the 34th annual conference which was to be held in San Antonio this August.

In his play “Mourning Becomes Electra”, a modern retelling of the Orestia, some analysts believe that among the many themes Eugene O’Neill explores is the role fate plays in our lives. It’s a dark play, and somewhat more Freudian than the Greek story it is based upon, so I’m not suggesting that what has happened to CAJE is a tale full of the same sort of dark material. However, I am wondering what role fate has played in the timing of CAJE’s announcement. It may be premature to call it a death – CAJE may yet be resurrected (and what an odd religious symbology that might take on.)

The loss of CAJE, or, at least for now, the annual conference, is a great loss for the Jewish community. Though CAJE had matured from its grassroots beginnings as the Conference for Alternatives in Jewish Education to become somewhat part of the establishment for which its founders sought alternatives, it remained relevant and important. What made CAJE truly special was how it enabled interaction between people who might not normally interact. This free-flow of ideas across denominational. occupational, theological and other silos has been and will continue to be an essential ingredient in shaping Jewish education for the present and the future. At CAJE, Jews from across the religious spectrum mixed regularly, easily, and, for the most part, respectfully. Rabbis, Educators, Hazzanim, Scholars, Teachers, Authors, Musicians, Storytellers, Dancers, Artists, professionals, avocationals, and laity learned together, studied together, engaged in dialog, shared ideas, and more. CAJE has become, in some ways, as essential to Jewish education as bees are to the pollenization fo certain flower species. You could find at CAJE what you might not find at NATE, JEA, Torah Umesorah, etc.

At conferences there were hundreds of sessions, workshops, presentations, concerts, and other activities. A CAJE conference is a mammoth event, sometimes hosting over 2,000 people. I know, having had the privilege to chair the 27th Conference in San Antonio in 2002 and work on many others. It’s no wonder in these difficult economic times that making a large conference like CAJE a reality has become difficult.

Yet the real magic at CAJE most often happened outside the classrooms, concert halls, and expo floors. The magic was in the people – making new friends, reconnecting with old friends, sharing ideas and experiences, discussing, debating, seeking connections.

This is why the Jewish community needs something like CAJE. Yet any member organization like CAJE is dependent upon its members. This is where the fate of CAJE lies – in the hands of you and me, all our colleagues in this enterprise we call Jewish education.

O’Neill was probably on to something. I’ve often felt that it was fate that drove me to my first CAJE conference – one that truly shaped my life from then until now. Now, perhaps, fate is at work again.

We all know that Jewish education has successes, yet also many problems and challenges (though we don’t all agree on what those are, what the sources are, and what the solutions are.) We are at a seminal moment in the history of Jewish education in the U.S. for any number of reasons – from the historic import of what will take place next Tuesday on Inauguration day, to what’s happening right now in Israel and Gaza, from the significant changes society is undergoing as a result of information technology, the threat to society and our planet of rampant and unchecked damage to our environment, our ever changing values, the normalization of universalism and sidelining of particularism (and I’ll not pass judgment on whether that’s good or bad – I believe there’s room for both,) the increasing turning away of young, educated Jews from the extant Jewish institutions and infrastructure, and so on.

Some says this time calls for tearing down the walls and starting over. Others say we must rebuild what we have to make it stronger and better. Yet others say we must focus on inreach to the active core, while others say that outreach is the solution. It’s going to take a CAJE-like atmosphere to get all of these people into a dialog where they will actually listen and consider what the other has to say. It is up to us to make that happen. The talk has already started among CAJE-niks. Join the conversation. As Rabbi Tarfon reminds us, we don’t need to see the task to completion, but we’d darn well better get a start on it!

Adrian Durlester is Director of Youth and Family Education at Congregation B’nai Israel, Northampton, MA, a religious school teacher at Beit Ahavah (also in Northampton), and a religious school teacher at the Jewish Community of Amherst, MA. He is an educator, musician, and writer. He was Conference Chair for CAJE 27 and served on the national Board of Directors of CAJE. He was co-chair for the evening program at CAJE 26 and 23.