Rediscovering CAJE’s Mission

by Cherie Koller-Fox

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.

I believe that over the years, CAJE forgot who it was and what its mission was. It grew too bureaucratic and its Boards made some decisions that were not in the best interests of the organization. CAJE stopped raising money and spent down a 1.4 million dollar endowment fund. Those are some of the things that led to the sorry state of affairs we find ourselves in today. What now?

Luckily, there are many of us who do remember and do value what CAJE has to offer. CAJE’s greatest strength has always been its membership. Members planned the conferences and the programs. Members donated thousands of teaching hours to CAJE so that the annual conference could be held. Members brought their ideas and freely shared them with each other at the conference, through Bikkurim, and Jewish Education News. By working together on a common purpose, we have become a family. We came together to create the field of Jewish education—a pardes, an orchard in which our ideas could soar beyond our individual classrooms and congregations. Our purpose was to plant the seeds that would strengthen the future of the Jewish people through education.

Because that is our mission and our model, we do not have to be flummoxed by financial difficulties, even bankruptcy. As long as our ideas are not bankrupt we will be able to pick ourselves up and continue our important work. The truth is that it does not take a lot of money to do a CAJE conference. It’s nice, but not absolutely necessary to have an office and an office staff. The first six CAJE conferences were run out of a borrowed corner in an office and out of our homes. One of those conference was Rutgers that attracted around 2300 participates –the largest conference we ever held. We have to look at these new circumstances as an opportunity to rebuild CAJE again as from the beginning. What will be the priorities of a rebooted CAJE?

New Leadership: Let’s face the fact that the membership of CAJE is noticeably graying. It is way past time for us to hand over the reigns to a new generation of Jewish educators. We have to begin by identifying the leaders among them and mentoring them. Who are they? Are they currently working in the field? Would they like to enter Jewish education but can’t find the career ladder to jump on to? This new generation needs to plan the next CAJE conference. They need to do it their own way. We can offer them our support and guidance, our time and expertise.

Strong Advocacy: CAJE should become the champion of Jewish education and Jewish educators. Until now, it has seen itself more as a convener for Jewish education. But it was founded to be the advocate and the voice of Jewish education. Who should speak out for the field if not us? CAJE took tentative steps to advocate for recruitment and retention of teachers and educators. We have to turn our attention to other areas as well. Resources: How should the Jewish educational enterprise be funded? The right to a Jewish education for all: how does the Jewish community live up to the rhetoric of inclusion? Life-long learning: how can we promote formal and informal education in schools, communities, homes and through the media and internet? Support for innovation: What can the Jewish community do to support and encourage new ideas? Now, when Bureaus of Jewish Education are closing down and CAJE is threatened, we must make our voices heard loudly and clearly.

Local Presence: I have always believed that CAJE needs a local presence—educators working together, networking and advocating to make change happen in their own communities. CAJE could be a resource and a catalyst for local change.

A commitment to learning: A new CAJE should find its center in learning. We should bring the greatest teachers of text and history and Hebrew to our conferences. We should devote part of each day increasing our own learning so that we can be better educated Jews when we enter our classrooms, when we write our songs, when we ascend our pulpits. That will greatly improve the whole enterprise of Jewish learning. We also need to foster a wide conversation about what constitutes Jewish literacy and how to teach it.

A strong partnership with all the stake-holders of Jewish education: A new CAJE should include lay leaders from day one. Not just on our boards, but also sitting beside us in sessions. We need to dialogue with them and work together to create an agenda for Jewish education.

A bottom up model: A new CAJE needs to return to a more grassroots approach. Not because that is less “establishment” but because CAJE will be healthier and more vibrant when there is a flow of ideas and responsibility.

CAJE’s current leaders are sincere and caring, but they should have trusted the membership enough to share the crisis as it developed and ask for our help. I believe they were mistaken. I believe the CAJE family has a lot to offer. Most of us have resources of both time and money that we can share. Among us, we know the names of our students and colleagues who are the potential leaders for the new CAJE. As a group, we have not been approached to share either what we’ve learned from decades in the field or our ideas for the future of Jewish education and the future of CAJE. I know the CAJE family as well as anyone. When the founders started CAJE 36 years ago, we didn’t know who the rest of you were. We couldn’t go to you for help and advice. That is not true now. I believe CAJE-niks will not sit idly by and watch what we’ve all worked so hard to build take a giant leap backwards.

Those are my thoughts—my daughter’s generation of educators will find their own priorities. But we cannot allow the CAJE idea to die. Very little that we accomplished in the past thirty years in Jewish education could have been possible without CAJE. Each of you know what CAJE has meant to you in your career and in your life. As Rabbi Tarfon said in Avot 2:21: It is not our responsibility to complete the work, but neither are we free to cease from doing it.

Cherie Koller-Fox is a founder and past president of CAJE and served as chair its Advocacy Commission. She has written and spoken extensively about family education, innovation in Jewish education, and spiritual practices. Along with Everett Fox, she has established the Ezra Institute to promote the study and teaching of Bible. Cherie is the rabbi of the Chapel Minyan and is learning and practicing the art of chaplaincy. You can reach her at