Last month, a gathering took place at a suburban Baltimore conference hall that could lead to the resurrection of the Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education.
CAJE, a leading national disseminator of trends, updates and methods used by today’s Jewish educators, shut down in February — another victim of the recession that forced many other Jewish organizations to either curtail operations or close altogether.
“It had to do with the current economic environment,” CAJE Executive Director Jeffrey Lasday told The Chronicle at the time. “Unfortunately, we got caught in this whole downtrend in the economy.”
Yet several CAJE supporters, including some who were with the organization from its beginning 33 years ago, were not ready to let it die. Many of them began networking online, sharing ideas for a possible resurrection of CAJE.
The result was a regional conference at the Pearlstone Conference and Retreat Center in Reistertown, Md., from Aug. 9 to 12, that attracted 175 participants despite very little advance promotion.
“People came and people taught, said Rabbi Cherie Koller-Fox of Boston, a founder of the original CAJE and a self-described “facilitator” of the fledgling entity. “There were 90 sessions; 175 people wandered in and out the door. Now we’re hearing there’s a fan site on Facebook for people who didn’t know.”
That Facebook group had attracted 215 fans as of Tuesday.
Participants also hammered out a five-point statement of goals for the new organization:
• Reach out to a new generation of Jewish educators;
• Hold regional and smaller conferences on a biennial basis;
• Advocate for excellence in Jewish schools and for the profession of Jewish education;
• Support ongoing teacher training in specific subject areas through online instruction and conference sessions;
• Make Torah lishma central to the conference and expanding opportunities to study text.
The new entity, which is calling itself NewCAJE, is a revival of the mission and spirit of CAJE, but Koller-Fox is careful to say it’s not the same organization that shut down in February.
“We could not be CAJE because that would involve taking on those debts” (incurred by the defunct organization),” she said, “so we’re calling ourselves NewCAJE — for the time being anyway.”
Nearly 3,000 educators used CAJE services a year before its closure, Lasday said. From the annual CAJE conferences to media tools they put out to offer support for Jewish educators, all of those people will be losing a valuable resource in just a couple of weeks.
Melinda Freed, a religious schoolteacher at Temple Emanuel of South Hills, was the only Pittsburgh area educator at the Pearlstone conference. Despite the limited promotion she was impressed by the offerings available there.
“I don’t know if anybody got any sleep,” Freed said. “There were opportunities to take four or five classes during the day. In addition to that, there were vendors. There were two sessions in the morning, two in the afternoon, vendor time and in the evening there were films [and] there were music offerings.”
NewCAJE is starting small. It will be entirely driven by volunteers, Koller-Fox said, though it plans to make use of the Internet to communicate with its supporters.
Freed said a volunteer-based model is the only way NewCAJE can sustain itself.
“With this economy and CAJE’s financial problems, you’re not going to be able to hire a director,” she said. “We’re going to have to do it; it’s up to us to make it happen.”
While NewCAJE has no plans to solicit federations and foundations for money, it is making one request of Jewish communities: subsidize their local teachers so they can attend future NewCAJE conferences.
“We’re not going to ask for money to put Humpty Dumpty back together,” Koller-Fox said, “but we will ask Pittsburgh to send its teachers. That’s the right thing to do.”
Obtaining subsidies shouldn’t be a problem for Pittsburgh area teachers, Freed said.
“Pittsburgh seems to be very fortunate in that regard, especially after talking to some of the other people at the conference,” she said. “I’ve actually had five straight years of continuing education programs.”
That said, she added that teachers must come together and seek cost-saving ways to make the subsidies more doable.
“We might look at getting together with a travel plan and see who would put together a package,” Freed said. “If it’s within motor coach range we might charter a motor coach. This was more of a regional conference even though we had people from California, Arizona, England and Israel.”
Koller-Fox is hopeful that a NewCAJE national conference can be held in 2010 or 2011, though she noted some volunteers are not as committed to the concept of national conference as she is.
She envisions meetings of CAJE supporters around the country to draft their own mission statements, like the one in Reistertown, so more educators can have a say in what the new group will look like.
She also said NewCAJE will have a statement to make about its progress closer to Sukkot.
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)