After more than three decades, the Conference on Alternatives in Jewish Education has decided not to have its trademark annual conference this year. Many Jewish educators in my age category [i.e., "veteran", but still young enough at heart to have a blog, and to be considered an innovative and creative educator] came of age professionally through CAJE conferences. Long before LinkedIn, Twitter or Facebook, CAJE was the ultimate social network for those involved in Jewish Education, linking thousands of us to one another for learning and sharing that moved far beyond the week of the conference.
- CAJE redefined the "Jewish educator." Starting at a time in which other professional organizations tried to limit who could legitimately consider themselves a "real" Jewish educator, CAJE conferences eagerly opened the door to all comers, recognizing that the realities of Jewish life called for career professional Jewish educators, avocational teachers, arts educators, librarians, educational technology specialists, volunteer leaders and others to move Jewish teaching and learning forward.
- In its heyday, CAJE brought together educators across denominational lines and across educational settings. For me, it was the first true learning experience about the varieties of Jewish expression. For many, it was the first recognition that "real" Jewish learning was occurring in all sorts of locations: schools, synagogues, camps, retreats, concerts, JCC's, libraries, and more
- CAJE offered leadership opportunities to members regardless of their economic status. Anyone committed to the field and to the organization and willing to give of their time was invited to lead. Some have surmised that this strength was also part of its financial downfall, but that's another conversation. And without that approach, it would not have been CAJE.
- Jewish educators used CAJE as their touchstone for creativity. Teachers in non-BJE locations used the conference as their central agency or teachers' center. Many colleagues also saw CAJE as an alternative to more staid, conservative agencies that served their communities.
Regardless of the long-term future of CAJE conferences or of the CAJE organization, a gap now exists in the Jewish educational picture. The loss of the CAJE conference means that
- Professional learning for Jewish educators needs to be reorganized in meaningful ways. While Jewish Educators' Assembly, National Association of Temple Educators, and Reconstructionist Educators of North America will continue to be places of learning for educators in leadership positions (mostly school directors), and Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education will do so for day school leadership, learning that cuts across job and movement lines only exists in unlinked bubbles.
- Support for front line pedagogic creativity and innovation, likewise, exists in some particular initiatives, but is not well organized overall. Teachers' centers, once the mainstay of teacher creativity, have folded or morphed into something else. Central agencies, which carried the ball locally, have, in the best cases, reinvented themselves to meet changing needs. But support for the work on the ground and on the micro level are sketchy at the moment.
- We live and practice our craft at a time of great change. CAJE may have been the victim of changing times. Its members - past and present, and the remnant of the organization can choose to lead a group of architects in envisioning the next great idea for professional learning for the emerging future of Jewish education.
Gary Marx, in Future Focused Leadership, defines educational leadership in terms of planning for the future, and leading educational institutions, communities, and, or course, our students, into a changing future, while engaged in actually shaping what will actually emerge.
It is time for us, as Jewish educators and leaders, to use this time to think, imagine and plan for the future.