Reprinted from Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia with permission of the author and the Jewish Women’s Archive.
While the post-Holocaust generation of Jewish educators was predominantly male, today the field of Jewish education is predominantly female. Growing enrollments in Hebrew schools in the late 1960s and early 1970s created a teacher shortage with college students swelling the ranks of Jewish educators. They organized themselves into enthusiastic student groups such as the World Union of Jewish Students, whose American branch, known as the Network, created gatherings like the Women’s Conference, which sparked the beginning of the Jewish feminist movement. They began to lobby for greater emphasis on Jewish education in the Council of Jewish Federations‘ allocations and for a less top-down structure within the profession.
In 1976, Cherie Koller-Fox and Jerry Benjamin, both students at the Harvard School of Education, called for and ultimately chaired a Jewish Students Network conference on Jewish education. Held in August 1976 at Brown University, it was called the “Conference on Alternatives in Jewish Education” because, in Koller-Fox’s words, “the basic conference philosophy was to offer as many of the alternative approaches to teaching in one particular area as possible, and to communicate that there was a wide range of choices available in Jewish pedagogy.”
The following year in Rochester, New York, a permanent organization called the “Coalition for Alternatives in Jewish Education” was formed and the initials CAJE now stood for both the organization and the conference. The annual conferences, dubbed by Seymour Rossel as “the Jewish Woodstock,” brought together a diverse spectrum of the Jewish community for multiple workshops on every aspect of the Jewish curriculum with many items on the Jewish communal agenda. The organizational name was changed to the Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education in 1987, reflecting the evolving position of the group in the Jewish organization world.
Annually, the conference is convened on a university campus in rotating quadrants of the United States and twice, in 1988 and 1996, in Israel. With approximately two thousand delegates (seventy-five percent of whom are women) in attendance at most conferences, participants choose from over five hundred sessions of varying lengths, addressing contemporary and historical issues of pedagogy and content. Many innovative concerns such as family education and women’s issues were introduced at CAJE.
Many prominent women figures were introduced at the CAJE conferences. Among them were Debbie Friedman and Peninnah Schram. Debbie Friedman is a cantor, liturgical composer, and proponent of spiritual healing whose career began in Jewish summer camps, and is now known nationally for her recordings. Peninnah Schram, originally the head of the storytelling network, is now the doyenne of Jewish American storytellers and has published numerous collections of these tales.
The evening programs offer many of the famous names on the American Jewish and Israeli scene. A media center constantly reviews the latest software and videos. The Educational Resource Center presents the contents of a Curriculum Bank. The Exhibit Center allows teachers to peruse and buy textbooks, academic Judaica books, educational aids, and Jewish arts and crafts.
During the year, CAJE sponsors regional conferences, publishes curriculum materials, often referring to the latest current events, fourteen Networks for members of common interests, and a professional journal three times a year called Jewish Educational News. Jewish Educational News focuses on continuity, a common area of concern, and columns entitled “Teen Experience” and “College Program.”
Since 2003, CAJE has also begun to sponsor an annual Early Childhood and Day School Conference for day school and early childhood teachers and administrators from across the denominational spectrum. CAJE is still responding to grass-roots needs: A 1993 Task Force for Educator Empowerment underscored this commitment to building the profession. To do this, CAJE must now, according to Rosalyn Bell, the CAJE publications coordinator, “build a profession with high standards, proper compensation, retention of personnel, intellectual rigor, and creativity.”
“Limmud,” a multi-denominational Jewish learning conference, has been held in England every year since 1979, after three British educators attended that year’s CAJE conference (CAJE’s fourth) and created a local model of inclusive Jewish educational programming. Limmud, which continues a reciprocal relationship with CAJE, has expanded in both resources and geography: The week-long Conference has grown from one hundred to, in 2004, over two thousand participants attending seven hundred sessions, while Limmud continues to develop and implement other Jewish educational programs throughout Britain. Australia held its second “Limmud Oz” convention in 2001, and the first Limmud conference in the United States was held in New York in January 2005.
A recent (July 2009) interview with Rabbi Cheri Kohler-Fox revealed ongoing plans to reorganize the organization. A smaller conference is scheduled for 2010 using more volunteers and less paid staff with a full conference in 2011. This is a crucial forum for future generations of Jewish Educators, according to Kohler-Fox because CAJE provides an arena for “an egalitarian pluralistic approach, for synagogue centered education, and for educators from many fields to participate in the cross-fertilization of ideas. CAJE can supply a career ladder including camp professionals, supplementary and academic educators and administrators, as well as a place for the emerging new fields for professionals of the newer generations.”