For four days this month, Montclair was ground zero for Jewish educators from around the country.
About 400 people gathered at Montclair State University for the third annual NewCAJE conference, held Aug. 5-8.
In dozens of workshops, participants learned how to teach prayer through Facebook, how to work with special-needs students, how to be a better principal, how to hold a better meeting, and how to teach Hebrew and Torah. They sang songs late into the night, attended evening concerts featuring popular performers, and shared big ideas with their colleagues.
If the conference was smaller than the original CAJE conferences that attracted thousands in the 1980s and 1990s, many appreciated the intimacy of NewCAJE, a successor organization to the Center for Advancement of Jewish Education.
“NewCAJE is much smaller. That makes it more intimate. It’s wonderful — you get to know people a lot more, and since the classes are much smaller, it’s more interactive,” said Wendy Belson, who came to the conference from Weston, Conn.
The original CAJE was founded in 1976 as a way to share concepts and methods among Jewish educators. It held 33 annual conferences until the economic downturn took its toll, and it disbanded in 2009.
One year later, Rabbi Cherie Koller-Fox of Boston, a CAJE founder and former CAJE national president, launched NewCAJE, which held its first conference in 2010.
“The work each of you does, the holy work you do, is very important,” Koller-Fox told 200 educators assembled for the opening ceremony. “You’re like bees. You’re going to spread your great ideas from flower to flower to flower, and that’s why you’re here.”
Local educators appreciated the nearby location. It allowed Rivka Nelson, who teaches at Congregation Beth El and Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel, both in South Orange, and at Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston, to attend for the first time. Her husband, Peter Nelson, New York director of the anti-bigotry and Holocaust education program Facing History and Ourselves, also served as a presenter.
Rabbi Daniel Dorsch, from Temple Beth Shalom in Livingston, attended with his wife, Amy Dorsch, national education coordinator for United Synagogue Youth. Amy, who had just finished conducting a session on using Facebook to teach the Amida, loved that people in her class would later be teaching classes that she herself planned to attend.
“The learners are teachers and the teachers are learners,” she said.
Rabbi Dorsch was impressed with the turnout of area educators. At the last NewCAJE conference he attended, in Vermont, he said he walked in and didn’t recognize a single face. “It was nice to see so many local people,” he said.
The Dorsches were among those who helped to recruit more than 50 participants to the conference’s track of courses for young professionals. A $2,500 grant from the discretionary fund of United Jewish Communities of Metro-
West NJ (now part of the new Jewish Federation of Greater Metro-
West NJ) subsidized 13 young teachers’ attendance. (Their synagogues each matched the grant with $200 dollars each; both the teachers and NewCAJE also contributed.)
“I thought it was important for our federation to be supportive in partnership with our MetroWest synagogues,” said Max Kleinman, who was executive vice president of UJC MetroWest (now executive vice president/CEO of the new federation).
Barrie Halpern, a teacher at the religious school of Temple Beth Am in Parsippany, wrote in an e-mail that CAJE shared with NJJN, “I walked away from this amazing conference with many…terrific ideas for my school. I plan on sharing what I learned with my colleagues.”
Patti Kahn, who just finished her 10th year as education director at Temple Sinai in Summit, was attending her first conference of the new organization. “NewCAJE is still an idea that hasn’t taken root. I hope it does,” she said. “There was nothing like CAJE and therefore, there’s nothing like NewCAJE.”
Classes were the focus of the conference. Rivka Nelson sat in on a class on teaching prayer to kids with multiple abilities.
The techniques she learned in the session, she said, “I can use for everyone; they were such great ideas.”
Rabbi Cecelia Beyer, whose new duties at Temple Beth Ahm Yisrael in Springfield include serving as education director, was also attending her first NewCAJE conference.
“I’m here to get in the mindset for the upcoming year, and taking the opportunity to do some good professional development as an educator,” she said.
She particularly enjoyed a class offering ways of engaging different kinds of learners. “We also have to remember that each learner has different components: mind, body, and soul, and all of them need to be engaged,” she said.
On Sunday, Aug. 5, Wendy Belson was registering people at the beginning of the conference with Wendy Frederick of Charleston, SC, and Judy Cloutier of Herndon, Va. The three are part of a group of more than a dozen women who initially met at CAJE, see each other every year — first at the CAJE conferences and now at NewCAJE gatherings — and rent a house each March for a reunion weekend.
Asked about her favorite part of the NewCAJE conference, which all three viewed as a continuation of the old CAJE annual gatherings, Cloutier said, “The kumsitz late at night. Everyone is sitting and singing. It’s something really wonderful. There’s an energy that’s kind of unbelievable.”