Wednesday, December 2, 2009

And Now, For Something Completely Different...

So like many of you, I just received an e-mail from Cherie Koller-Fox, one of the founders of CAJE, an old friend and the "facilitator" of NewCAJE, which was officially unveiled this afternoon. I am feeling a bit like Tevye considering each of his daughters' requests: "On the one hand...but on the other hand..."

Since my first conference in DeKalb, IL in 1986(?) CAJE was home. It was where I learned to teach with the big kids (literally, the leadership was riddled with people who had been my camp counselors, youth group advisors, religious school teachers and the authors of the textbooks we had in Sunday school). It was where I got to meet new people from all over the world - like Rafi Zarum and Sybil Sheridan, Ed Feinstein and Amichai Lau-Lavie - who were teaching in ways that were new and exciting. And where people whose teaching and story-telling skills would come and learn with me in my sessions as I developed more confidence, and built me up by giving me praise and constructive criticism.

It was for many of those years, the only place where I knew I would be having Shabbat dinner with a mixed salad of Jews: Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative, Israeli Secular, Chabad, Renewal, Humanistic, Sephardic Orthodox, Young Israel, Labor, Likud, hetero, GLBT, confirmed bachelor, day school, congregational, camping, agency, early childhood, musician, actor, storyteller, cybergeek, teenager, college kid, grandparent and everything in between. My wife was usually happy to see me go to CAJE, because she saw how it recharged me and how it energized the teachers in my school.

When the CAJE-isphere bubble burst, I was not the only one who was sad. I was also not the only one who began to to think - and some said - that we may have stayed at the same party too long. Peter Eckstein tried mightily to steer the St. Louis conference in a new direction that would speak to the needs of the new generation. The founders of CAJE created the paradigm ex nihilo when many of them were in their twenties. They were my camp counselors. I am now 48 years old (and Peter a little older). When those of us on the pre-planning task force were brought together by Peter it was to try and reshape the paradigm to begin to meet the needs of those now the age the founders had been. To renew and redefine.

It was a noble effort, but after more than three decades, CAJE had become a huge institution. My teacher Sam Joseph of HUC in Cincinnati often compares large synagogues to Nimitz class aircraft carriers. (That's the USS Nimitz at left) Nimitz class ships are the largest in the world.

They measure 1,092 feet (2/10 of a mile) long, are powered by two nuclear reactors, carry a crew of 3,200 plus the Air Wing (pilots and support crew) which has 2,480 people and as many as 85 aircraft of varying types. At full speed they can travel at 30 knots (about 35 mph) - which when you consider they displace 112 tons of water at full load, is a lot of metal moving really fast - a Nimitz class ship takes SEVEN nautical miles to turn 90 degrees. Large institutions like big synagogues - and CAJE - are not able to turn on a dime!

After the bubble burst, and while much of the hand wringing was done, a conversation began. Cherie Koller-Fox and many others began talking on the CAJE Net, a Ning site begun before the final conference. And Josh Mason-Barkin and Danny Kochavi started a Google group. There was a lot of interaction in both places which included a lot of the same people.


There emerged a group of vatikim - CAJE veterans - of various ages who wanted to fix the financial disaster and rebuild CAJE in the image of the original. Others, many younger, felt that it would be better to create something as new and different as CAJE had been in the 60's. Some wanted to act quickly, others wanted to wait. I participated in some of those discussions. Some became a little heated, but I believe all were B'shem Shamayim - for the sake of heaven (and Jewish Education).

A Beta version of the NewCAJE (or a nostolgic nod to old CAJE, depending on your perspective) was put together as the MANAJE
conference this past August. People who attended speak glowingly of it. So now NewCAJE has been unveiled. Part of me wants to go home and is eager for NewCAJE to be, in the words of David Byrne: "Same as it ever was." But mostly I am hoping that younger voices will jump into the breach that Cherie and some of our vatikim have opened and help to shape it into what we will need to take us forward.

NewCAJE is no longer a Nimitz class organization. That is scary. It has little in the way of money or infrastructure. It is also wonderful. If the twentySomthings and thirtySomethings will step up and teach something to the rest of us, NewCAJE is now stripped down and nimble enough weave through the traffic of this Brave New (and often digital) world. It is ready to become something new while remembering the lessons and traditions of what came before.

Joel Grishaver taught us all that the "True Story of Chanukah" had five different endings. Each ending told the story in a way that made sure the new genereation would understand AND embrace it. NewCAJE gives us the chance to do that again! NewCAJE needs to be more new than CAJE. I believe we can make it happen, if we all work (and argue) together. I hope we all step up.

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