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National conference for Jewish educators comes to West Hartford

By Cindy Mindell

WEST HARTFORD – For three days in early August, the University of Hartford campus will play host to the NewCAJE 6 conference, the largest forum and incubator for Jewish educators in the U.S.

The national non-profit New Coalition for Alternatives in Jewish Education was founded in 2010 by Rabbi Cherie Koller-Fox to advance the field of Jewish education. Through publications and an annual conference, NewCAJE provides opportunities for Jewish educators from all denominations and teaching settings to share innovative ideas and to network.

NewCAJE follows the successful 32-year run of the now-defunct CAJE (Coalition for Alternatives in Jewish Education), which brought together at its annual conferences more than 30,000 educators, who then touched the lives of some 600,000 students.

The NewCAJE definition of “teacher” incorporates anyone involved in the transmission of Jewish education and culture, Koller-Fox says: rabbis, cantors, principals, classroom teachers of all age levels – from preschoolers through adults – as well as musicians, artists, writers, and storytellers.

Koller-Fox says that the University of Hartford as a whole, and the Greenberg Center for Judaic Studies in particular, have been very helpful and hospitable in preparing for the conference. The 250-plus conference workshops will cover a range of topics and tools, with several Sunday-only Intensive Seminars for those who can’t spare three days. Classes address a range of skill levels, from beginning Hebrew reading for teachers to certificate sessions for early childhood educators, new and newer principals, and advanced principals. There will be several workshops on Israel, presented by educational organizations including the iCenter for Jewish Education and JerusalemU.

“New CAJE is really ‘the’ conference for Jewish educators and the public to hear about state-of-the-art teaching from synagogues to day schools and adult Jewish education,” says Dr. Richard Freund, director of the Greenberg Center. “From traditional to alternative Jewish education, from kindergarten to 120-lifelong learning at its best. We are very proud that they chose the University of Hartford for the conference.”

Freund and Avinoam Patt, the Greenberg Center’s Philip D. Feltman Professor of Modern Jewish History, have worked closely with conference planners and will both present several sessions at the conference.

“We will also make the Museum of Jewish Civilization [of the University of Hartford] and its exhibitions available to conference participants,” says Patt, who serves as the museum’s director. “As one of the top colleges for Jewish student life in the United States, the University of Hartford is an ideal home for this wonderful conference,” he adds.

CAJE and NewCAJE have spawned many of the most innovative aspects of Jewish education now taken for granted, Koller-Fox says, like Danny Siegel’s teachings about tzedakah and the Tu B’Shvat seder.

“If somebody is doing something amazing in their school or classroom, it will just stay within those walls unless they have somewhere to share it,” Koller-Fox says. “At NewCAJE, they can tell a classroom full of people, who can then take it back to their own schools. When you present at a session, you’re really teaching 25 schools, not just 25 individuals. In that way, innovation spreads very quickly.”

Koller-Fox sees the annual conference as a way for religious schools to enrich their curricula by supporting and retaining teachers, a commitment that began to wane with the 2008 economic downturn. “When synagogues tightened their belts, the first thing that went was professional development,” she says. “It hasn’t been put back everywhere yet, which makes it financially impossible for teachers to attend. This is very short-sighted because there’s now a crisis of teachers in the Jewish community.”

Each year, various Jewish communities find ways to defray conference costs. A member of a synagogue in Houston, Tex. offers funding to the entire religious-school teaching staff. At the 2014 conference, held in California, the Jewish Federation of San Diego County and area synagogues funded 44 teachers.

Uha campus

On the campus of the University of Hartford.

In two Connecticut regions this year, conference grants are provided to Jewish educators by the Federation for Jewish Philanthropy of Upper Fairfield County Aronson-Stern Fund and the Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford’s Commission on Jewish Education & Leadership (via the David Kotkin Fund and the Deborah and Morton Mitnick Fund of the Jewish Community Foundation of Greater Hartford).

“We are subsidizing 10 synagogue educators from our Federaion-wide Jewish community to this national conference because making an investment at the grassroots level is one of the most important objectives that we could fulfill,” explains Steven M. Friedlander, CEO of Federation for Jewish Philanthropy of Upper Fairfield County. “To encourage professional educators from our synagogues is the most direct way for us to advance our goal,” he adds.

As its name suggests, NewCAJE was created with the future in mind: new generations of Jewish educators and students, working with new technologies and responding to new demands. The conference attracts a large population of young educators who are looking for support and networking opportunities.

“NewCAJE creates a field of Jewish education,” Koller-Fox says. “If you’re a young educator and come into the field and you’re excited about it, and you have nowhere to share what you’re doing, no one will ever know who you are, and then you go to another synagogue and they’ll hire you or not hire you depending on their impression of you at that moment. There’s no field or career ladder in Jewish education without a place like NewCAJE, which creates a group of educators who are known as the go-to people in certain areas of expertise. It creates a market for the musicians, artists, and storytellers, who meet the people who hire them to go around the country. It creates a marketplace for the people who are creating materials for Jewish education.”

NewCAJE is also an active network where educators help each other stay in the field by sharing skills and resources, as well as job leads. For the second year in a row, the conference will host the Harold Grinspoon Foundation’s Grinspoon Awards for Excellence in Jewish Education ceremony. Nicole Brackman of Hebrew High School of New England in West Hartford and Michal Smart of Bi-Cultural Day School in Stamford are among the 25 Regional Awardees.

Each evening, the conference is open to the public, with musical performances from the likes of Sam Glaser, Josh Nelson, and Neshama Carlebach. The Sunday-night concert (preceded by a kosher dinner) will showcase the best new Jewish music by young, up-and-coming artists.

For information on the NewCAJE 6 conference and public programs visit newcaje.org.

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