On a recent Friday afternoon, the chapel bells at Duke University chimed "Shalom Aleichem" as about 1,300 educators gathered for the 31st annual conference of the Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education (CAJE).
Billed as "Jewish Literacy: A Learned Community and a Community of Learners," CAJE 31 was a raw, messy, creative affair, with 20 sessions held every hour for five days on such wide-reaching topics as "God Shopping," "The Jews of Sing-Sing," "Assessing Our Relationship to Israel" and "Jews as Global Citizens." Many of the sessions focused on teaching methodology, text-based learning and creative approaches to Judaism. Participants also met for in-depth discussions on every Jewish theme imaginable, all with the goal of energizing teachers and students for the coming year.
Teachers, storytellers, dancers, rabbis and teenagers training for future leadership positions ran through the southern heat across the sprawling campus looking for classrooms, some of which were buried two floors underground. They also browsed through Duke's Bryan Center and an array of vendors displaying items such as teaching materials, custom-made crossword puzzles, jewelry and handmade Jewish arts and crafts.
Most of the sessions and evening keynote speeches addressed the issue of Jewish literacy, focusing on how being Jewishly literate means familiarity not just with texts, a bar mitzvah portion, Israeli history or Jewish dance, but with a stew of all those elements and much more.
In a session on adult learners led by Betsy Dolgin Katz, North American director of the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School, one participant said, "Something that changed my life was learning to read Torah at age 40."
The session also focused on how much emphasis is placed on children's preparation for b'nei mitzvah and becoming full participants in Jewish life, while parents might not have had an equivalent education and may feel left behind.
Cherie Koller-Fox, a founder of CAJE, held a session on the challenges young teachers face when deciding whether or not to enter the field of Jewish education at all. She encouraged them to assert themselves when asking for the salaries and support they would need to make a career in Jewish education work for them, and urged them to take the reins of CAJE for a new generation.
"CAJE looks old and decrepit, but it needs to be yours," she told them. "You desperately need it, but it desperately needs you."
A special session was held each night where teachers and community leaders discussed how to teach the war in Lebanon in the upcoming school year and shared personal feelings about Israel. Some educators stressed the importance of promoting a connection between children and Israel. One participant said, "They should identify with Israel like it's their own home being bombed, because it is their home being bombed." Another participant grew pensive over the thought that peace in the Middle East would truly not be achieved in his lifetime.
A few teachers worried that children would grow up with negative impressions of Israel due to media coverage or bias, while others expressed happiness that some of the myths about Israel as only a heroic nation might dissipate.
The war in Lebanon aside, some educators, especially from small communities, were happy to be surrounded by so many fellow travelers.
Ellen Ben-Naim, a teacher at Los Alamos Jewish Center in New Mexico that draws much of its congregation from the nearby research laboratory, said that in her school of 20 students, 7,000 feet up a mountain, even the rabbi is also a full-time physicist.
"This is like a mecca for me. Well, maybe that's not the right word," she said, adding that the diversity of Jewish life exhibited at CAJE astounded her. Back home, she said, "there is only one tent in town for everybody."
Lynne Diwinsky, a teacher at the New City Jewish Center in New City, N.Y., enjoyed CAJE as a prelude to the school year.
"I see [CAJE] as a renewal. It happens right before Rosh Hashanah to get ready for the coming year," she said. "I love the interchange with other professionals."
Eliot Spack, CAJE's outgoing executive director, said, "CAJE provides a recharging of their batteries," referring to the educators who attend.
He called the conference "a celebration of Jewish teaching: "CAJE has inspired people not in a manipulative or proselytizing way, but it's helped people come to grips with their own Judaism."
Carolyn Starman Hessel, director of the Jewish Book Council and longtime CAJE-goer, said that making connections and being able to access new materials is important for educators.
"West of the Hudson River, where are people going to get this plethora of books and materials?" she asked.
Avraham Infeld, outgoing president of Hillel, delivered a fiery keynote address on the topic of Jewish identity. He said out of five legs of Judaism -- memory, family, Sinai, the people and land of Israel and the Hebrew language -- each Jew should learn three. That way, everyone would have at least one Jewish connection in common.
Infeld also mentioned a phrase his late father used to repeat that subtly echoed the conference's theme: "A Jew has to know more today than he did yesterday."
Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Week.