Washington University became a nationwide oasis for Jewish learning, as the campus played host to the Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education’s annual national conference last week.
Around 1,600 people from around the the country, and around the world, attended the Conference on Alternatives in Jewish Education, or CAJE 32, a conference which brought together Jewish educators, students and lay leaders to learn from preeminent scholars and education professionals.
Close to 200 people from the St. Louis area attended the conference and pre-conference activities, CAJE officials said.
For Jeffrey Lasday, executive director for CAJE, coming to St. Louis was a homecoming of sorts, as Lasday previously worked in St. Louis as executive director of the Central Agency for Jewish Education in St. Louis.
“It’s been wonderful to be back,” Lasday said. “I worked and I lived with my family here for about nine years, and now I’m able to return with about 1,500 of my closest friends to meet about 200 of my friends in St. Louis.”
Lasday said St. Louis turned out to be an excellent site for the conference, and credited Michelle Brooks and Joan Wolchansky of the local CAJE for helping plan the conference and he also said the Jewish Federation of St. Louis and the Lubin-Green Foundation helped provide grants for the conference.
“Everyone has been very supportive,” Lasday said, which helped make the conference “an amazing success.”
“As executive director, I become a sounding board for everything that people were happy with or with things about the conference they saw as challenges,” he said. “And I can say I have heard about very few challenges, other than the heat. The positive feedback has been overwhelming.”
The heat, which prompted excessive heat advisories from the National Weather Service, made for sweaty treks across campus as conference participants walked from one seminar to the next. CAJE officials said a few people were taken to area hospitals to be treated for heat exhaustion.
However, inside the air-conditioning of campus classrooms and auditoriums, participants found a variety of seminars, keynotes and workshops to pick from.
Michelle Brooks, director of school services for the local CAJE said the conference’s theme, “Engaging the 21st Century Learner,” brought a number of seminars focused on the use of technology to assist Jewish educators in teaching, although the conference also had a vast array of topics of interest for all aspects of Jewish education, of interest to educators on a professional and a personal level.
“Many educators would pick and choose topics they thought would be relevant to their own teaching, along with some topics they’re interested in for themselves, like Kabbalah or spirituality,” Brooks said.
Participants could choose from over 300 sessions. Lasday said one of the benefits of changing the host city for the CAJE national conference each year is drawing on the local pool of religious educators and rabbis.
“We had a number of our St. Louis colleagues, many of whom I had worked with in the past when I worked in St. Louis,” Lasday said. St. Louis presenters included congregational rabbis, including Rabbi Anne Belford of Shaare Emeth, Rabbi Avi Katz Orlow of St. Louis Hillel, Rabbi Neal Rose from B’nai Amoona, Rabbi Hyim Shafner of Young Israel, Rabbi James Stone Goodman of Congregation Neve Shalom and Rabbi Yosef Landa, director of Chabad of Greater St. Louis; St. Louis religious and secular musicians, including Cantor Adina Frydman, director of the St. Louis Jewish Women’s Choir, Hazzan Joanna Dulkin of Shaare Zedek, and St. Louis rockers Sheldon Low and Rick Recht; and temple and day school educators, including Cheryl Maayan, a teacher at Saul Mirowitz Day School-Reform Jewish Academy and Judy Lewis, membership director of Temple Israel.
Michael Raileanu, the director of Jewish Studies at Solomon Schechter Day School, said he has attended over a dozen national CAJE conferences in his career. He said that while many of the sessions are informative and helpful, they are not the main draw for him.
“For me, it’s a chance to recharge my batteries,” he said. “It’s about being around people who have the same passion I do…and getting a chance to learn with them and be with them. It’s an amazing professional networking opportunity where I can meet with colleagues from all over and hear about what’s going on nationally in Jewish education.”
Two of the highlights, Raileanu said, were the Shabbat programming and the Mifgash session, in which educators from around the world, from Jewish communities in India, Argentina, Turkey, Ukraine, Russia, as well as North America and Israel, met and discussed issues regarding Jewish education in their communities.
“That [the Mifgash] was one of the greatest professional experiences I’ve ever had,” Raileanu said. “I had a tremendous, eye-opening experience.”
“What particularly resonated for me was the universality of issues that we all face: shrinking resources, shrinking population, a graying population, how in many cities and countries, we have so many challenges in common,” Raileanu said.
Brooks said that one program which had a special significance for the St. Louis Jewish community was the Lay Leadership Institute, which the St. Louis CAJE organized specifically for St. Louis congregational and day school boards. Brooks said 120 people attended the Lay Leadership Institute, which was chaired by Patty Bloom.
The half-day program focused on “Jewish Education on the Front Burner” and featured many out-of-town presenters and local dignitaries, including Jewish Federation Executive Vice President Barry Rosenberg, outgoing Federation Board President Heschel Raskas, incoming Federation Board President Sheila Greenbaum, CAJE Interim Executive Director Sonia Dobinsky and CAJE board president Linda Kraus.
“We had nationally known speakers here in town already for the CAJE conference, so naturally, we wanted to take advantage of that,” Brooks said.