by Sam Glaser
I recently returned from the NewCAJE conference, the nascent incarnation of the Coalition for Advancement in Jewish Education. We gathered at the American Hebrew Academy campus in sunny and steamy Greensboro, NC for five days of celebration, study and connection. I offered an hour and a half workshop everyday and had
the rare gift of speaking about spiritual subjects close to my heart to students who were attentive and hungry for the information. I enjoyed the chance to hear both the veterans in Jewish music perform in addition to sampling the hot, upcoming talent. I went to amazing lectures, relished in stories from master storytellers and listened in wonderment to a fifty-voice choir that formed over the course of the conference. And every night, from midnight till 3am, the musician insomniacs gathered in a “kumzitz mafia” jam session of outrageous proportions.
My own concert was on closing night. I can’t describe the feeling of performing to an audience that already knows every lyric of my songs. I asked to keep the houselights up so that I could reflect the joy visible on the faces of those whom I’ve grown to love, who have supported me onthis twenty-year odyssey as a Jewish composer. These are the community leaders who have rallied to bring me to their congregations, who cherish my CDs, who share my music with everyone they know. Many of them met me when I was single and have followed my life through my engagement, marriage and rollercoaster experience as the father of three. Scarcely a CAJE meal goes by without my having to break out pictures of the family.
It was at my first CAJE in 1992 that I met Debbie Friedman. I had sung her songs since I was a kid at camp and now I had the chance to share the stage with her. It just as well could have been Paul McCartney. Well, almost. That year Julie Silver and I were the new artists debuting on the big USC stage. Just before my set the power went out and I had to sing my new Hineni song for 2000 people a capella. Concert organizers Craig Taubman and Doug Cotler pushed me out on the stage. Later Julie shared her gorgeous Sim Shalom. I gave out my four-song demo cassette to everyone I met and started getting invitations to perform out of town. Amazing! This year NewCAJE gave me a taste of new artists Noah Aronson and Max Jared, among others, about whom I will rave and support in their journeys.
At any given CAJE conference many of the presenters are neophytes in their field. But what other chances will they have to hone their craft in such a loving, forgiving milieu? Veteran educators like the holy Rav Yosef Liebowitz come every year because CAJE-niks are among his best market for the distance learning that he offers from his home in Israel. Judaica and booksellers flock to merchandise at the expo, attracted by a captive audience of dedicated Jews who will share the wares with friends back home. I’m confident that Joel Grishaver wouldn’t have such a flourishing Torah Aura publishing company if not for CAJE, Nancy Katz wouldn’t be covering the country in painted silk and Bruce David’s amazing stained glass wouldn’t grace so many sanctuaries.
Something unique about this conference is its emphasis on pluralism. Reform, Conservative and Orthodox learn, dine and sing together under one roof. For most it’s the ONLY time they might witness such harmony and tolerance. Ethics of the Fathers reminds us that a wise person is one who learns from everyone. Only at CAJE do I really see this precept in full bloom. CAJE is nothing less than the potential of a world redeemed. Everyone is a bit uncomfortable and everyone grows. Girls in short shorts are confronted by the long coated mikvah man. Orthodox rabbis become unwilling members of a flash mob that breaks out in the dining hall. It’s easy to say in the comfort of one’s own movement that “we are all in this together.” But CAJE isn’t the Biennial or OU conference. It’s a true spiritual coalition, where all the colorful members of the tribe have something to add.
I have performed and taught at this conference some nineteen times. CAJE has become a benchmark in my year, the start of my post-summer touring season and a good excuse to finish new recordings. Traditionally, upwards of 1500 educators, rabbis, cantors, composers, storytellers and artists meet at a roving series of university campuses for this special week of sharing, learning and song. Perhaps the most compelling reason that they return is the camaraderie. There is no price tag one can put on belonging to such an esteemed, generous family. Tragically, teachers are usually on the low end of the socio-economic totem pole. The individuals that we empower to bring the newest generations into the fold can barely afford to live in the neighborhoods of the synagogues they serve. CAJE gives these righteous individuals a chance to stand up and be recognized and appreciated. It’s renewing, refreshing and rewarding. Some chastise the organization and say it’s nothing more than Jewish summer camp. But if summer camp is the “great white hope” for our kids, then why can’t the teachers of our students have their moment in the sun?
Now I’m going to get on my soapbox. In March of 2009 CAJE went bankrupt. It was half a million dollars in debt and still the international Jewish community let it fail. True, this was in the aftermath of economic meltdown and Madoff. Yes, there was too much overhead and they should have screamed louder for help.But for a statistically infinitesimal percentage of the total given to Jewish causes, CAJE could have been revived. Individual benefactors sponsor operas, wings of University buildings and MRI machines for much more. Who will take a stand for Jewish education? Where are our heroes?
NewCAJE emerged out of the ashes last year. Thanks to the gumption of CAJE veterans like Cherie Koller-Fox, the conference is wobbling on new legs. Recently Cherie was overjoyed that a $9000 matching grant was established. She’s counting on underpaid teachers to come up with funds to keep this dream alive. My friends, NewCAJE needs $900,000 to make this happen. $9,000? Oy! Where are the Jewish Federations of North America? How about a national Bureau of Jewish Education percentage of funds to this cause? Most teachers used to have a source of funds from their synagogue or day school for annual enrichment programs. Professional development is a cost of doing business! This must be reinstituted so more teachers can attend. Jewish benefactors of universities need to come forward and cover the conference costs at their home institutions. Giving opportunities for wealthy individuals abound, with naming rights! For example, subsidizing the young leadership program, college program, new teacher recognition, veteran teacher awards, childcare, evening entertainment, fine arts.
I finished my NewCAJE concert with a rendition of Debbie Friedman’s moving Tfilat Haderech. It’s the very song that I sang with my fellow musicians at her gravesite after everyone else had left the funeral. It’s the song I chose to sing at the Los Angeles commemoration of her Shloshim. It will be the only “cover tune” on my next Jewish CD. I brought with me the brand new instrumental tracks that I had just recorded with my band and set up some high quality stereo mics to record the NewCAJE audience on an endless series of tearful “amens” at the conclusion of the song. Please listen to the track. Hear the love shared by this amazing group of teachers. Hear how much we miss our Debbie. Hear how much we need and support each other. Hear how much we need your help to spread the word. Thanks for listening.