ISRAELL'CHAIMSeptember 2020

A Springboard for Jewish Education


By Barbara Birenbaum

I was lost when I found myself at NewCAJE, an experienced educator on the edge of a multi-level midlife crisis. The year 2013 was one of the darkest summers ever for me; that must have been why Cherie Koller-Fox reached across the country and with her firm vision, graceful coaching, and generous scholarship brought me into the light.

I’d heard of CAJE but had no idea what I was in for. Never before had I seen so many musicians, storytellers, rabbis, cantors and principals in one place; teachers of all ages and movements inviting interaction in workshop after workshop on everything under the sun.  All day long, I eagerly studied everything from texts and theories to budgets and Bible stories, enjoyed mealtime meetups, Artsfest, concerts and then — Kumzits — singing and dancing late into the night, creating camplike connections. As I finally lay down in the wee hours of each magical morning, the smile on my face and my soul never faded. Each of the four days was better than the one before and I came home with wind beneath my wings. Each year I spread them a little further and always find I’m lifted.

My future was transformed that summer although the changes were just in perspective. I realized that I’d grown into the passionate teacher that I was through the experiences I had and they were worthy. My value as an independent creative educator was validated. Now, I am pleasantly pursuing happiness leading Israeli Folk Dance: Fun On Your Feet and In Your Seat, teaching religious school as well as private academic tutoring. I teach what I love, love what I do and my students do too.

I found a home at NewCAJE and a glow that keeps on growing and enriching me all year long and ever so much more every summer. At a concert this year, during the month-long virtual Summer of NewCAJE, when the songwriters began sharing the magic of when they first discovered the conference, shined in a spotlight, or shifted into a new start, I found everyone had a story they were excited to tell. I was curious so I began collecting.

“Attending NewCAJE has been a nourishing source of learning, enrichment, and summer-camp camaraderie,” Nina Gelman-Gans said.

The tales of how and what folks found were not at all and exactly like mine, sharing the common themes of finding recognition and appreciation, realizing dreams, forming fierce and fast friendships (especially with Facebook connecting us across the country all year long), coming home and giving back. An upcoming series about experienced educators inspired into new endeavors through the love that is NewCAJE are forthcoming.

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