ISRAELL'CHAIMOctober 2020

Renewal Through Storytelling

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By Barbara Birenbaum

In February of this year, as every year, I eagerly welcomed the message announcing that registration for NewCAJE11 was open. Aside from that came another message that excited me even more. A storytelling scholarship opportunity to be among the first cohort of a new initiative, ReJEWvination Storytelling Initiative. With a faculty that’s a Who’s Who of Jewish storytelling including Cherie Karo Schwartz (designer, sponsor, and leader), Penninah Schram and Batya Podos, Jennifer Rudik Zunikoff, Cindy Rivka Marshall, Renee Brachfeld, and Dan “Dante” Gordon, all renowned master storytellers I’d admired from afar through previous conferences, I applied and was accepted.

When the brilliantly resourceful NewCAJE organizers pivoted quickly with COVID-19 cancelling the in-person conference, the 6-day experience became the Summer of NewCAJE; with 28 days of virtual workshops, Torah study, job-alike meetups, concerts, Storytelling Sundays and more all through Zoom. The conference was epically successful and our NewCAJE family was forever changed for the better. What started with a week of intense story study ended up blowing my mind wide open. After three more weeks of live zooms through July and four more weeks immersed in recordings of the plethora of programming I’d missed, abundant and glorious professional growth was had by all.

And I finally found a story, which will soon be a children’s book, with a lot of help from my friends (especially Jennifer Zunikoff, storytelling coach, who I began learning with at NewCAJE 5 years ago) from all that had been planted, nourished, watered and loved. As the cohort moves into 5781, pandemic perspectives guide some of us blazing new trails, some back to the grind, but all enriched and elevated from our experience. Following are two more storyteller springboard stories fostered through this beloved organization.

As Cherie Karo Schwartz wrote, “CAJE/NewCAJE has been a Ma’ayan, a well-spring of inspiration, creativity, interconnection and more for me since 1982. I have learned at the feet of Peninnah Schram, my storytelling heart-friend and collaborator, and so many more storytellers/educators. I have taught at every conference. I’ve been so nourished and sustained by the teachings of others, this year I’m giving back in a big way. I envisioned, funded and co-created the ReJEWvenating Jewish Storytelling Initiative: Elementary educators led by national Master Jewish Storyteller Faculty. We have learned and created together and the first cohort will be engaged all year sharing their gleanings with their peers and mentors. Next summer, they will be teaching their wisdom at NewCAJE12. It is an honor to continue and enhance this Storytelling Legacy.”

And, Rabbi Dan Gordon, AKA “Dante, a teller of tales”, Senior Rabbi, Temple Beth Torah, Humble, Texas, recalled that in 1993, at the age of 32, he stepped onto the CAJE (now NewCAJE) scene.

“I felt like a freshman in college,” the rabbi said. “I had never attended this conference because my previous professional life was as a camp director and my summers were full. I was shifting gears to become a storyteller/educator, and this was my training ground. I hastily printed a brochure to connect with other artists and learners. I approached seasoned professional storytellers Peninnah Schram and Cherie Karo Schwartz, sheepishly announcing, “I’m a Jewish storyteller, too.” These two women took me under their wing. Their only goal? Enhancing Jewish learning through story. Now, I am a storytelling rabbi, serving the same congregation over 20 years. Sharing music, stories and learning with such an elegant group, determined to learn from each other, has inspired me to inspire. Students become teachers, and our Jewish souls blossom together.”

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