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Normally held “live” over five days on a college campus, the annual conference was moved online because of the COVID-19 crisis.

More than 70 Southeast Michigan Jewish educators have been participating in a month-long online educational conference organized by NewCAJE, the New Coalition for Advancement in Jewish Education. The conference began July 6 and continues through Aug. 2.

Normally held “live” over five days on a college campus, the annual conference was moved online because of the COVID-19 crisis. Because the usual $900 registration fee was reduced to $250, many more educators could participate. Instead of its usual 450 registrants of day school and religious school teachers, the trans-denominational conference attracted more than 900.

Lectures, panel discussions and workshops are held throughout the day and recorded for later viewing. Evenings feature concerts, games and other entertainment. The organizers also set up frequent “job alike” sessions where participants could chat informally with others doing similar work.

Rabbi Abi Taylor-Abt, president of the Metro Detroit Board of Jewish Educators and a member of the NewCAJE program committee, helped make it possible for so many local teachers and administrators from congregational religious schools to attend.

Few Detroit religious schools could afford to send their teachers and administrators to previous NewCAJE conferences, said Taylor-Abt, who also heads the Yachad religious school sponsored by Congregation Beth Shalom and Temple Emanu-El, both in Oak Park. She negotiated a reduced fee for Detroit-area educators, then secured a grant from the Hermelin/Davidson Center for Congregation Excellence to cover the cost.

Rabbi Abi Taylor-Abt
Rabbi Abi Taylor-Abt

In the current crisis, Jewish educators have come to see themselves as essential workers, said Rabbi Cherie Koller-Fox, president of the Newton, Massachusetts-based NewCAJE. “Who knew that people who don’t come to sit in the pews would suddenly appear on their Zoom screens on a Friday night? Who knew that people who saw their Jewish identity as second or third or fourth priority would suddenly turn toward that identity to keep their feet on the ground and give them hope in dark times?”

Conference presenters included Melissa Ser, director of education at Adat Shalom Synagogue in Farmington Hills, and Rabbi Asher Lopatin, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council/AJC and spiritual leader of Kehillat Etz Chaim in Oak Park.

Detroit-area NewCAJE participants enjoyed the experience.

“This has been an amazing conference,” said Carrie Keogh of Bloomfield Hills, who teaches teens at Congregation Shir Tikvah in Troy. She especially liked the variety of offerings. “I love that I am able to not only learn for my students’ sake but also for my own curiosity and self-improvement,” she said.

Hilary Duberstein of Waterford, director of the Sholem Aleichem Institute in West Bloomfield and religious school teacher at Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield, said she liked the flexibility. “If I have a conflict with a session, I am able to go back and watch the recording,” she said. “I literally could attend all of the sessions if I so desired.”

Francie Fruitman of Southfield, who teaches first grade Sunday school at Temple Beth El in Bloomfield Township, said attending NewCAJE has made her feel more confident, connected and inspired to engage her students online.

Correction (7/29/20): An earlier version of this article listed incorrect figures for the typical NewCAJE registration fee and number of attendees.

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