Jan 8, 2009

NY Jewish Week: CAJE Seen Struggling To Survive

CAJE Seen Struggling To Survive

by Carolyn Slutsky - Jewish Week Staff Writer


The Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education, the largest organization of Jewish educators in North America, is experiencing major financial problems and may be forced to cancel its annual conference and close its doors altogether.

"We'd love to be able to put on an amazing conference and build upon everything we've done," said Jeffrey Lasday, CAJE's executive director, noting that last year's conference, held at the University of Vermont, attracted 1,500 mostly supplementary school educators from across the country and Israel, the largest number in seven years.

But the reality looks less hopeful. Observers say CAJE is carrying a debt estimated at around $500,000 and that, as one put it, "if they pull through it's going to be ... a

In fact, Donald Sylvan, president of the Jewish Education Services of North America (JESNA), said that he has been in "intense dialogues" for several months with Lasday. One of the options under discussion is for JESNA to take over some of CAJE's programs and functions.

"There is no answer yet in terms of exactly what role JESNA will play in the future with respect to the endeavors that CAJE might or might not take," said Sylvan, adding that the word merger would not describe the potential arrangement and that CAJE will be making its own decision. "We want to carry on the legacy and ideals of CAJE."

CAJE's board president, Iris Koller, said the $500,000 sum is a rumor and Lasday would not confirm the figure, but he did say CAJE is in limbo and should know by next week whether funding it has sought will come through, and if Jewish institutions will be able to afford to send teachers to the conference, slated to be held in San Antonio in August.

Though widely beloved by Jewish educators, who view the conference as an annual booster shot of enthusiasm for their profession, CAJE had been struggling financially before the most recent dip in the economy. In 2001, the organization had gross receipts of $3.2 million and net assets of $2 million, according to the group's tax filings. By 2006, the last year for which tax records are publicly available, the gross receipts had declined to $2.5 million and the net assets were $281,000, with a deficit of $561,000.

"If we're looking at a scan of the field, professional development dollars are being cut from budgets," said Koller, speaking of the federations, synagogues and supplementary schools that help pay teachers' way to the conference each year. Additionally, she said, Jewish educators are notoriously underpaid and in this economy will not have extra resources to devote to traveling to the conference or paying the admission fee on their own.

"For us it becomes a question of how can we best continue to fulfill our mission of professional development of Jewish educators in a responsible way they can actually utilize," said Koller.

One of the critiques of CAJE — ironic in a post-Madoff wave calling for less dependence on wealthy machers — is that it historically had a board comprised of educators rather than the business people and philanthropists that typically populate non-profit boards. Both Lasday and Koller conceded this point, noting that three years ago CAJE adopted a new strategic plan that included adding more of the latter, a cohort they are still trying to build.

Lasday said leaders let membership and funders know well in advance about impending financial trouble.
"We've spent the past year and a half working with donors, federations and foundations, so we've been very active" in seeking additional funding and support, he said.

While nothing is finalized yet, many observers in the worlds of Jewish education and philanthropy sounded as though they were already in mourning.

 Mark Charendoff, president of the Jewish Funders Network, echoed the sentiments of many admirers of CAJE when he noted, "the CAJE conference is a jewel in the crown of Jewish education, and its loss would be a terrible blow, especially in the world of supplementary education."

"My guess is the current economic downturn came at the wrong time for an organization already struggling with finances, it's just a hard time for everybody," said Vicky Kelman, director of the Jewish Family Education Project of the Board of Jewish Education in San Francisco, who has been a supporter since attending the first CAJE conference 33 years ago, when it began as an alternative group and was frowned upon by the educational establishment. (For its first years, the group's name was Coalition for Alternatives in Jewish Education.)

But "maybe that's the way it has to be," she added. "There are organizations that make their contribution, and CAJE has certainly made its contribution...sometimes a door closes and another one opens up."

Rabbi Menachem Creditor
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