Relationship Development = Professional Development: A DSLTI Reflection

I had the privilege earlier this month to spend two weeks in New York City, fulfilling my role as Mentor during the second summer of Cohort 12 of the Day School Leadership Training Institute (DSLTI).  [I was a Fellow in Cohort 4 and you can revisit my blog post from last summer for more context about my experiences in the program, why I am serving as a Mentor and how it fits into my current role as Head of OJCS.]  Like many programs coming out of COVID times, DSLTI navigated the transition from Zoom to in-person.  Unlike just about every leadership capacity-building program I’ve ever participated in, however, DSLTI spends at least as much time in relationship development as it does in professional development.

As I sit in my office gearing up for the return of teachers as we prepare to open my sixth year at OJCS, that is my big takeaway – my “a-ha” moment from my deeply intense and nourishing time at DSLTI.  And when you think about, it is a also a deeply Jewish idea about learning – that learning is amplified when it comes in and through authentic relationship.  Yes, in order to discuss issues that matter, a certain baseline of trust is necessary in any group.  Vulnerability, candor, and transparency are prerequisites to moments of meaning.  But I don’t simply view “relationship development” as a necessary step on a ladder towards “professional development”.  I am arguing that we learn more deeply and more significantly when we do it in relationship with like-minded fellow travelers.  Your feedback, your thoughts, your suggestions, your guidance lands on me with exponentially added force and weight, when I know you.  And when I say “know” in this context, I mean somewhere that’s neither at a superficial level, but also not at unreasonably overfamiliar level.

Professional intimacy.

That’s as close as I can come to connoting this idea.  To help teachers, to help administrators, to help students, to help myself continue to grow – to ensure that everyone in the culture can be their most authentic self in service of performing at their highest potential – I believe more attention at OJCS should and will be put towards relationship-building and relationship-sustaining.

When our teachers return for Pre-Planning Week, we will, of course, schedule traditional “professional development” sessions that deal with the art and science of teaching.  [I’ll share more about that as it draws closer.]  There are ideas, both new and old, that require time to master and to review.  There are skills that require training.  There is tachlis planning that requires time so that we are ready to welcome our students back the following week.  But we are also going to spend significant time (re)building relationships as we emerge from years of silos and isolated work.

A school is only as good as its teachers and teachers will only be their best when they are fully invested in each other, the culture, the community and the school.  An excellent Social Studies or French or Hebrew or Math Teacher will likely deliver a quality product, regardless.  But we don’t just teach Social Studies or French or Hebrew or Math at OJCS.  We teach Maia and Moshe and Liam and Lori.  To truly do that – to teach children and not just subject matter – means investing in relationships.

I cannot wait to welcome my team and my teachers back to school.

The Transparency Files: The 2022-2023 Faculty

Happy Thursday!

Things don’t usually time out quite in this way, but here we are on literally the last day of school – for teachers – and before we head into Canada Day Weekend and the true start of summer, it is my sincere joy and pleasure to be able to share out a complete picture of the amazing human beings who will be teaching our children and leading our school into the 2022-2023 school year at the Ottawa Jewish Community School.

The quickest of words before I unveil the list…

…the first is simply to share that we are operating under the belief that next year will truly be a return to normal.  Or at least normal enough that it ought not impact how we divide up classes or how we program our days and year.  Of course, we will continue to maintain a Health Advisory Committee, and much closer to the start of the school year, will provide parents with what guidelines and suggestions we believe are appropriate for the start of next school year.  But as we put together our staffing picture, our classroom assignments and our calendar, we are assuming near-normal functioning.

…the second is to share with you the overarching idea that has animated our two days of what we call “Pre-Pre-Planning” – these two PD days that essentially mark the beginning of the 2022-2023 school year because they focus our teachers on how to set themselves up for a successful summer in service of a successful start to school.  We are focusing our energy on “Getting Our Mojo Back” or, perhaps, the “Great Unpause” – it is time for our school to reclaim the exciting and innovative trajectory we were on pre-COVID.  We were smack in the middle of some very important and impactful projects, initiatives and programs and we are all-too ready to get back on track.  You may get a hint of it when looking at some of the job descriptions below; you will get a full (re)introduction to it as we gear up for next year.

…the third is to please start paying attention to the updated calendar.  A return to normal means a return to events like our PTA-sponsored “Back to School BBQ” and “Meet & Greets” for JK and SK, so please be sure to update your calendars so you are ready to join us as we look to (re)build our community, to truly function again as an OJCS Family.

…the fourth is a gentle reminder that the assignments below are tentative as they always are.  Things sometimes can and do change (especially as our JK and SK classes continue to grow!), although we believe this should be much less of a factor this summer than the prior two, but sometimes we do have to make adjustments.  If an update is required, of course, it will be sent either directly to the impacted grades or in a blog post.

OK, I think I have given a lengthy enough preamble.  Let’s get excited about this gifted and loving group of teachers and administrators, who will partner with our parents in the sacred work of educating our children.  I know I am!

The 2022-2023 OJCS Faculty & Staff

Lower School General Studies Faculty

  • Junior Kindergarten: Susan Wollock, Jamie Ebbs (French) & Mushki Kurtz (EA)
  • Kindergarten: Andréa Black, Susan Wollock (French) & Dawn Schneider (EA)
  • Grade One: Julie Bennett/Karissa Zuorro & Efi Mouchou (French) [TWO Classes]
  • Grade Two: Ann-Lynn Rapoport & Efi Mouchou (French) [TWO Classes]
  • Grade Three: Lianna Krantzberg & Aaron Polowin (French)
  • Grade Four: Faye Mellenthin, Chelsea Cleveland (Math), Dr. Sylvie Raymond (Core) & Aaron Polowin (Extended) [TWO Classes]
  • Grade Five: Abby Whitteker, Karissa Zuorro (Core) & Dr. Sylvie Raymond (Extended) [TWO Classes]

Lower School Jewish Studies Faculty

  • Kitah JK: Susan Wollock
  • Kitah Gan: Andréa Black
  • Kitah Alef: Ada Aizenberg/Saar Baram [TWO Classes]
  • Kitah Bet: Corrine Baray/Sigal Baray [TWO Classes]
  • Kitah Gimmel: Sigal Baray
  • Kitah Dalet: Dana Doron [TWO Classes]
  • Kitah Hay: Marina Riklin/Liat Levy [TWO Classes]

Middle School Faculty

  • Science: Josh Ray
  • Mathematics: Chelsea Cleveland (Grades 6 & 7) & Josh Ray (Grade 8)
  • Language Arts: Language Arts Teacher
  • Social Studies: Michael Washerstein
  • Extended French: Wanda Canaan
  • Core French: Aaron Polowin (Grade 6) & Dr. Sylvie Raymond (Grades 7 & 8)
  • Hebrew: Marina Riklin (Hebrew Alef), Liat Levy (Hebrew Bet for Grade 6) & Ruthie Lebovich (Hebrew Bet for 7 & 8)
  • Jewish Studies: Mike Washerstein
  • Rabbinics: Corinne Baray

Specialists

  • Art & Drama: Jamie Ebbs
  • French Language PE: Stéphane Cinanni (Grades 3-8), Aaron Polowin (Grades 1 & 2) & Karissa Zuorro (Grades JK-1)
  • Library: Brigitte Ruel

Leads

  • Makerspace: Josh Ray
  • Mitzvah Trips: Michael Washerstein
  • Student Life: Lianna Krantzberg
  • Blogging & Global Connectedness: Julie Bennett
  • Jewish Studies Curriculum: Ada Aizenberg
  • Jewish Studies Coaching: Ruthie Lebovich

Department of Special Education

  • Keren Gordon, Vice Principal
  • Sharon Reichstein, Director of Special Education
  • Ashley Beswick, Resource Teacher & Behavior Support Coordinator
  • Resource Teacher
  • Chelsea Cleveland, Math Resource

Administration

  • Josh Max – Director of Technology
  • Ellie Kamil – Executive Assistant to the Head of School
  • Staci Zemlak-Kenter – Director of Development
  • Emily Jiang – Chief Accountant
  • Jennifer Greenberg – Director of Recruitment
  • Keren Gordon – Vice Principal
  • Dr. Jon Mitzmacher – Head of School

You will see some new names and some new categories…

Let me start my saying that unlike previous years where the generic names, like “Middle School Language Arts Teacher” means that we have not yet hired someone, I am over-the-moon thrilled to say that we are actually 100% staffed for next year!  However, until contracts have been technically signed and current employers informed, we will have to wait a titch before formally introducing those last couple of employees.  But we will as soon as we can, and, we can’t wait for you to be as impressed by them as we are.

You will see a new category “Leads”.  This category, for now, replaces an older category of quasi-administrators that we had been calling “Coordinators”.  There are some internally meaningful, union-related differences between the two titles, but what is important to know is that these “Leads” all represent opportunities for OJCS teachers to build their leadership capacity by taking on quasi-administrative responsibility for high-value new or continuing programs.  We have written extensively about the OJCS Makerspace and OJCS Mitzvah Trips, and, therefore, it should come as no surprise that we are making them priorities heading into next school year.  “Student Life” and “Blogging” are in some ways carryovers from portfolios held by two teachers currently on maternity leave, but also opportunities for new teachers to both grow their leadership and help our school grow in these critical areas as well.

The last thing to mention as a segue to providing brief bios on new staff is that we have made a tactical decision to move away – at least for now – from pursuing a “Head of Jewish Studies” who has all the education, skills and experiences we have been searching for, but have failed to find.  It isn’t that we couldn’t or won’t keep looking for that just-right person, but there are too many important pieces of work that need to be done in our Jewish Studies Department to keep waiting for that savior to arrive.  We are very blessed that we have been able to essentially divide the position into five parts and that each part has been assigned to someone capable, talented, passionate and ready to go.  In a nutshell…

…I will continue to hold onto the supervision and evaluation of Jewish Studies Faculty.  It is the one part of the job that I have successfully managed during these last few years, and I believe it is both appropriate and helpful for me to keep that in my portfolio for the future.

…our JS Faculty have been in need of great mentoring and coaching and there can be no better person qualified to do that, then our own Ruthie Lebovich, master teacher with decades of experience.

…”Jewish Student Life” and “Student Life” don’t need to be kept separate in a Jewish Day School, and with Lianna Krantzberg moving into this role, between her experiences here and her administrative role at CBB-Ottawa, this merger will be both seamless and powerful.

…we have been waiting to move forward with some big-picture benchmarks and standards decisions in Jewish Studies.  What exactly do we expect students at OJCS to learn by the end of Grade 8?  What experiences do we want for them?  What is the best curriculum to support those goals?  We are past due finalizing what we expect each child, in each grade, in each part of our Jewish Studies program to learn, to know, to know how, to experience, etc., and Ada Aizenberg will be just the person to lead our team in this project.

…and we have needed a real live human being to take back the teaching of text and rabbinics in our school, and so let me now segue into the introductions…

Please welcome Corinne Baray into a permanent position at OJCS!  Ms. Baray is well known to our school community as a very respected guest teacher.  She is a PhD candidate in the Department of Law and Legal Studies at Carleton University. She is a graduate of OJCS and the former Yitzhak Rabin High School. While her research interests surround the area of criminal law, Corinne has a particular passion for education and pedagogy.  Corinne is also an Instructor and Course Developer at Carleton University, and has taught at all academic levels, including elementary, high school, and college – as well as ESL education for elementary students in Rishon Letzion, Israel.  She has vast experience teaching in Jewish schools, has a breadth and depth of Torah and text skills, and will be a welcome addition to our Jewish Studies Faculty.

Jamie Ebbs is thrilled to join our Faculty with a diverse portfolio.  He will be creating and leading our Arts and Drama programs, as well as teaching Junior Kindergarten French and Physical Education in French.  Jamie graduated from the University of Ottawa, Bachelor of Education’s Imagination, Creativity and Innovation Cohort.  He also has a Master Degree in Cultural Studies, as well as an Honours Bachelor of Arts in Theatre.  We’ve scooped him up so he can sprinkle this love of the arts into all we do.

Efi Mouchou is relocating to Ottawa this summer from Greece with her beautiful family and looks so forward to meeting our school community.  Madame Efi is a certified teacher who completed her studies at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia.  She has taught French to all grade-levels in locations around the world over the last 20 years, however most often in International British school settings.  She is so excited to be teaching our Grade 1 & 2 French classes next year and has so much to offer our students with already developed programs from her own repertoire, as well as from close conversations with our primary French faculty.  Madame Efi is so full of life and is passionate about making French language learning fun and we look forward to welcoming her to OJCS.

Please note that I intend to take a pause from weekly blogging as we head into summer.  Of course, should the spirit move me, or an issue arises that warrants it, I will blog intermittently, until resuming my weekly routine a week or so before our teachers return for Pre-Planning Week 2022.

Happy summer!

The Bewildering Journey of the Wilderness Class of 2022

[Please find here an adapted version of the words I shared at last night’s Ottawa Jewish Community School Graduation:]

We are currently in the middle of Sefer Ba-Midbar, the Book of Numbers, on our annual journey of Torah.  “Ba-Midbar” is usually translated as “in the desert” but is more accurately understood to be “in the wilderness”, and the narrative action describes the wilderness generation who wandered from Revelation at Sinai to the brink of Redemption on the border to Eretz Yisrael.  This is the generation who stood at Sinai and built a Golden Calf.  This is the generation who received mannah from heaven and suffered the bad report of those chosen to spy out the land of “milk and honey”.  This is the generation whose relationship to God was the most intimate, who experienced miracles both daily and regularly, but who could not maintain their faith, and ultimately, were forced to wander for forty years until the next generation was ready to continue the journey to the Promised Land.  This was a generation that saw and experienced things like no other before or since.  Their wandering was both in wilderness and bewildering.  They went through some things.

Rabbinic commentators offer various explanations for why this needed to be true.  God could simply have completed the three-or-so day journey from Sinai to Israel without putting the People through a generation of wilderness.  Divine punishment for the many sins of faithlessness and complaining is the most common response.  These focus on the negative aspects of wilderness.  But there has always been a line of thought that viewed the wandering, not as punishment, but as preparation.  That the experience of wilderness – with all its challenges – was in some ways a final time to benefit from the intimacy of a small and powerful community – a family of tribes – before, say, graduating into Eretz Yisrael and, although forever remaining a family, heading out on new adventures.  Two and a third years of COVID does not forty years in a desert make.  And we have not lived through COVID as any kind of divine punishment.  But.  It sure has been bewildering.

Parents Lead the Way

Our collective journey through the wilderness would have not reached this threshold without the perseverance of parents and all that they were asked to do without time, training or support to facilitate at-home learning during these middle school years of pandemic learning.  What I have come to realize more and more each year is how much parents and parenting matters.  And I don’t mean from a COVID-specific perspective, although that is obviously true.  And I don’t mean from a generic school-home partnership lens, although that is absolutely critical.  No, even as a parent myself, I don’t think I realized just how important parents and parenting truly are to supporting a child’s journey through adolescence towards young adulthood.

The path of small Jewish day schools is not always an easy one to tread.  Parents find their way into Jewish day schools for all kinds of highly personal reasons – personalized attention, family atmosphere, a deep commitment to Jewish Studies, legacy, or even just going where everyone else happened to be going that year.  Jewish day school comes at a high price, and that price is not just financial.  There are many in this room who have sacrificed luxuries and necessities to reach this day.  All in this room have sacrificed their most precious gift – time – in service of their children’s academic and Jewish journeys.  Years like these last three sharpen both points.  COVID-19 has not only strained families’ pocketbooks, but even with semi-self-directed Grade 8 students, the transitions to and from distance learning strained families’ living spaces, devices, time, and patience (not to mention Wi-Fi!).

Like Moshe, all we can do as parents is guide our children along the journey – sometimes as bewildered as they are from all it entails – until we reach a point where they start to move forward on their own journeys.  We believe that a night like tonight serves as a meaningful way-station along that path, that it validates parental choices and sacrifices, and proves the power of parenting.  On a personal note, let me just thank you as a fellow parent in this class.  There is nothing as bewildering as being both parent and principal and I thank you for letting me wear both hats as we co-parented this group through the wilderness.

Teachers Who Illuminate

In Parashat Be’ha’lotekhah we get the description of the seven lamps that light up the sanctuary.  One way to read the “lamps” is for them to stand in for “education”, and the way teachers light up the minds and hearts of others.  Education is not only a matter of mastering information; it’s about questioning and exploring.  Teachers make a school and we have never seen greater proof of that than during these last three years.  I believe that teaching at its highest form is about unleashing the passion and talents of students.  During these dark wilderness days of pandemic learning, when you are forced to fly the plane while you are building it, when you have to teach from home with your life on display in the background, when you have to use new skills and new platforms without having had adequate time to learn, let alone practice, when you are willing to publicly acknowledge to your students what you don’t know, when you show up as you are and not, perhaps, as you would like to be – could there be more powerful role modeling for our children than this?

This desire to create space for students to shine is what lets our teachers know our children like no other school can.  This soft glow of vulnerability is what gives permission to our students to be who they most authentically are without fear of judgement.  The ceding of the spotlight to our students is exactly why at graduation we pause for an opportunity to acknowledge not only the Grade 8 Teachers, but to celebrate all the teachers whose collaborations and contributions over time shone together to create a class.

Finding Your Voice

With all our complicated personalities and unique experiences, just showing up can sometimes be a genuine act of courage, a way of giving voice.  But when showing up has meant sometimes being at home, or sometimes being at school, or trying to create new or maintain old relationships from inside a Google Meet, dealing with unusual safety protocols and sacrificing much-anticipated experiences – what I have seen firsthand from you each – and know secondhand from all your teachers – is that you have each started to find your voices, each one unique and worthy.  You bring your voice to your individual work, your group projects and your class commitments.  You bring it to your academic challenges, and you bring it to your extracurricular opportunities

The stories from our wilderness journey are filled with examples of people finding their voice, displaying courage, and standing up for what is right.  From Caleb and Yehoshua who broke with the Ten Spies and vouched for the Land’s goodness to the Five Daughters of Zelophehad who stood up to Moshe and influenced the making of a new law by God to allow women to own land, our time in the wilderness inspired people to find their voices, show courage and stand up for what is right and what is just.  I have seen that spark of righteous justice from this class in recent years.  Perhaps it was not always channeled as constructively as it could be, but we believe that the instinct to fight for what you believe is right is to be nourished and to be celebrated.  Graduates of OJCS leave having spent years honing their presentation skills, speaking in public, and engaging in many acts of social action and tikkun olam.  We know that you will walk into your high schools of choice as nascent leaders who are prepared to advocate for yourselves and the voiceless.  We know that you will bring your voices to your varying Jewish commitments and to many expressions of community service and social justice. 

Our OJCS “North Stars” Prayer

Our prayer for you as you graduate and head out into the world is that you come to experience and embody our school’s North Stars; that you continue to point in their direction as you continue to grow and develop into high school and beyond…

  • “Have a floor, but not a ceiling” – be your best self.  Have high expectations at a minimum and unlimited aspirations at a maximum.  We hope you learned at OJCS to be comfortable in your own skin and to carry that confidence with you when you head out into the wider world.
  • “Ruach” – be joyful. School – and life – is supposed to be fun, even when it may seem hard or have difficult moments, like a global pandemic.  We hope you had many moments of joy at OJCS and that you have many more moments of joy in the years to come.
  • “We own our own learning” – learning isn’t something that happens to you, it is something you choose.  We hope you take the sense of ownership for your learning that we strive towards at OJCS into your next schools of choice and that you not merely be satisfied with gathering information, but that you take a growing sense of responsibility for what you learn and how you learn.
  • “We are each responsible one to the other” – make the world a better place. Take what you’ve learned (Torah) and do great deeds (Mitzvot); do (these) great deeds and be inspired to learn more.
  • “We learn better together” – we are stronger and more successful together than we can be alone. Judaism has always been communitarian in this way and what is old is new again as we live in a world where collaboration is not simply advantageous but required.
  • “We are on our own inspiring Jewish journey” – keep choosing Jewish. One can argue that the next years of your Jewish lives are more important than the ones you are celebrating tonight.  In your own ways – continue.  Whether that is in formal Jewish learning, youth group, summer camps, Israel, synagogue attendance, social action – you are no more fully formed Jewishly at your Grade 8 graduation than you were at Bar or Bat Mitzvah.  We pray that you build on this foundation and that you embrace the Jewish journey that continues after tonight.

In closing, know that you each are blessed more than you realize.  But do not ever be content to merely count your blessings.  Be someone who makes their blessings count.”

What happens online, not only doesn’t stay online, it follows your child to school.

I distinctly remember when it hit me.  I was hosting a large PTA-sponsored spaghetti dinner a year or so into my last headship and after everyone had settled into the room, I took a step back and zoomed out.  This event was taking place in a room about as large as our school cafeteria and as I panned back and forth, the “a-ha” came screaming out of my consciousness.  If you had taken a picture of a typical student lunch and mapped it onto a picture of this parent dinner, it would be a perfect match.  The parents of the same children who typically hang out together were hanging out together.  The parents of the same children who typically struggle to find friends to sit with were struggling to find friends to sit with.  The same groups, the same pairs, the same cliques – what was true for the students was true for their parents.

And of course it was.

As our school year is winding down and parents look forward to our sharing out the faculty lineup for next year (coming soon!), I want to revisit territory I first staked out, here, in a blog post titled, “Do I have a stake in who my students are when they are not in school?”

In that post, I asked the following question: “Do I or does the “school” have a responsibility to address behaviors that take place outside the bounded times and spaces of school?”

My answer was most affirmatively, “Yes,” and I will let you (re)read the post to see why.

But, I also qualified my answer in the following way: “Let me be clear that I am purposefully leaving parents out of this behavioral equation.  Not because I either blame parents for their children’s behavior nor because I abdicate parents of their responsibility to effectively parent.  I am simply asking a different question.”

Well…I think I would like an opportunity to ask that question: “Do I or does the “school” have a responsibility to address the role parents play in behaviors that take place outside the bounded times and spaces of school?

And, again, I think the answer is, “yes”.

But, boy, is that more complicated.

The simple issue to explore is how to help parents best partner with school to truly become a community of kindness.  The simple challenge is how to lovingly intervene when it becomes apparent that help may be required.

We are parenting in uncharted territory.  Our children have access to information and to each other in ways we, not only never anticipated, but in ways that continue to change – and we may, or not, even be aware that it is happening.  Whether it is through texting, chatting, or gaming, our children are in constant contact.  And just like in reality-reality, their behavior in virtual reality provides opportunities for kindness and opportunities for its opposite.  And parents play a crucial role in determining the outcomes.

Unfortunately, with rare exceptions, if it finds its way to me, it means the outcome was not-so-good.  When it finds me, it usually means that a child has been excluded or disparaged.  When it finds me, it usually means that a child has been exposed to language or content which may be inappropriate.  When it finds me, it usually means that a parent is concerned about which influences are following their children from school without an invitation.

And when it finds me, I have to ask myself what am I to do?

This is normally the point in my blog where I would proceed to ramble on for another 500 words or so and provide the answer to my own question.

But to be transparent, I can’t.  Because I actually don’t know the answer.

So, please, whether you are a parent, educator or concerned party, comment on this blog (or email me at j.mitzmacher@theojcs.ca or come in for a coffee if you are local) and let’s collaborate on an answer.  You can take the time it normally would have taken you to finish this blog post to formulate your response.

How do I address my fully accepted responsibility to care about the role parents play in behaviors that take place outside the bounded times and spaces of school?

A Chance to Be Our Best Selves: My Words to Kitah Alef at Our Kabbalat Ha’Siddur

The following was shared with our Kitah Alef (Grade One) Families during our school’s annual Kabbalat Ha’Siddur – our celebration of early Jewish learning with the gift of a siddur:

“Before we call each student up by name to give them their siddur, I want to take just a minute or two to share a few words.  I realize we have a large class and I am the only thing keeping them – and you – from cake, so I really will be as quick as I can…

The Hebrew verb “to pray” is l’hitpallel.  The root of the word – peh/lamed/lamed – means “judgement” and the grammatical structure of the verb is reflexive.  That means that the most accurate way to understand what it means to pray in Judaism is to see prayer as an act of self-judgement.  In other words, in addition to all the reasons why we could and do pray – to express gratitude, to connect to community, to be part of a chain in history, to offer petition, to engage in mindfulness, to talk to God, etc., – the gift we give ourselves when we find time to pray is an opportunity to measure ourselves against our best selves.  And that’s the gift that our children give us – as parents and as teachers.

Each day, our children present us – their parents and their teachers – with an opportunity to be our best selves in service of them.  For parents, this is the sacred obligation we take on when deciding to have children.  For teachers and schools, this is the holy task we are entrusted with when parents take the leap of faith to provide their children with a Jewish education.  It is a responsibility that we do not take lightly or for granted.  It is what gets us here early and keeps us here late.  It is why a Kabbalat Ha’Siddur – why a celebration of a receiving a siddur gifted by the school, decorated by the parents, and instructed in by the teachers is so appropriate to mark this stage of our journey.

One of our school’s North Stars is that “we are all on inspiring Jewish journeys” and the Kabbalat Ha’Siddur is just the next stop on a journey that, for many, began together under the chuppah on the first day of Kindergarten.  My prayer for this class is that in the same way that the siddur we give them today is not a trophy to be admired on a shelf, but a tool to be used for discovery and meaning; let today’s simcha not merely serve as a moment to celebrate, but an inspiration to reach the next stop and the stop after that in the extraordinary and unpredictable Jewish journey of this remarkable group of children and families.

Ken y’hi ratzon.

Thank you to Morah Ada for all the love and work that goes into a day like today.  Thank you to the Kitah Alef team for their support and participation.  Thank you to the parents and grandparents for all the things you do – seen and unseen – to make a Jewish day school journey possible.  Let me now invite up Keren Gordon, our Vice Principal, along with the teachers in Kitah Alef, as we prepare to celebrate each of our students…”

The Transparency Files: Annual Parent Survey

Looking out my office window at the sunny skies [when I first wrote this on Tuesday afternoon!], is both a reminder of the first stirrings of normalcy and what we hope next year and beyond will bring… as atypical as this third year of COVID has been, we do find comfort in familiar habits and experiences.  And so if it is May, it must be time to share the results of this year’s Annual Parent Survey.  If you would like to see a full comparison with last year, you can reread those results or have them open so you can toggle back and forth.  In this post, I will try to capture the highlights and identify what trends seem worth paying attention to.

The first thing to name, which does not come as a tremendous surprise considering the times we are living through, is that we continue to have a less-than representation.   In fact, it seems that the more we grow, the percentage of students represented by the survey decreases.  Our enrollment has grown each year that I have been here, but our survey has gone from covering 81 students to 84 students to 54 students to 58 students to 52 students.  That means that this year’s survey represents barely more than a quarter of our student population!  As the survey is per student, not per family, it runs the risk of being even less representative than that.  (In the service of anonymity, we have no way of knowing how many families the survey actually represents.)  Our goal of 50% seems more and more unrealistic each year.  [If you have feedback on what might incentivize greater participation, please drop it in the comments or email it to us directly.]

I simply no longer know if or how to draw meaningful conclusions about participation rates.  Whereas it is common wisdom that folks with concerns are usually more likely to fill out these surveys, there is no common wisdom when it comes to pandemic times.  So for what we hope is one final year, instead of worrying about the motivations for why families did or didn’t fill out surveys, let’s celebrate the parents who did participate and try to make meaning of what they are telling us.

For the second consecutive year, we have more spread than normal.  It is more typical to have a big cluster in the youngest grades with diminishing returns as you get older.  Again this year, we have a healthy distribution across most of our grades.

Without knowing how representative this quarter of students is, this data for sure lines up with what is true – that we have, again, had a fast and successful re-registration.  The percentage who replied “yes” is up and the “noes” are always complicated to unpack because we have no way of knowing who of the “noes” represent graduations or relocations, as opposed to choosing to attrit prior to Grade 8).  What continues to be true is that the overwhelming majority of families – regardless of their feedback – stay with us year-after-year.  This continues to say a lot about them and a lot about us.

Let’s look at the BIG PICTURE:

The first chart gives you the weighted average satisfaction score (out of 10); the second chart gives you the breakdown by category.  I will remind you that for this and all categories, I look at the range between 7-9 as the healthy band, obviously wanting scores to be closer to 9 than to 7, and looking for scores to go up each year.  In terms of “overall satisfaction”, we have now gone from 7.13 to 7.20 to 8.17 to 7.91 to 8.0.  Although it is just a tick up from last year, the difference is statistically insignificant.  This is just the second time that no families graded the school a 1, 2 or 3.  Of course, we always want to see numbers continue to go up, but based on how we survey it is hard to get much higher.

This continues to be a good news story, but let’s dig deeper…

  • The topline number – probably the most important – like our overall satisfaction is slightly up 7.91 to 7.93 and a very positive outcome.
  • I am very pleased to see that every single category is up from last year’s all-time highs and that each score is well within the healthy range!
  • I am thrilled to see that relationships with faculty again comes in with the highest score (8.65) in this block, especially when you factor in all the challenges the of pandemic have created.  Kudos to our teachers!
  • Our lowest score (again) is again in “Homework” but it does continues to climb from 6.56 to 6.91 to 7.0 to 7.31.  Progress has been steady, and we are seeing steady improvement in the full implementation of our new Homework Philosophy.
  • I am thrilled to see such a high score (8.41) for “creative and critical thinking skills”…that is very much #TheOJCSWay.

  • After having seen steady growth on the topline number, which again is so critical to our school, it is a bit disappointing to see a drop.  We have gone from 6.61 to 6.97 to 7.58 to 7.15.  It remains well within the healthy range, but we will be looking to get back on the upward track next year.
  • The metrics for Spec Ed are a bit of mixed bag with the communication score holding steady, but the satisfaction score for those who have IEPs dipping just a bit.  The numbers remain strong and of all the things to suffer during the pandemic, it is not surprising to see it impact our most vulnerable students.  Kudos to Sharon Reichstein, our Director of Special Needs Education, and her new team for all their work this year!

  • Thrilled to see that our topline number continues to remain (essentially) at 8!
  • Very happy to see that every metric in General Studies is well into the healthy band and each one is essentially unchanged.
    • Math: 7.09 to 7.60 to 7.67 to 7.15.
    • Science: 7.09 to 7.72 to 7.61 to 8.37.
    • Social Studies: 7.41 to 7.96 to 7.95 to 7.86.
    • Reading: 6.93 to 8.0 to 7.85 to 8.29.
    • Writing: 6.51 to 7.07 t0 7.41 to 7.95
  • The biggest movement this year, which I am thrilled to see is “Science”, where we have invested precious bandwidth in Hackathons and Innovation Day and reopening the OJCS Makerspace, and in “Reading” where we have, not coincidentally, a number of teachers focusing on their professional growth.  This is a clear example over time where parent voice, aligned with teacher and student voice, leads to meaningful action.  (Fill out those surveys y’all!  We really do pay attention.)
  • I am also very pleased to see “Writing”, like “Reading” continuing on a strong upward trajectory over the last four years.

  • I am pleased to report that despite another year of COVID functioning and the continued integration, that the quarter of students represented in this survey are reporting steady numbers for French outcomes.
  • We would like to believe that the result of our TACLEF consultancy is continuing to pay dividends and that our recent announcement of expanding our French program to incorporate French-language physical education will help these numbers continue to tick up in the years ahead.  Bon travail to the French Department!

  • We are again thrilled to see all our Jewish Studies metrics continue to hold strong for another year.  We are especially pleased to see the OVERALL metric essentially hold steady from 7.29 to 8.08 to 7.91 to 7.90.  Considering, that we again went forward without filling the “Dean of Judaics” position and all the additional COVID-related challenges, this is especially encouraging.  Kol ha’kavod to the Jewish Studies Department!
  • I am taking the slight dip in “Tefillah” as a personal challenge!  It is my favourite subject to teach (students) and to coach (teachers) and I am going to make it my mission to push prayer past 7.0.
  • I am also going to – assuming a return to normal – encourage our community’s rabbis to resume a greater role in Jewish life at OJCS.

  • Considering the circumstances, it is both surprising and positive that with all the protocols that were in place that we’d see growth in both Art and PE – both of which have reentered the healthy band.  We know that even with a rigorous, trilingual curriculum, that we need to continue to offer the kinds of high-quality PE/Drama/Art experiences that make a well-rounded education.  We said last year to “look for these numbers to go back up next year”.  Mission accomplished!
  • It is worth noting that even though none of our extracurriculars, athletics, hot lunch, etc., programming has reached pre-COVID numbers (understandably) they are all up from last year…with lots of room to grow.

From this year’s experimental section, we yield these two data points (and two sets of meaningful commentary).  Compared to last year, there is a larger cluster in “very satisfied” and “extremely important” – which is likely not a coincidence.  As we cannot predict the future, even with wholehearted hope of a return to year-round, in-person learning next year, our ability to navigate situations like these last few years with minimal disruption and maximal academic progress – not to mention the continuance of meaningful Jewish experiences – will likely continue to be powerful value-adds for OJCS in the years ahead.

  • These are mostly wonderful scores, all just about the same and well into the healthy ranges.  We know that we have Ellie to thank for a lot of those high scores!
  • I am sadly saying again this year, that, “[a]fter having to take a COVID pause, I will be interested to see what the impact of ‘Student-Led Conferences’ will be on the ‘parent-teacher conferences’ metric once finally launched.

  • I have already shared my thoughts on my own job performance in my prior “Transparency Files” post.  I will simply state here my pleasure in seeing my numbers holding strong, with the weakest one – providing learning opportunities for parents and caregivers with some health post-COVID room to grow.
  • The one metric that I am very pleased to see holding strong is the last one, which essentially serves as a proxy for school-wide behavior management.  Three years ago we scored a 6.69 and I stated that, “we are working on launching a new, school-wide behavior management system next year based on the “7 Habits” and anchored in our “North Stars”.  I will be surprised if this score doesn’t go up next year.”  Well, two years ago it came in at 7.65, last year it climbed up to 8.19, and it remains high at 7.85 this year.

Last data point:

 

Remember this question was scaled 1-5.   Our score remains consistent from 4.44 to 4.34 to 4.34 (again).  I have said that I truthfully don’t know how much more there reasonably is to grow here, but we’ll keep doing our best to find out!

So there you have it for 2021-2022!

Thanks to all the parents who took the time and care to fill out surveys!  In addition to the multiple choice questions, there were opportunities for open-ended responses and a couple of experimental sections.  Your written responses added an additional layer of depth; one which is difficult to summarize for a post like this.  Please know that all comments will be shared with those they concern.  (This includes a full set of unedited and unredacted results which goes to the Head Support and Evaluation Committee of our Board of Trustees.)  As you can see, we really do use this data to make enhancements and improvements each year.

We very much wish to continue into next year, this year’s trend in maintaining and increasing positive outcomes and satisfaction.  To mix school metaphors, each year simply becomes the higher “floor” we stand upon to reach towards our North Stars.  With no ceiling, we aim to reach a little closer each time.

Les Fichiers de Transparence

Yes, you read that correctly…even if I needed help to write it!

🙂

This will be a short (if and only if, you skip the entire middle section which is all background information!), but sweet announcement that we imagine will put smiles on the faces of all those who have advocated for greater contact time with French language at OJCS.

First – thank you to everyone who took the time to fill out an Annual Parent Survey this year!  My sharing and analysis will, hopefully, be the subject of next week’s “Transparency Files” blog post.

Second – let me walk you oh so “briefly” through the conversation and work we have put into amplifying, expanding and improving French language outcomes at OJCS over these last few years.

In November of 2017, we laid out the big questions we had about French outcomes at OJCS and what our plans were for beginning to answer them.

In February of 2018, we shared back (in person by way of a “Town Hall” and through a blog post) the first set of answers to those big questions and made our first set of commitments in response.  That included:

  1. Conversations with parents about their hopes and expectations for maximal French contact time need to begin during the admissions process.  Students who may require additional support to place into “Extended” need to be identified early.
  2. The selection process in Grade 3 will be more rigorous, begin earlier, come with more parental engagement, etc., so that students who do continue into “Extended” for Grades 4 and higher are even better prepared for Grade 9.
  3. We will increase the rigour and immersive experience of what contact time we presently make available.  We need to squeeze every moment of immersive French possible.
  4. We will provide additional extracurricular contact time with French through clubs, lunch, etc.
  5. We believe we will be able to adjust our schedule to increase contact time with French.  Stay tuned!

In April of 2019, we announced a $50,000 donation to strengthen French language learning at OJCS, and shared the following set of updates to our families and community:

  • We adjusted our schedule to increase contact time with French.  Students in OJCS have more contact time with French in each grade (except K which was already frontloaded).
  • At OJCS, the FSL (French as a Second Language) faculty has made a commitment to speak French with their students everywhere in the school, so if you were to walk through our hallways, you would hear us speaking French to our students, increasing the interaction and contact time with our students.
  • Our enhanced FSL program with its consolidated class time (blocks of periods), all within a trilingual school where the francophone culture is alive and regularly celebrated, produces students capable of successfully communicating and learning in French.
  • Students practice their language skills in various environments, such as on the playground, and during coaching on our various OJCS sports teams.
  • Our FSL faculty is committed to offering authentic OJCS learning experiences.

In May of 2019, we announced that the Ottawa Jewish Community School would be the first private school in Ontario to partner with the Centre Franco-Ontarien de Ressources Pédagogiques (Franco-Ontarian Centre for Educational Resources) or CFORP to implement the TACLEF program.  (Please know that our work with TACLEF was generously supported by a grant from the Jewish Federation of Ottawa.)

Over a two-year period (give or take due to many COVID “pivots”) CFORP introduced TACLEF, La Trousse D’acquisition de Compétences Langagières en Français (loosely translated as a “French language acquisition ‘kit'”) to the French teaching staff at the Ottawa Jewish Community School and offered individual mentoring in its use.  This approach strengthened team building and permitted a better understanding of a skills-based teaching/learning approach as it develops language proficiency in French language learners.

In January of 2020, I provided the community with an update on the consultancy, including…

…the greatest impact is ensuring that all three strands (reading, writing and oral communication) are built into almost every activity and evaluation.  It has also given us new resources and strategies for delivery of instruction, classwork, and homework (in addition to evaluation).

…by providing us with a detailed roadmap, we can prepare all our students – particularly the ones who land in Extended French – as if they were going into French immersion.  It is too soon to be more specific, but over the remaining months of the consultancy we will have greater clarity about how to adapt our program (with what supporting curricular materials we will need) to prioritize that outcome.

There is no doubt that COVID has impacted our ability to fully implement all of the above, but progress continues to be made each year.  This year’s highlights include a significant investment in French curriculum with a focus on leveled readers in support of reading comprehension.

And now you are fully caught up!

Third – here is a little context to better understand the announcement.

When trying to make comparisons between our French program and that of the public board, let’s look at an “apples to apples” comparison.  It is our understanding that students in French immersion at Sir Robert Borden High School (public) in Grades 7 and up have 740 weekly minutes in French allocated as follows:

  • French 200 min
  • Physical Education / Dance 200
  • Health 40
  • Science 150
  • History / Geography 150

In comparison, currently students in “Extended French” at OJCS in Grades 7 and up have 400 minutes in French allocated as follows:

  • French 240 min
  • History / Geography 160

Clearly, 740 is more than 400, and no one is making an educational argument that when it comes to language acquisition that more isn’t better.   And we have stated in the past that adding more contact time in Science is complicated (both because we appear to offer more contact time in Science education than SRB in general and because it would require additional staffing/tracking), but knowing that it is essentially science vocabulary that our students are lacking to bridge the gap opens up solutions that don’t automatically require us to reinvent the school.

But there is something we can do – and are announcing that we will do – as soon as the 2022-2023 school year.  We are thrilled to share with you that beginning next year the OJCS will begin the process of transitioning our PE program to a French-language PE program!

We are not yet prepared to tell you the “who” – other than it will be legitimate French teachers (not simply PE teachers who may speak French) with background and experience (not simply French teachers who may know how to shoot a basketball) – and we are not yet prepared to tell you the full “what”.  There is a curriculum that needs to be adapted and/or created; a curriculum that adds value, not just time, to the current French program.  But we do believe that adding an additional 120-200 minutes per week in French language exposure/education/contact time in another subject found in French immersion is a really big deal that is going to make a really big difference in French outcomes at OJCS.  (And, yes, we will be fully prepared to support those students for whom French is a challenge to ensure their legitimate PE needs continue to be met.)

We have come a long way towards closing the gaps between “Extended French” and “French Immersion” over the last five years – we see it in our outcomes and in our graduates.  But whereas those gaps have begun to close in terms of content and quality, this gap really does start to close the gap in terms of time.

This is a big deal and a big step forward for French at OJCS.

And we aren’t done yet…not even close.

The Transparency Files: Self-Evaluation

With all the unpredictability of yet another pandemic year, the one thing that you can be sure of as the calendar turns to May and June, is that I will deliver you a series of “Transparency Files” blog posts!  OJCS Parents have recently received their link to our Annual Parent Survey, and so I will again begin with a self-evaluation and will continue with the sharing of results of that survey, the results from our Annual Faculty Survey (which is shared directly with them) and will conclude with a discussion of next year and an introduction of the 2022-2023 OJCS Faculty.  [If this year is more like last year, these posts will not follow week-by-week.]

We are in that “evaluation” time of year!  As Head of School, I have the responsibility of performing an evaluation of staff and faculty each year.  Fittingly, they have an opportunity to do the same of me.  Our Annual Faculty Survey presents current teachers and staff with the opportunity to provide anonymous feedback of my performance as Head of School.  Our Annual Parent Survey presents current parents with an opportunity to do the same (as part of a much larger survey of school satisfaction).  Please know that the full unedited results of both are sent onto the OJCS Board of Trustees Head Support & Evaluation Committee as part of their data collection for the execution of my annual performance review.

You are welcome to review last year’s self-evaluation post before moving onto this year’s.  Unlike in prior years, I am going to skip the cutting-and-pasting from my goal-setting document and simply present to you a few big ideas that come from my “principal’s” bucket, and not as much from my “head of school’s” bucket (i.e. fundraising, marketing, budgeting, etc.).

…one of the big highlights of the year has been the successful (re)launch of Junior Kindergarten at OJCS!  I wrote a long post in December that I encourage you check out if you want to know what makes JK at OJCS so unique and special.  A year ago we had no teacher, no students and a program on paper – we now have a master teacher, a thriving class and a program that is we know is setting up our students for success in SK.  We appreciate and respect that Jewish parents in Ottawa have choices, and our focus will be ensuring that we continue to offer a program that is unlike the others, aligned with our OJCS North Stars and best prepares students for elementary school.  Want to know more or to secure your spot for 2022-2023?  Please contact Jenn Greenberg (j.greenberg@theojca.ca) for a tour or registration materials.

…one of the biggest initiatives that we were able to “unpause” from COVID was the [soft] launch of our “Mitzvah Trips” for Middle School.  Please follow this link for the details of this initiative.  For this year, our students have collaborated on projects with Tamir and JFS and will be engaging with Hillel Lodge in the weeks to come.  More important than what I believe about this work, here is what our students believe about this work:

“It feels good to help those in need.”

“We want to continue to make others feel happy.”

“It’s nice to know that we are actually using what we learn in Jewish Studies.”

Yes, it is.  This is poised to be a game-changer for Middle School at OJCS.

…speaking of big initiatives that got “un-paused” this year?  We finally were able to move forward with the (re)launch of our OJCS Makerspace [built with a gift from the Congregation Beth Shalom Legacy Fund]. Thanks to a generous grant by the Jewish Federation of Ottawa‘s Fund for Innovative Capacity Building, OJCS worked with Future Design School over the balance of this school year on a strategic makerspace consultancy.   I shared the result of this work and its next steps in a blog post.  The relaunch of the OJCS Makerspace will help move our school that much closer to our North Stars and make learning that much more motivating and engaging for our students.  We can’t wait to see what our students invent and create!

we held our CAIS (Canadian Association of Independent Schools) Accreditation Site Visit on May 11th!  This was the first exciting step (although I guess doing all the preliminary paperwork was pretty “exciting”!) on our journey towards accreditation – both satisfying a longstanding strategic goal and, hopefully, helping parents in our community better understand how we fit into the private school landscape, as OJCS will – eventually – join Ashbury and Elmwood as the only CAIS Accredited schools in Ottawa.  The accreditation team consisted of the Head of School and CFO from Ashbury and the Head of School of the Solomon Schechter Academy of Montreal.  We held a full schedule of activities and look forward to their feedback.

What did not get done or what still needs work?

A lot!

First order of business will be carving out a new normal that prioritizes health and safety, resuming paused activities and deciding what from COVID-functioning (like continuing to make virtual options for Parent-Teacher Conferences or Generations Day available) should carry forward.  We have learned so much as a school during these last three years and we are determined to come out stronger, wiser and better on the other side.

Second order of business will be reconnecting with our families and our community.  We aspire to be more than a school, but we have had to restrict our access and our bandwidth during these years of scarcity due to COVID.  What can we do differently next year?  What should we do differently next year?  What should PTA be and look like?  What kinds of friend-raising activities could we or should we be facilitating or encouraging for OJCS parents?  What kinds of Jewish experiences could we be promoting or providing for OJCS families?

Third order of business will be moving forward on our amazing $1.5 million reimagination of classrooms at OJCS thanks to an anonymous gift we received this year!  We are pleased to share that we have now selected an architect firm –  Figurr – and look forward to the exciting work ahead.  The future of education in Ottawa really will be built right here at OJCS!

Those are just highlights.

If you have already contributed feedback through our surveys, thank you.  [Remember the deadline for your feedback to be included in reporting is May 13th.]  Your (additional and/or direct) feedback – whether shared publicly, privately through email or social media, or shared through conversation – is greatly appreciated.  As I tell our teachers, I look forward to getting better at my job each year and I am thankful for the feedback I receive that allows me to try.

Please stay tuned for a MAJOR ANNOUNCEMENT that will surely warm the hearts of those who place high value on French language and a MAJOR UPDATE on the future of Jewish Studies.  There is A LOT to be excited about as we prepare to take the next big steps forward at OJCS!

Teacher Appreciation Week 2022: There Has Never Been a More Important Time to Support Teachers

“Teacher Appreciation Week” – like so much of our calendar – is a reminder of something that ought not be restricted to a week or a day.  Teacher Appreciation Week during a third consecutive COVID school year?  That should be a reminder that we owe our teachers and those who care for our children much more than “appreciation”…

I have been in the field of Jewish day school since 2005 and the field of Jewish education since 1997.  Stress, fatigue, under-appreciation, burnout – these factors have (sadly) always been present (as they have been in almost all forms of education, service work and nonprofits).  The days of the 30-year teacher and/or administrator have been ending in slow motion for years and decades, but the exodus we are experiencing since COVID is unprecedented and potentially cataclysmic.

As Danna Thomas put it earlier this year:

We are accustomed to feelings of uncertainty while simultaneously putting on a brave face as we continue to show up day in and day out. Long before the COVID-19 pandemic, teachers were tasked with supporting students in the midst of the most seemingly insurmountable obstacles. And, long before the COVID-19 pandemic, there was an educator burnout pandemic.

We know that stress and burnout are not new phenomena to educators, but unfortunately they’re getting worse.  When teacher burnout increases, teaching quality decreases, which results in less effective classroom management and reduced student engagement. When teacher stress increases, it contributes to student stress, which has been linked to learning and mental health problems.

We have been both lucky and blessed at OJCS, pre-pandemic and during COVID, with a significant number of veteran teachers and administrators who continue to make OJCS their address for their love of children and their passion for teaching, year after year.  But that doesn’t mean that the last few years have not taken their toll.  They have.  And it certainly doesn’t mean that we should take their commitment and dedication for granted.  We shouldn’t.  What it means – to me – is that the small things that truly demonstrate “appreciation” matter now, more than ever.

With Teacher Appreciation Week launching next week, during which our Admin, PTA and Board eagerly look forward to celebrating and spoiling our teachers, you can make a huge difference to the overall wellbeing of our school by simply picking an item from below (aggregated from lots of blog posts) and making a teacher’s day:

  • A personalized note or email
  • A homemade craft
  • Caffeine
  • A hot meal
  • Gift cards
  • Plants
  • A personalized thank-you sign
  • Small treasures
  • Something special that reminds a teacher of his/her student(s)
  • Alcohol (but check first!)
  • Show up for school!
  • Spa treatment
  • Experiential gifts (like a remote yoga or dance class)
  • Donations to a dream project
  • Year-Round Advocacy

My personal suggestion?  Absolutely send gift cards and post creatively on social media.  Buy ads in yearbooks, post lawns signs and lead parades.  Do any and all of the above list.  Express your appreciation for all the things your child(ren)’s teacher(s) have done to make in-person, hyflex and distance learning as successful as it has been.  Please.

But if you want to go the extra mile this year?  Let’s also try assuming the best of our teachers – even when they have difficult truths to share.  Give them the benefit of the doubt – even when they don’t communicate as well as they could.  Treat them as partners – even when they make mistakes.  Let’s not simply tell our teachers that we appreciate them; let’s actually appreciate them.

Please be on the lookout for this year’s Annual Parent Survey, which will be emailed to you no later than Monday and due back no later than May 13th!

Tips for Planning Your Endemic Seder 1.0 Too Good to Passover

After two years of making gallow humour jokes at the end of Passover seders by wondering if L’shanah ha’bah-ah will continue to end with b’Zoom, this may be the year that you and yours are preparing to actually be back around a seder table with friends and family.  Perhaps you will have a limited attendance, perhaps you are going all the way back in…or perhaps you are still keeping things small and/or carrying forward a hybrid seder with remote participants.  Whatever you are doing, here’s hoping it feels one step closer to normal…

Each year, I issue a blog post in service of helping people take the process of planning for seder more seriously.  Why?  Because I believe (know) that like anything else, good planning leads to good outcomes.  As I noted two years ago,

During this year’s Pandemic Passover, when each family is likely looking at an intimate family experience, whatever kind of seder is going to happen, is going to happen because of you.

Now even if you are not the host, it still may be likely that the seder is falling to someone who may not (yet!) have a ton of experience filling this role and you may be called upon to help.  No pressure!  I got you.

This year I tried to remember that if anyone were to be truly be inspired and wish to adequately prepare, that it would be helpful to give them enough time to actually do it!  I typically post too close to Passover itself to allow anyone to put any of these ideas into practice.  So, this year,  I am going to push it out with a little more lead time.

So if this is your year to lead or co-lead – whether it is something you do annually, or if you are being pressed into service for the first or second time – let’s see what we can do.  And even if you still have a Zoom guestlist, the seder is still a wonderful opportunity for families to spend time doing something they still might not otherwise do—talk with one another!  The seder was originally designed to be an interactive, thought-provoking, and enjoyable talk-feast of an experience, so let’s see how we might increase the odds for making that true, even during Endemic Passover 1.0.

Revised top ten suggestions on how to make this year’s seder a more positive and meaningful experience:

1.  Tell the Story of the Exodus

The core mitzvah of Passover is telling the story.  Until the 9th century, there was no clear way of telling the story.  In fact, there was tremendous fluidity in how the story was told.  The printing press temporarily put an end to all creativity of how the story was told.  But we need not limit ourselves to the words printed in the Haggadah.  [This may be especially true if you have not been hosting Passover and don’t actually have haggadot.  During the last two years, mine were with my Mom – so, we dusted off some vintage ones.  If you Google “online haggadot” you will find lots of options.]  This could be done by means of a skit, game, or informally going around the table and sharing each person’s version of the story.

If there are older members at the table, this might be a good time to hear their “story,” and perhaps their “exodus” from whichever land they may have come.  If your older members are not able to be with you this year, you might wish to consider asking them to write or record their stories, which you could incorporate into your seder (depending on your level of observance).  There may still be lots of families who will be using technology to expand their seder tables to include virtual friends and families – however, this year’s timing with Shabbat makes it harder for those who might normally try to sneak some of this in before candle-lighting.

2.  Sing Songs

If your family enjoys singing, the seder is a fantastic time to break out those vocal cords!  In addition to the traditional array of Haggadah melodies, new English songs are written each year, often to the tunes of familiar melodies.  Or just spend some time on YouTube!  Alternatively, for the creative and adventurous souls, consider writing your own!

3.  Multiple Haggadot

For most families, I would recommend choosing one haggadah to use at the table.  This is helpful in maintaining consistency and ensuring that everyone is “on the same page.”  Nevertheless, it is also nice to have extra haggadot available for different commentaries and fresh interpretations.  Of course, this year, you may again be getting by with whatever you can find around the house, or what you can get from Amazon Prime!  But don’t let that inhibit you from moving forward – the core elements are essentially the same from one to the other.  Let the differences be opportunities for insight not frustration.

4.  Karpas of Substance

One solution to the “when are we going to eat” dilemma, is to have a “karpas of substance.”  The karpas (green vegetable) is served towards the beginning of the seder, and in most homes is found in the form of celery or parsley.  In truth, karpas can be eaten over any vegetable over which we say the blessing, “borei pri ha’adamah,” which praises God for “creating the fruit from the ground.”  Therefore, it is often helpful to serve something more substantial to hold your guests over until the meal begins.  Some suggestions for this are: potatoes, salad, and artichokes.

In a year when Passover comes right out of Shabbat and candle-lighting times are late or children’s patience runs short or you are trying to accommodate varying time zones, you should try to eat your gefilte fish before the seder.

5.  Assign Parts in Advance

In order to encourage participation in your seder, you may want to consider giving your partner, children and guests a little homework.  Ask them to bring something creative to discuss, sing, or read at the table.  This could be the year you go all in and come in costume – dress like an ancient Israelite or your favorite plague – don’t succumb to “Pediatric Judaism”, you are allowed to be silly and fun at all ages and stages.

6.  Know Your Audience

This may seem obvious, but the success of your seder will largely depend on your careful attention to the needs of the seder guests.  If you expect many young children at the seder, you ought to tailor the seder accordingly.  If you have people who have never been to a seder before, be prepared for lots of basic questions and explanations.  Do not underestimate your guests; if you take the seder seriously, they will likely respond positively.

7.  Fun Activities

Everyone wants to have a good time at the seder.  Each year, try something a little different to add some spice to the evening.  Consider creating a Passover game such Pesach Family Feud, Jewpardy, or Who Wants to be an Egyptian Millionaire?!  (Again, depending on your observance level, you could also incorporate apps like Kahoot into your experience.)  Go around the table and ask fun questions with serious or silly answers.

8.  Questions for Discussion

Depending on the ages of your children, this one may be hard to calibrate, but because so often we are catering to the youngest at the table, it is easy to forget that an adult seder ought to raise questions that are pertinent to the themes found in the haggadah.  For example, when we read “ha lachma anya—this is the bread of affliction,” why do we say that “now we are slaves?”  To what aspects of our current lives are we enslaved?  How can we become free?  What does it mean/what are the implications of being enslaved in today’s society?  How has the experience of being “locked down” during COVID and/or our impending “freedom” from COVID impacted our sense of things?  How might what is happening in the Ukraine colour our experience of Passover?

We read in the haggadah, “in each generation, one is required to see to oneself as if s/he was personally redeemed from Egypt.”  Why should this be the case?  How do we go about doing that?  If we really had such an experience, how would that affect our relationship with God?

Jon’s “Fifth Questions” for Passover 5782

Head of the Ottawa Jewish Day School: Why is this conversation about OJCS different than all other ones?

Jewish Day School Practitioner: How will I take the things that were positive, successful, innovative, relationship-building, personalizing, differentiated, globally-connected, quiet/introvert-amplifying and meaningful about working in a hyflex learning program and incorporate them into schooling when we fully return to in-person learning?

Israel Advocate: How can I be inspired by the words, “Next Year in Jerusalem,” to inspire engagement with Israel as we hopefully prepare for things to start to open up a bit?

American Expatriate in Canada: What can I learn from how my current home is approaching COVID-19 that would be of value to colleagues, family and friends in the States?  What can I learn from how my former home is approaching COVID-19 that would be of value to colleagues, family and friends in Canada?

Parent: How will my parenting be informed with what I have learned during all these months of intense family time?  What new routines will I try to incorporate into my parenting when things go back to normal?

What are some of your “Fifth Questions” this year?

9.  Share Family Traditions

Part of the beauty of Passover, is the number of fascinating traditions from around the world.  This year, in particular, is a great opportunity to begin a new tradition for your family.  One family I know likes to go around the table and ask everyone to participate in filling the cup of Elijah.  As each person pours from his/her cup into Elijah’s, s/he offers a wish/prayer for the upcoming year.  What are you going try this year?

10.  Preparation

The more thought and preparation given to the seder, the more successful the seder will be.  That may feel challenging or overwhelming this year, but however much time and attention you can put into your planning, you won’t regret it.  If you are an OJCS (or Jewish day school family), lean on your children – you paid all this money for a high-quality Jewish education, put them to work!  Most importantly, don’t forget to have fun.

Wishing you and your family an early chag kasher v’sameach

And for OJCS Parents…we hope you are looking forward to next week’s Model Seders and other Passover Activities!