How to Make “Back to School” Sacred Time

In the beginning of one of my favorite books, The Sabbath, by one of my favorite Jewish thinkers Abraham Joshua Heschel, we are reminded that, “Judaism is a religion of time (emphasis in original) aiming at the sanctification of time.”  Later on, Heschel refers to Shabbat using a similar metaphor – “a palace in time”.

Among the many things Heschel is describing, is the value of celebrating and cherishing moments in time.  That time itself can be sacred and holy. For the purpose of his book, it is the Sabbath under consideration.  For the purpose of this blog post, it is the idea of how important it is to stop and appreciate the everyday miracles of time all around us.

One of those miracles, to me, each year, but this year in particular, is simply the start of school.

This has been a month of firsts.  First days of school for our junior kindergartners.  First days of a last year for our eighth graders.  First days in a new school for teachers.  First days for new families.  First echoes of laughter and rolling backpacks in hallways that were still and empty just a few weeks ago.  First lessons brought to life from planning and imagination. First hiccups of schools in dreaming bold dreams.  First successes. First failures which are really first steps towards success.

First steps to an unlimited future.

I believe in the religiosity of teaching and the teacher-student relationship.  And as I have shared in a prior post about how to best approach Parent-Teacher Conferences, to both borrow and butcher Martin Buber, I believe that when we treat others as objects, we are in an “I-It” relationship; when we treat others with recognition of the divine within them – when we acknowledge that we are all created in God’s image and treat each other as such, we are in an “I-Thou” relationship.  Taking a deeper step (according to this idea) would be to say that when we treat each other with love, we invite God’s presence into our relationships.  Not merely as a metaphor, but as an existential fact.

One way to measure school success, I would suggest, will be determined by whether or not those engaged in the sacred work of schooling see each other as “Thous” and not “Its”.   Will we do the work necessary from the start of school to develop “Thou” relationships with our students?  With their parents?

Our first opportunity to put these ideas into practice will come at Virtual Back to School Night on Tuesday, October 12th (schedule and links coming soon).  It may not seem appropriate to deem something like that as “sacred time”, but how else to describe the coming together of teachers and parents in the service of educating children?

So congratulations to the teachers, staff, lay leaders and volunteers who contributed to our successful opening of the 2021-2022 school year!  Thank you to all the parents who trust us with your children.  Thank you to the students for your smiles and eagerness.  And as we move from the excitement of first weeks into the routines of first months, let us all cherish the everyday moments too often overlooked – a new skill mastered, a new friend made, a new year begun.

Ken yehi ratzon (May it be God’s will.)

I will be taking next week off from blogging, as it is the week of my younger daughter, Matyal’s, Bat Mitzvah and we have a busy and exciting week!

When Holidays Collide

Today at OJCS is both our annual “Sukkah Hop” and “Terry Fox Run”.  Next week brings us Shemini Atzeret, Simchat Torah, National Truth & Reconciliation Week (we are expanding the “Day” to a “Week” in order to more easily accommodate our schedule), and Orange Shirt Day.  What do all those different holidays and events have in common?

If I was in a more rabbinic mindset, I am sure there are spiritual and meaningful connections to make.  With a school administrator’s mindset, I am way too busy making sure the logistics and the timing for each of our school’s activities comes off to dig much deeper.  However, with a Jewish educator’s mindset, I love the random juxtapositions these moments on the calendar provide our students and our families because they inadvertently reveal important things about what our school – what many Jewish day schools – believe to be true about living informed, active, engaged and holistic Jewish lives in secular society.

When I meet with prospective parents who are curious about how the Jewish and secular curricula work together, I oftentimes tell them that what I love about our school are the questions it provokes – not the answers.  I love that a student will come out of a Science class having learned contemporary theories of the origins of the universe and head into a Jewish Studies class to learn traditional understandings of “Creation”.  My highest hope for that student is that the juxtaposition of science and faith inspires that student to ask questions about how multiple perspectives can be true.  The answers, to me, are less important.  What matters, is that we are the kind of school where those questions are encouraged and that in the process of making meaning, a student begins to answer those questions for him or herself, setting the stage for holistic Jewish engagement into high school and beyond.  We don’t want our students to think of themselves as bi-(or tri-)furcated selves that put aside their Jewishness during different parts of the day or curriculum.  We want our students to gain experience navigating the full program and the mystery of life as whole Jewish selves.

Being “Jewish” and being “Canadian” (or “American” or wherever you may live) is not the same thing.  However proud we legitimately ought to be of our dual or multiple identities, we are not being intellectually honest if we claim they are all identical and never in conflict.  [Please keep in mind that the choice not to choose between is itself a choice.]  This is why OJCS adopts neither rejectionist nor assimilationist attitudes towards the secular society of which we are a part.  Nor do we feel so threatened by general society that we have to make everything Jewish.  No, we strive to be interactionist—our philosophy which can be seen in everything from our curricula to our website to our field trips—seeking to allow the Jewish and the secular to interact naturally as it does in the real world.

So.

Next week our students will commemorate National Truth & Reconciliation Week, celebrate Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah, and participate in Orange Shirt Day.  It is both an extraordinary and ordinary week in the life of our Jewish day school.  Not every week brings major festivals and federal holidays, to be sure.  But every week – each day – brings opportunity for our students to interact as developing young Jewish people with a complex world and to slowly, if not linearly, learn how to hold multiple perspectives and – at times – oppositional ideas as they grow into literate and committed young Jewish adults.

I don’t know what questions next week’s constellation of events will raise, but I am excited to find out!

The 2021 OJCS Middle School Retreat: (Re)Building Community

How did we manage to pull off an action-packed, COVID-friendly, 4th Annual Middle School Retreat in the middle of the Jewish High Holidays?  Other than a lot of hard work by a lot of people, the grace of the weather gods and a lot of luck, we not only managed to pull it off, but it was an amazing three days that almost felt like things were nearing being almost back to some kind of normal.  We were not able to restore the full retreat by sleeping out and we had all kinds of masking and cohorting to keep everyone safe and healthy, but what we did do was way closer to normal than last year’s was able to be.  And that felt great.

Our theme for The 2021 Middle School Retreat was the same as it was for Faculty Pre-Planning Week as it is for the whole school for the whole year: (Re)Building Community.  Over three days, we engaged in three different peulot (informal Jewish educational programs) where our students, by class, by grade, and as a full middle school had a chance to review and lean into the Jewish values that will enable us to (re)build a healthy and constructive middle school community and culture.  I sometimes think that our school culture is a three-legged stool, with our North Stars, our “7 Habits” and our Jewish Values keeping us steady and stable.  I was very impressed by the level of engagement and the quality of conversation – whether we were at a park, on the river or in the Gym – that our students contributed to this part of the experience.

In between the educational touchpoints, our retreat was spent better getting to know each other through both teacher and student-led (Grade 8) mixers.  We played soccer baseball [Expat Note: That’s Canadian for kickball!].  We crushed an obstacle course.  We barbecued a yummy dinner.  We learned the “Legend of the Schnupencup”.  We spent an amazing day rafting the rapids on the river.  And like an entire summer of camp in three days, we ended it all with a slideshow.

But instead of me telling you about it, how about I show you the highlights?

[Please note that our masking and social distancing policies are specific to pods of students, location and activity.  Where you see instances of students either unmasked and/or not socially distanced in this video, they are always aligned with our school’s COVID protocols.]

A huge thank-you goes out to our Student Life Coordinator, Deanna Bertrend, for all her hard work putting this together!  Putting the Middle School Retreat together isn’t easy in a normal year, but doing it during the second week of a still-pandemic school year, in between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and having to adapt to all kinds of protocols…well that’s a lot.  Our students and school are grateful for her leadership.

The crazy timing of this year’s holidays means that I will not have my annual remix of my Sukkot blog post where I encourage you to more fully participate in my most favourite of all of the Jewish holidays.  But I can direct you to last year’s post in the hope that it may inspire a new Sukkot tradition for you and your family this year.  And since I am unlikely to blog before Sukkot begins, let me at least offer this thought: Let’s not let this holiday season end with self-denial and forgiveness – as important and meaningful as those things are.  Let’s end with joy.  From my family to yours: Chag sameach!

Leaning Into Forgiveness 5782

We are right now at the finish line of the עשרת ימי תשובה‎ – the ten days of repentance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  Each year, I look forward to the opportunity to pick a personal growth goal general enough to my work with students, teachers, parents, colleagues, community, etc.  [Last year at this time, I blogged out my personal growth goals as well.]  By doing this publicly, I hope, it will inspire others to think about how they wish to grow and provide me with a little public accountability to keep me honest.

Of course it feels a bit chutzphadik to name yet another growth goal, as if I have somehow achieved total success tackling my last two!  (I can assure you that I have not – and if you reread the last two years’ posts, you’ll be able to see that for yourself!)  And yet, despite my fits and starts and failures – and occasional successes – I do find value in this annual exercise and encourage you to share your own growth goals with whomever and in whatever ways you are comfortable.  It feels good!

So this year, I am going take a more literal approach and actually focus in on how I would like to do better in the actual spiritual work of the High Holidays.  I will be honest and say that my thinking here has been highly influenced by one of my rabbinical school courses which conveniently was about the liturgy for the High Holidays.  I have been marinating in readings and conversation about what this time of year is truly supposed to be about and have been thinking deeply about how to incorporate a more traditional understanding of teshuvah and forgiveness into my personal practice.

Repentance contemplated, and not verbalized, is valueless. – Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik

Wow.

For this class, I read On Repentance in the Thought and Oral Discourses of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik by Pinchas H. Peli, published in 1980, and this was – for me – the money quote.

Soloveitchik goes into lots of detail and scriptural sources to prove the point, but to the degree that I use my time during Yammim Noraim to engage in repentance at all, I certainly do not put almost any energy into its verbalization.  His idea here is that it is not sufficient to repent merely as part of an inner dialogue with either oneself or with God; that to make it real, it must have a physical manifestation – you have to say it out loud, or perhaps put it in writing, but you cannot truly do it without putting it into the universe.  Now in the classic distinction between the sins one commits against one’s fellow-person, and the sins one commits against God (which I will discuss below), it is easier to imagine how this might work.  I may not do it each year or with each person, but the idea that I would seek forgiveness from those I may have wronged automatically requires me to put thought into words.  Ideally, I would seek out each person for a heart-to-heart conversation, but a letter or an email would at least put physical form to my repentance.  That makes sense.  But what about my wrongs that are not directed at other people?

I do not believe that I have ever tried to speak out loud or even put in writing my annual thoughts and feelings about repenting for the all the ways I fall short.  At best, I try to use my time and my prayer to engage in an inner dialogue that is sometimes aimed towards God, but I am seriously contemplating adding this notion into my practice as I gear up for next season.  I am not sure whether I would carve out time and space to vocalize or simply to write it out, but if doing so takes me one step farther in being the person I yearn to be rather than the normal, faltering half-steps I normally accomplish, I will have gained much more from this class than knowledge.

 

So during this time of introspection, let me take this opportunity to ask forgiveness for anything I have done – purposely or unknowingly – to cause offense or upset during the last year.  I am sincerely sorry and ask for your forgiveness.  As you ponder the purpose of this season for you and your family, I hope you find the time for introspection and the inspiration for the teshuvah you are seeking.  From my family to yours, wishing you a tzom kal (easy fast) and a day of meaning.

G’mar chatimah tovah.

I am going to try really hard to blog out some thoughts, pictures and videos from our amazing COVID-friendly 4th Annual Middle School Retreat!

Shofar, So Good: First Days & First (Masked) Smiles

What a strange and wonderful week!  Starting school after Rosh Hashanah and being back in school in person?!!

On behalf of the teachers, staff, administration, and board of this school, I cannot tell you how wonderful it is to have actual live human beings again filling our building with their energy, their ruach, and their smiles (we’ve all become experts at seeing smiles beneath masks)!  We have rightfully put so much energy into our COVID safety protocols over the last two school years that it is easy to forget that we are not public health officials, but educators who are in the business of teaching and learning.  I have had ample opportunity to wander the hallways, to be in classrooms, and outside in playgrounds and after just two days of school, I am perfectly able to pronounce that as of now shofar so good!

Here’s just a little taste of what the first two days at OJCS have looked and felt like…

…we began our first day with two “Welcome Ceremonies”.  With Junior Kindergarten returning to OJCS this year, we conducted special “Welcome Ceremonies” for parents in both JK and SK to mark the beginning of their children’s formal Jewish day school journey at OJCS.  We gathered under (socially distanced) tallitot as each grade- level team shared a welcome poem with their students.  We joined together in shehechiyanu and then it was time for hugs, kisses, last photos and goodbyes.  We are always honoured – and never take for granted – when a family chooses OJCS to provide the sacred and holy task of education, and we hope this is just the first of many rituals and moments we share together in the years to come.

…we held our annual Welcome Back Assembly, still virtual for at least one more year, during which we introduced new teachers and celebrated our opening havdalah where we creatively appropriate the ritual of separation to mark the transition from the summer to the start of school.  We were encouraged to think about what from the summer we want to carry forward into school and, considering the season, to think about who we were last year and who we hope to be in the year to come.

…students found their way back to lockers and classrooms that have been waiting for them since last April.

…playgrounds and courtyards were filled with laughter and games and, for Middle School, food as the Outdoor Cafeteria is back and open for business.

…everyone is remembering/learning which entrances and exits and washrooms and water fountains and hallways belong to them, and how to find their way from this to that.

…there is a joyful cacophony of Hebrew, French and English that captures our trilingual nature and is a pleasure to hear throughout the building.

…the OJCS Makerspace is gearing back up for a delayed reopening and you should stay tuned for an exciting announcement about the Makerspace!

 

We have seen over the last two years how amazing our teachers have been during distance learning pivots planned and unplanned and through hyflex engagement.  And we know that our community has been paying attention as our enrollment continues to grow each and every year.  Imagine how extraordinary our school is going to be now that we have planned out each and every scenario!  If you are a current OJCS parent, of course, you don’t have to imagine – you can see it each and every day.

Please save the date for Virtual Back to School Night on Tuesday, October 12th at 7:00 PM.  In addition to all the normal things one discusses at Back to School Night, this year we will also be sharing grade-specific plans for how students who may be kept home from school for different reasons will be able to continue to learn even as we move away from hyflex learning.

Please be on the lookout for updated COVID vaccine policies now that both the Ministry of Education and Ottawa Public Health have shared new requirements and recommendations for private schools.

The Calm Before The Calm: A Brief Look at OJCS Faculty Pre-Planning Week

What a strange blip in the calendar to have Rosh HaShanah right after Labour Day Weekend!  For our parents and students, it may simply elongate summer by a couple of days.  For our teachers and staff, however, it creates this odd break between the intense week of “Faculty Pre-Planning” that we are finishing up now and the actual first day of school almost six days later.  As odd as that all may be, what is not odd is how wonderful it has been to be back in a physical building working with actual human beings (masked and distanced and vaccinated to be sure) in the service of preparing for the sacred and holy task of educating children.  We are certainly not back to normal with our COVID FAQs and assorted protocols, but we are sorta-kinda back to things that feel normal-ish – and that feels great!

Do you ever wonder how we spend this week of preparations while y’all are busy getting your last cottage days or summer trips or rays of sun in?  If so, this post is for you!

Seriously, I do think there is value in our parents (and community) having a sense for the kinds of issues and ideas we explore and work on during our planning week because it foreshadows the year to come.  So as you enjoy those last days on the lake or on the couch, let me paint a little picture of how we are preparing to make 2021-2022 the best year yet.

Here’s a curated selection from our activities…

The (Re)Building Communities Cafe

Each year (14 years, 5 at OJCS and counting!), I begin “Pre-Planning Week” with an updated version of the “World Cafe”.  It is a collaborative brainstorming activity centered on a key question.  Each year’s question is designed to encapsulate that year’s “big idea”.  This year’s big idea?  (Re)building communities!

After the last two years, we are eager to begin reconnecting and rebuilding across and between our various OJCS communities – students, teachers, parents, board, and community.  We spent the morning exploring what this might mean…for example…

Carrying Forward: Lessons from Hyflex

What can be true for students who may need to learn from home this year when we are not offering a hyflex program?  Home for a few days?  Home for a few weeks?  In order to share our plan with parents as we continue to prioritize students remaining at home for COVID-related reasons, we spent valuable time asking the following kinds of questions:

  • What from schedules, links, blogs and platforms will carry forward from hyflex learning?
  • Are there grades/subjects where virtual participation could be a value add for both student and teacher?
  • What should parents and students expect from different grades/subjects should they need to be kept home from school, but need to stay on track?

Parents can look forward to plans being shared during Virtual Back To School Night on Tuesday, October 12th.

Faculty EdCamp

One of our favorite PD activities is letting the excellence that is already on our staff be shared more widely.  For this activity, four of our teachers offered sessions to their colleagues on topics of their own choosing in a bit of a more relaxed, camp-style presentation:

  • Faye Mellenthin: “Disarming armoured leadership…”
  • Lianna Krantzberg:  Twitter Chats 101” 
  • Julie Bennett:  Global Connections and Authentic Tasks”
  • Melissa Thompson: “EdPuzzle”

Teachers got to choose two different sessions to attend and it is always great to watch teachers be inspired by the work of fellow teachers.

Book Tasting: The OJCS 2021 Summer Book Club

I think you can tell a lot by the books a school chooses to read together.  Here were the selections for this summer, which culminated in a “Book Tasting” session where lessons and wisdom were gleaned and shared:

If you want to know more about the big ideas that shape our work, feel free to read one or more of these books and tell us what you think!

Did I do one of my spiritual check-ins on the topic of the “Relationship between ‘criticism’ and ‘growth'”?  Sure did!

Did Mrs. Thompson and I do great differentiated sessions on use of classroom blogs and student blogfolios?  Yup!

Did our teachers spend meaningful time updating their Long Range Plans?  100%!

Did Mrs. Bertrend help us understand how we can (re)build community through Student Life at OJCS?  Yessiree!

Did Mrs. Reichstein lead a session on “Shifting the Spec Ed Narrative”?  You bet!

Did Ms. Gordon go over all the guidelines and protocols and procedures and rules and mandates to keep us all safe?  No doubt!

Did our teachers have lots of time to meet and prepare and collaborate and organize and do all the things needed to open up school on Thursday?  And then some!

All that and much more took place during this week of planning.  Needless to say, we are prepared to do way more than create a safe learning environment this year.  We are prepared to develop a rigorous, creative, innovative, personalized, and ruach-filled learning experience for each and every one our precious students who we cannot wait to greet in person on the first day of school!

Wishing you and yours a wonderful holiday weekend, a Shanah Tovah U’metukah and a successful launch to the 2021-2022 school year…

The Transparency Files: (Re)Introducing the 2021-2022 OJCS Faculty

I am looking out my window to an empty and sunny courtyard that will soon be filled with teachers, students and parents (all socially distanced of course!) in the days and weeks ahead.  As I prepare to start my fifth year as Head of OJCS, I look back in awe and gratitude at what we have accomplished thus far and – more importantly – look forward with enthusiasm and joy at all we are going to accomplish together in the years ahead, starting with the one right in front of us.

Thanks to all the parents who replied, asked questions, shared concerns, etc., after last week’s list of FAQs!  Your feedback has been really helpful and clarifying.  Hopefully you read the update on HEPA filtration in your parent email and you can track new questions and answers about all things COVID by checking the COVID FAQ page of our school’s website.

Back in June, we decided to go ahead and share out our annual “Transparency Files” post announcing the “2021-2022 OJCS Faculty” even though we knew (and stated) that it was (more than normally) subject to change.  And we were right!  We are living in complicated times and they have indeed required us to be more creative and strategic in our staffing.  Before proceeding directly to the list, let me make some exciting introductions…

It is our pleasure to introduce the newest members of our team!

  • Oriana Laderoute and Wendy MacPhee are well known to our OJCS students and parents.  This dynamic duo will be partnering to lead our Junior and Intermediate Resource Program, alongside Ashley Beswick, our Primary Special Education Lead, and Sharon Reichstein, our Director of Special Education.  Both Wendy and Oriana have formidable credentials, including their Special Education Specialist qualifications, as well as both having over three decades of teaching experience with local school boards, and internationally.  We feel extremely blessed to be welcoming them back to the OJCS family.  They both hold a deep respect for students and a passion for working with students supported by IEPs and Support Plans.
  • And speaking of worldly educators, our new Grade 5 General Studies teacher, Abby Whitteker, has just returned from several years of teaching internationally in Taiwan and Vietnam as a Lead General Studies teacher. Ms. Whitteker, a fitness enthusiast, will also be teaching Physical Education to Grades 2B, 3, 5 & 6.  She can’t wait to meet her new students and join us in following our North Stars!
  • Another new addition to OJCS, with a bright and sunny disposition is Liat Levy, who will be leading the Hebrew Aleph class at the Grade 6 level for those students who are learning above grade-level Hebrew. She will work closely with Morah Ruthie, who will continue to teach Grade 7 & 8 Hebrew Aleph. Liat, an educator with a decade of teaching experience, recently relocated from Israel with her family. She will also be supporting with Jewish Studies learning in our Lookstein classes for Grades 6-8. Liat is looking forward to meeting everyone soon. She’s also hoping to share her passion for yoga and mindfulness as a Middle School elective.
  • We are also poised to welcome Dana Doron, another Israeli educator permanently relocating her family to Ottawa soon to join our faculty. Dana is a celebrated teacher who found success at many varied schools for over two decades. She specializes in Special Education. Morah Dana looks forward to leading our Grade 4 Jewish Studies program.
  • Joining our French faculty at the Grade One level is Evie Cohen. Evie began her career at OJCS as an Occasional Teacher before moving on to teach French for many years at the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board. Evie specializes in teaching in French in the primary grades and we welcome her to the OJCS fold. Evie will be collaborating closely with Madame Stephanie, who taught Grade One French last year, until she leaves for her maternity leave in October. Bienvenue, Madame Evie!
  • We are thrilled to introduce our extraordinarily talented Arts specialist, Tashi Farmilo-Marouf, who will be leading our visual arts and drama classes.  Tashi is a published children’s writer and illustrator, as well as professional visual artist. You can peek at her work here: https://www.tashisart.com.  Tashi is beyond excited to lead our students on a creative journey this school year.  She has a passion for teaching children art and some of you may already know her from her role teaching through the Sheltoons program here in Ottawa.

With these amazing newcomers joining our already phenomenal returning cast, let’s take another look at the big picture:

The 2021-2022 OJCS Faculty & Staff

Lower School General Studies Faculty

  • Junior Kindergarten: Susan Wollock (plus French) & Mushki Kurtz (EA)
  • Kindergarten: Andréa Black, Sophie Pellerin (French) & Taylor Smith (EA)
  • Grade One: Ann-Lynn Rapoport & Evie Cohen (French) [TWO Classes]
  • Grade Two: Lianna Krantzberg & Sophie Pellerin (French) [TWO Classes]
  • Grade Three: Julie Bennett & Aaron Polowin (French) [TWO Classes]
  • Grade Four: Faye Mellenthin, Aaron Polowin (Core) & Sophie Pellerin (Extended) [TWO Classes]
  • Grade Five: Abby Whitteker, Aaron Polowin (Core) & Dr. Sylvie Raymond (Extended)

Lower School Jewish Studies Faculty

  • Kitah JK: Susan Wollock
  • Kitah Gan: Andréa Black
  • Kitah Alef: Ada Aizenberg [TWO Classes]
  • Kitah Bet: Bethany Goldstein [TWO Classes]
  • Kitah Gimmel: Sigal Baray [TWO Classes]
  • Kitah Dalet: Dana Doron [TWO Classes]
  • Kitah Hay: Marina Riklin

Middle School Faculty

  • Science: Josh Ray
  • Mathematics: Chelsea Cleveland
  • Grade Six Language Arts: Mike Washerstein
  • Grades Seven & Eight Language Arts: Melissa Thompson
  • Social Studies: Deanna Bertrend
  • Extended French: Wanda Canaan
  • Core French: Dr. Sylvie Raymond
  • Hebrew: Ruthie Lebovich (Hebrew Alef for 7 & 8), Liat Levy (Hebrew Alef for 6), and Marina Riklin (Hebrew Bet)
  • Jewish Studies: Mike Washerstein
  • Rabbinics: Lookstein Virtual Jewish Academy (supervised by Liat Levy)

Specialists

  • Art: Tashi Farmilo-Merouf
  • Drama: Tashi Farmilo-Merouf
  • PE: Susan Wollock (JK), Andréa Black (SK),  Andréa Black & TBD (Grade 1), Abby Whitteker (Grades 2B, 3, 5 and 6), TBD (Grades 2A & 4)  Josh Ray & Abby Whitteker (Grade 6) & Josh Ray (Grades 7 & 8)
  • Library: Brigitte Ruel

Department of Special Education

  • Keren Gordon, Vice Principal
  • Sharon Reichstein, Director of Special Needs
  • Ashley Beswick, Resource Teacher & Behavior Support Coordinator
  • Wendy MacPhee/Oriana Laderoute, (Job-Shared) Resource Teachers
  • Chelsea Cleveland, Math Resource

Education Leadership Team

  • Melissa Thompson, Teaching & Learning Coordinator
  • Deanna Bertrend, Student Life Coordinator

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

As you can see, we have a lot to be enthusiastic about heading into this year. Wishing you a wonderful weekend as you soak up the last rays of summer.

It is going to be a GREAT Year.

#BeExcited

The Coronavirus Diaries: 2021 OJCS Safe Reopening FAQ

Here we are in mid-August and we are eagerly looking forward to welcoming back our teachers and then our students in the weeks ahead!

I am definitely staying out of the prediction business, but we remain hopeful that this year will begin to feel more like normal and that it will – perhaps – be a bit more predictable.  Either way, after the experiences of the last two school years, the Ottawa Jewish Community School is ready to deal with all issues – known and unknown – to ensure that 2021-2022 is a successful and joyous year for all our students, teachers and families.

We do recognize that there can be some churn and angst as the return of school draws closer.  We read the news and study the numbers like you do and it can sometimes feel like we are trying to put a puzzle together with new pieces constantly being dropped in.  As was true last year, we are simply doing our best to stay on top of the health guidelines, to hold awareness of what the public board and other private schools are doing, and to be as transparent as we can about what we have already decided and what remains in play.

We received provincial guidelines for reopening just a few weeks ago and have been working hard to clarify what they will mean for OJCS.

OJCS’ COVID protocols have been determined in consultation with both Ottawa Public Health, as well as the document COVID 19: Ontario Health, Safety and Operational Guidance for Schools.  OJCS will continue to prioritize the health and safety of our school community and to deeply value the importance of our partnership with parents in ensuring students who attend school have followed the protocols carefully.  We have again put together a list of Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) for your convenience.  If you do not see your question on this list – or have additional questions or concerns based on any of the answers – please do not hesitate to be in contact with the school for greater clarity.  (Please note that the entire list of FAQ will not only be uploaded to our website, but will remain dynamic so that updates and revisions will live there [not in my blog or email].)

Let’s get started…

How will cohorting work this year?

As per provincial guidelines, classes will remain smaller than typical, and while indoors, students will be housed in one hallway with an assigned entrance/exit.  Students will be masked from Kindergarten – Grade 8 [not JK], and supported through strategic classroom organization and design to maintain distance.  [The province is requiring masking in Grades 1-8; OJCS has chosen to remain consistent with last year’s success and will continue to mask in Kindergarten.]  Students will have contact across their own grade-level when outdoors for recess, where masking will be encouraged for those students who are comfortable.  Parents of twins have had their initial requests regarding class placements honoured.

Where will learning happen this school year?

Each cohort in Grades JK-3 will continue to be assigned a primary classroom where all its learning activities are designed to take place.  General, French and Jewish Studies Teachers for each grade-level will move between these assigned grade-level spaces (with students remaining in their designated classroom whenever possible).  [Students in JK have the same teachers throughout the day.]  Cohorts in Grades 4-8 will be assigned a primary classroom or learning space (i.e. the Library), but students will travel to limited additional spaces during their learning day (i.e. for language learning).

How will Nutrition Breaks work?

We will continue to have students eat supervised within their own classrooms by a strategic and consistent team member.  Middle School students will continue to access an outdoor cafeteria as long as weather permits.  All students will wash their hands or use sanitizer before eating.

Will teachers be wearing masks?

Yes!  Our teachers have been vaccinated, however they will all continue to wear masks whenever supporting students, and access face shields and protective eyewear, as needed.

What parts of the program have been adjusted to allow for a safe reopening?

  • For JK – Grade 5, Art will continue to be taught virtually in the cohort spaces with support from the grade-level team.  Morah Shira will continue to work closely with the classroom teachers.  Middle School students who select Art for their elective, will work directly with Morah Shira, masked and socially distanced.
  • Library workshops will also be taught in-person, with precautions, and all library services will be rendered virtually and contactless.
  • Recess will be scheduled by grade-level, supervised by the strategic and consistent team members, wherever possible, and will take place in scheduled and demarcated outdoor locations which will be cleaned (see below) between usages.
  • Physical Education classes will resume this school year, with masking and distancing in place.  For Middle School students, PE Uniforms will continue to NOT be worn.
  • We will be offering Dramatic Arts this school year in lieu of music, so that our students can resume engagement in meaningful arts-related activities.
  • Tefillah (even in Middle School) will take place in grade-level groupings and with COVID-wise precautions.  [A separate email to Middle School parents with more details is forthcoming.]
  • All assemblies, events, holidays, etc., will be reimagined with any necessary adjustments or virtual components to stay in compliance with guidelines.

How else have you restricted access?

As will be described in greater detail in our soon-to-be revised OJCS Handbook, we have created three different entrances and exits to the school to further separate Junior Kindergarten – Grade 1, Grades 2 – 4 and Grades 5 – 8.  Similarly, we have cohort-specific bathroom access to those groupings.

Last year, I completed an Ottawa Public Health COVID-19 Screening Tool each morning to confirm my child was feeling well.  What is the protocol this year?

We will continue to ask families to access this screening tool EACH and EVERY day: Ottawa Public Health COVID-19 Screening Tool for School or Child Care.  Please be in touch with the school office if the screening tool is indicating that your child should remain at home.

Is there anything special I should be purchasing to best prepare my child for school?

It will be helpful for parents to invest in quality outerwear for each season of the school year, as PE classes will prioritize outdoor activities, and recesses will happen rain or shine (for the most part).  Time outdoors will continue to be prioritized for our students and their wellness.

Also, please try to send your child to school with enough water for them to drink throughout the day (i.e. two bottles of water if needed).  We do have bottle filling water fountains in each designated hallway, however, for health reasons it is best to minimize use as it involves having children touching their bottle tops and then a community fountain.

What kinds of enhanced clearing protocols will be in place throughout the school year?

Working with the Campus, we will have enhanced cleaning both in terms of frequency as well as products.  The Campus will be using a fog sanitizer machine that’s called the Fogger. It can sanitize a classroom in minutes, as well as hallways.  It will be in use during each school day to sanitize outdoor play structures and each evening in every classroom and learning space.  If a child or teacher is sent home due to illness, it will be brought in immediately to that room for a cleaning.  The product is an organic chemical that is safe for humans, animals, plants, etc.

In addition…

  • In accordance with recommendations from Public Health Ontario and Ottawa Public Health, high touch areas will be cleaned and disinfected at least twice daily. This includes door handles, push bars, railings, washroom surfaces, elevator buttons, kitchen surfaces, and light switches.
  • All other spaces will be cleaned and disinfected once per day, including hard floors.
  • In accordance with recommendations from Public Health Ontario and Ottawa Public Health, outdoor play structures will be disinfected during school hours, after each cohort has used the structure.  Protocols for cleaning outdoor play structures during winter months will be determined at a later time, as further research is required as to the safety of doing so in sub-freezing temperatures.
  • Sanitizing machines and stations have been set up in various locations on campus, and will be cleaned and filled as required. All hand sanitizer is alcohol-based.
  • Touchless paper towel dispensers have been installed in many washrooms.
  • All air filtration systems will be cleaned quarterly, and filters will be replaced regularly.

Can my child receive service from outside specialists?

We will continue to limit building access to all visitors due to COVID, as well as a lack of extra space due to our commitment to cohorting.  We will be allowing students who require tutoring with a reading specialist who sees multiple OJCS students in Grades 1-3 to resume service.  However, other specialists and professionals will need to see students outside of the school.  We will not be able, during this phase of reopening, to provide on-site, in-person access to Speech and Language Pathologists, Occupational Therapists, mental health professionals, etc.  We will try on a case-by-case basis to provide a supervised space for tele-therapy or virtual sessions for students in Grades 4-8.

What do I do if my child is having a particularly difficult time emotionally as the result of COVID?

We are here to partner with you in all ways.  Please let us know if there is anything we should be aware of so we can be as supportive as possible.  The grade-level teams will all be paying close attention to our students and their needs.  We also have a School Counsellor, Jennifer Munroe, available to help with student mental health.  We can arrange for a referral if that would be a helpful layer.

Will students be allowed to use lockers / cubbies this year?

Yes, students will be able to have lockers and cubbies this school year.  We will ensure the lockers are cleaned frequently.

What happens if I need to drop-off or pick-up my child from the school at some point throughout the school day?

The office staff will support with drop-off and pick-up from the front entrance, as parents, guests and visitors will not be able to access the building during this phase of reopening.  Additionally, parents coming to pick up sick children or to take children to off-site appointments will be asked to wait outdoors.  Our Office will be prepared to facilitate all these comings and goings via intercom.  For more information about access to the building, please refer to the OJCS Handbook (when it is released).

How will IEP meetings be conducted in the fall?

Our Director of Special Education, Sharon Reichstein, will be in touch with all families of students with IEPs and facilitating IEP meetings via video conference.

Will families need to provide their children with masks and sanitizer?

Yes, please!  We do ask families to equip their children with hand sanitizer to be kept in their desk, and to come with their own masks so that it is the brands they are most comfortable with.  Every classroom is equipped with hand sanitizer and extra masks as well.

Will there be a Before Care and After Care program this year?

Yes, we will be running our usual Before Care program from the school gym from 7:30 AM – 8:30 AM each day.  We will also be offering a Drop-In After Care program, as the JCC has limited space in their full-year program.  More details to come.

Who do I get in touch with if my family develops COVID or has an exposure to COVID?

Please notify both Ottawa Public Health and OJCS immediately should you discover that you have come into contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19.  For more information about our COVID health protocols, please refer to the OJCS Handbook.

Is there additional information regarding ventilation in the school?

All HVAC units have been cleaned, serviced and are all working within specifications.  Campus has increased air flow on HVAC units and new MERV 13 filters are on order and will be installed on all HVAC units.  We will continue to prioritize having windows and classroom doors open to increase air circulation.

Will there be COVID-wise fire drills this school year?

Yes, we have developed a fire safety curriculum that balances fire safety requirements with public health guidance to minimize the risk of COVID transmission.  Each class will participate in age-appropriate programming with their teachers and then practice going outside via their designated exit and lining up outside.

Will there be a Photo Day this year?

Yes, on Tuesday, October 19th. We are moving forward with individual student photos and have liaised closely with LifeTouch to ensure COVID protocols will be in place (i.e. using our vast gym space, one class at a time, nothing to hold or touch in photos, etc…).

As always, if you have any questions or concerns with any of the above, please don’t hesitate to reach out.  The revised OJCS Handbook should go live (and be sent out) soon, as will a final staffing update to close the loose ends from the spring.

Enjoy these final weeks of summer!

Summer Listening: DSLTI Gives the Gift of Genuine Reflection

Happy Summer!

I slept in until about 8:00 AM this morning and it felt so luxurious that I almost felt guilty about being such a lazybones.  Such is the life I have chosen for myself…

I am extremely blessed that both my employer and my family have signed off on two pretty significant pursuits that have been occupying what bandwidth I have available once I have put all my energy towards my primary occupation.  The first, beginning my rabbinical school studies, is something that I wrote about a few months ago.  The second, however, is not something that I have shared out yet.  I am extremely proud to have joined the faculty of the Day School Leadership Training Institute (DSLTI).  DSLTI is the preeminent preparer for new heads of Jewish day schools and I was lucky enough to be a participant in its fourth cohort when I was just beginning my career.  DSLTI is oriented around intense summer work, with twice-yearly retreats and weekly mentoring to flesh out the full experience.  The first summer of this, the twelfth, cohort just completed its two weeks last Friday and, thus, is the inspiration for this blog post.

For my school, I believe they understand and appreciate how the learning I get from rabbinical school and from DSLTI will directly add value to my work as head of a Jewish day school.  Coming straight out of the first peak experience of DSLTI, I wanted to take an opportunity to make that added value more explicit.

There are (at least) four direct ways that my preparations and work as a DSLTI Mentor will make me a better head of school:

  • Books, books, books, articles, videos, and books!  In order to teach the formal curriculum – which this summer focused on “Mission-Vision-Philosophy”, “School Culture”, “School Teams”, “Leadership Presence” and “Strategic Change Leadership” (of which I had a shared responsibility for teaching the latter two) – one has to be current and so I will always be reading and watching and listening to the newest research and ideas (and be refreshed in the “classics”).
  • So much of how we work with our mentees – the pedagogy we employ in the program – has direct applicability to our work in schools.  I have already fleshed out the first few meetings of our own Educational Leadership Team (ELT) based on the work we did on “Teams” at DSLTI.  I have already programmed a chunk of our Faculty Pre-Planning Week using ice-breakers and texts we used at DSLTI.
  • A lot of what we work on with our mentees comes directly from real-world situations and scenarios.  The more consultancies I have an opportunity to lead or participate in, the more practical and constructive advice I receive about how to navigate experiences that absolutely can and do happen at our school.  It is like having real-time access to expertly crowdsourced expertise.
  • The most important – for me – opportunity that being a mentor in DSLTI provides is that it forces me to listen, to deeply listen.

Man was endowed with two ears and one tongue, that he may listen more than speak.  – Hasdai, Ben HaMelekh veHaNazir, ca. 1230, chapter 26

The work of a mentor is to listen and to ask questions – both clarifying and probing – to help bring a mentee towards a measure of understanding.  It is not to provide the mentee with answers to questions (although that is occasionally appropriate/necessary).  It is also the HARDEST thing on earth for me to do!  The coaching that I am going to receive so that I can be a good mentor is probably the thing that will add the most value to my work as a head of school.  I am going to be forced to slow down, to listen deeply and most importantly to shift out of the headspace of “problem-solver” and into the space of “capacity-builder”.

When our school embraced the “7 Habits” a few years ago, I spoke a little bit about this idea when describing how I thought about “Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood”.  The difference, I believe, is that in a “7 Habits” context we are focusing on conflict-resolution and community-building.  In the DSLTI/mentor context, we are focusing on capacity-building and leadership development.  The better skilled I can get as mentor will hopefully provide my Admin Team, our ELT, and all our teachers with opportunities for them to grow as educators and as leaders – which is an outcome that can only mean good things for our students and our school.

OJCS Families!  Stay tuned for a brief staffing update as we have largely resolved all outstanding issues!  We look forward to introducing you to the rest of the amazing 2021-2022 OJCS Faculty in the weeks ahead!

Showing Up: The Courage of the COVID Class of 2021

At last year’s Grade 8 Graduation, I referred to them as the “Coronavirus Class of 2020,” assuming that a year later we would return to the regularly phrased “Class of 2021”.  Like every other of my assumptions during the pandemic, that one, too, was incorrect, and here we are at the graduation for the Coronavirus Class of 2021.  This time I hope, but don’t assume, a return to normalcy next year.  But next year is next year, and tonight we focus our attention on this remarkable group of graduates and the extraordinary journey – particularly of late – they have taken to reach this milestone.

As the year, with its months-long pivot to distance learning, has been winding down, I find myself reflecting more and more on Theodore Roosevelt’s “Man in the Arena” speech, which has been re-popularized in recent years through the work of Brené Brown.  The big idea is that what really counts in life is not outcomes, but the courage to get “in the arena”.  That what matters is not whether you are successful, but that you are willing to engage, to get your hands dirty, to commit to big ideas and bigger ideals, that you get back up when you fall and – ultimately – that you strive to live a life of meaning.  The shorthand way of describing this is to say that what really matters is showing up.  And if there was ever a class who has shown up over the last year and a half of pandemic learning, it is this Class of 2021.

But let me first pivot back towards two other critical partners who have shown up and shown out…

Parenting Matters

Last year, I stood in awe at the perseverance of parents with everything that they were asked to do without time, training or support to facilitate at-home learning.  Well, not only are all of those things still true and then some a year later, but what I have come to realize even more broadly 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 children’s willingness to get in the arena.

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, or even just going where everyone else happened to be going that year.  We also know that parents find their way out of Jewish day schools for all kinds of highly personal reasons as well.  We are not here to stand in judgement of those who opted out; we are here to stand in praise of those who show up and opt in – year after year.  Jewish day school comes at a high price, and that price is not just financial.  There are many in this virtual 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 two sharpen both points.  COVID-19 has not only strained families’ pocketbooks, but even with extraordinarily self-directed Grade 8 students, the transition to distance learning has strained families’ living spaces, devices, time, and patience (not to mention wifi!).

We believe that a night like tonight validates those choices and those sacrifices, and proves the power of parenting.

The Vulnerability of Teachers

Teachers make a school and we never saw greater proof of that than during these last two years.  In her book Daring Greatly, Brené Brown identifies “vulnerability” as one of the superpowers that allows folk to show up.  Allowing yourself to be vulnerable in front of others is a strength, not a weakness, and I actually believe it goes a long way towards explaining what our teachers and our school has been able to accomplish.  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?  Vulnerability is what lets our teachers know our children like no other school can.  Vulnerability is what gives permission to our students to be who they most authentically are without fear of judgement.  Vulnerability is why graduation is not only an opportunity to acknowledge the Grade 8 Teachers, but a moment to celebrate all the teachers whose collaborations and contributions over time come together to create a class.

We believe that a night like tonight rewards those relationships, lauds that learning, commemorates community and validates the value of vulnerability.

The Courage of Graduates

It takes courage to get into the arena for any of us under normal circumstances.  With all our complicated personalities and unique experiences, just showing up – getting into the arena – is a genuine act of courage.  But when showing up means 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 capstone experiences – what I have seen firsthand from you each – and know secondhand from all your teachers – is that you bring your courage 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.  You bring it to your varying Jewish commitments, and you bring it to your many expressions of community service and social justice.

And sure, some of that would have been true in the most normal of years.  These last two years, however, were of course far from normal.  Like so many others, this year’s Grade 8 has had to sacrifice moments and memories as planned events became unplanned experiments.  We have, of course, done our best to be creative and go virtual in order to provide with you as many experiences as we could, but we know they aren’t the same.  It is here, too, where you have shown your courage and your character.  You have stuck together, you’ve made your lemonade from lemons, and you have come through the other side with your bonds as tight as ever.

We believe that a night like tonight confirms your character and projects the promise of your potential.  You have come into the arena each and every day and there is no greater testament to your courage than that.

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.