Shining the OJCS Spotlight: JK – The OJCS Way!

[This post was co-authored with OJCS JK Teacher, Susan Wollock.]

During this “Festival of Lights” it seems very appropriate to kick off a new series of blog posts (to be written intermittently) that shines a spotlight on new, exciting or important things happening at OJCS.  It also feels appropriate to launch this series because even if we are (please God) in “late-COVID” times, our protocols have been in place for so long that we have parents who may have never stepped foot inside our building!  And if that is true, how much more so for the rest of our community.  That’s the big idea – to share out big things that are happening at OJCS that you may not be in the know about.

And yes, of course, it is not a coincidence that we are beginning with “Junior Kindergarten” as we ramp up for the admissions season for the 2022-2023 school year.  We are so proud of our new JK program and all the deliciousness that is happening there – what better time to share than now?

So, what are the most important things to know about JK @ OJCS?

Well, JK at OJCS is a trilingual program with lots of opportunities for cross-curricular activities.  Here’s a topically specific example: Chanukah.  In JK, we use Chanukah as an opportunity to learn numeracy (How many nights do we celebrate Chanukah?), vocabulary (How do you say sufganiyot in French?), and holiday songs in all three languages.

In JK we learn through play – with emphasis on social, emotional, cognitive, language, literacy, math, science, physical motor skills.  In addition our JKers have daily Physical Education indoors and twice-daily outdoor play (those that nap get out once a day in the beginning of the year but then as they drop their nap they will participate in the second).  Our beautiful JK classroom is anchored in Centres throughout the room that focus on art, science, sensory play, literacy, fine motor, cooperative play and dramatic play.

At OJCS, JK has weekly STEAM experiments and exploration where we follow the scientific method in an age-appropriate way in addition to other amazing weekly activities such as Art with Tashi (our Art Teacher), Music and Movement (guided and freestyle).

But most importantly, they’re just the most adorable kids in the school!  [Note from Jon: I know which classroom to visit whenever I need a smile!]

Do you want to see how JK at OJCS will set your child up for success in school?  Do you have a friend or relative with a child entering JK?  Please contact our Admissions Director, Jennifer Greenberg (j.greenberg@theojcs.ca), to find out more or to book a COVID-friendly tour.  You may also reserve your spot at our upcoming “JK Parlour Meeting” scheduled for Tuesday, December 17th at 7:00 PM (link made available when you RSVP).

Do you want to see (with your eyes!) what JK at OJCS looks like in action?  Stay tuned to social media and other outlets when we debut our new JK Promo Video next week!

Actions Speak Louder Than Candles: A Chanukah Pedagogy

I guess if the High Holidays came early this year that all the other ones probably will as well?  So I guess I can’t be surprised that Chanukah begins this Sunday evening!  As part of my blog post last year, I wrote:

Instead of a public reading, we communicate the story of Chanukah silently, with the act of lighting candles at the window so that Jews and non-Jews alike recognize our celebration of the miracles that occurred.

I found a pedagogical “a-ha moment” in my re-reading and it isn’t so much in the “silence” as it is the “act”.  Why?  Well, in the case of candles, it is an action that anyone can take; it is not so ritualistically complex that only the most knowledgeable amongst us can perform it. It is an action performed publicly and in the home.  And it is an act through which the meaning can be found through the doing.  It is truly an act of “na’aseh v’nishma“.

This quotation from the Torah (Exodus 24:7) has been interpreted in many ways in Jewish tradition.  The meaning which speaks most deeply to me is: “We will do and then we will understand.”  This meaning comes from a rabbinic story (also called “midrash”) that explains Israel’s unconditional love for the Torah.  The midrash is as follows:

When the Children of Israel were offered the Torah they enthusiastically accepted the prescriptive mitzvot (commandments) as God’s gift.  Israel collectively proclaimed the words “na’aseh v’nishma“, “we will do mitzvot and then we will understand them”.  Judaism places an emphasis on performance and understanding spirituality, values, community, and the self through deed.

Simply put, we learn best by doing.

This idea has powerfully stimulated my own Jewish journey and informs my work as a Jewish educator.  I think there are two major implications from this:  One, regardless of the institution, we have a responsibility to provide access to informal Jewish educational programs to our young people.  Two, our formal educational institutions can stand to learn from what makes informal work.  [This is precisely why in our search for a new “Head of Jewish Studies” we have expanded the position to include “Jewish Life” – our ideal person will have an informal and/or camping background in addition to their formal education and experiences.]  Namely, I believe strongly in education that is active, interactive, dynamic, and most importantly experiential.  It is one thing to teach Judaism; it is something more powerful to teach people how to live Judaism.

It is one thing to teach social action; it is identity-forming for our middle school students to go out into the world each Friday and in lieu of their Jewish Studies Curriculum make the world a better place by doing social action.  That’s why we are working so hard to launch our new “Mitzvah Trip” program this spring, COVID challenges notwithstanding.

It is one thing to read about Israel; it is transformative to visit Israel.  That’s why we are exploring how to one day transition our GRAD Trip in Grade 8 from Toronto or NYC to Eretz Yisrael.

And for this time of year?

It is one thing to study Chanukah; it is something infinitely more meaningful to light a menorah in the window, surrounded by family.  Hopefully, your family is planning on joining our OJCS Family in this year’s Annual (Virtual) Chanukah Family Program on Thursday, December 7th at 7:00 PM!

Finally, this and each Chanukah, let’s not forget our Jewish values of tzedakah (charity) and kehillah (community).   Along with your normal gift-giving, consider donating a night or two of your family’s celebration to local healthcare or other essential workers whose light of courage amplifies and enhances this Holiday of Lights.

Chag urim sameach from my family to yours!

BTW – if you like a playlist and a signature cocktail for your celebrations, why don’t you go ahead and make yourself a Chanukah Gelt Martini and vibe to this playlist:

If the days are growing short and (American) Thanksgiving is coming…#AnnualBlogCloud

Ah yes, here we are in mid-November.  We had our first super mild snowfall, the days are growing shorter and colder, my FOMO for American Thanksgiving is ramping up and my seasonal affective disorder lamp is shining that sweet, sweet Vitamin D in my direction.  That can mean only one thing – time to dust off the annual BlogCloud post!  (It is also true that if you are going to write 400 weekly posts and counting, you need to have some standard-issue content to fall back upon.)

If you missed last year’s punny post

I genuinely do enjoy this annual exercise in “word-clouding”.  If you are unfamiliar with the idea, in a nutshell, word clouds (through an algorithm only they know) take any piece of written text and represents it graphically in a way which highlights frequently-used words.  It is a fantastic device for visually summarizing the essence of a written text.  Another great feature is that, not only can you cut-and-paste in any written document, you can type in blogs, websites, etc., and it will go back and search them for content, add it all up, and spit out a word cloud representing the sum of all its written content.

This is my fifth such annual post here at OJCS and I have done them each, as stated above, in November.  So, what does this year’s BlogCloud look like and what does it reveal?  [If it is too small on your screen/device you can go ahead and zoom in.  Or just scroll up!]

I just put last and this years’ clouds side-by-side to do a little comparison.

“Jewish”, “Teacher” and “Student” still hold strong at about the same size, and even if “Parent” is still smaller, it is proportionately larger than last year.  That would lend credence to my conclusion that the increase in parent emails due to COVID explains “Parent”‘s waxing and waning.  Interestingly, although “Learning” and “Time” remain strong, “Community” is much smaller than in prior years.  I wonder if that is a casualty of COVID, in that we have many less opportunities to gather as and to function as a full community.  I take it is a warning and a reminder that we start to more fully occupy this “late COVID” or “post COVID” space, that one thing that has not yet snapped back is our emphasis on community.  (The fact that “COVID” is a bit smaller this year makes me so happy!)  Mission accepted!

What words would you have expected to see?  What words are you disappointed to see?

If you see something interesting in my OJCS BlogCloud, let me know in the comments!

OJCS Announces NEW Makerspace Consultancy

Again, for the second week in a row, I am tempting the fates by assuming that we have entered a period of somewhat normalcy and, again, hoping to avoid a jinx.  This week, it is to announce an exciting consultancy we have launched at OJCS that will – finally – allow us to truly roll out the Makerspace as it was originally intended to be.  Do you remember way back in March 2019, when we announced that thanks to a generous gift from the Congregation Beth Shalom Legacy Fund, that we were going to take on our first major project to make our physical space as innovative as our educational program – namely designing and constructing the OJCS Makerspace?

It feels like a lifetime ago!  After design, came construction and after construction came furnishing and timing being everything, you may recall that it took until about a full calendar year later, January of 2020, that we were finally able – even though there were (are!) still some design elements and furnishings not yet in place – to begin using the Makerspace.  That means that by the time Middle School Science relocated to their new space, we had about a month or so of contact time and then…COVID.  Thanks to COVID we either could not use the space at all or had such limitations on its usage due to safety protocols that its functionality was severely compromised.  Long story short…we built this amazing space and still haven’t had much of an opportunity to use it the way that it was designed.

But that’s about to change…

Knowing that for 2021-2022 we could return to the “soft launch” of the space, and believing that in 2022-2023 we ought to be able to officially launch, we decided to engage a consultancy to ensure that we wind up using the space in the best possible way.  And so I am pleased to share that thanks to a generous grant by the Jewish Federation of Ottawa‘s Fund for Innovative Capacity Building, OJCS will be working with Future Design School over the balance of this school year on a strategic makerspace consultancy.

What will we be doing?

Well, as was the case with our last two consultancies, we have identified a small cohort who will work with Future Design School to…

  1. Create a statement of principles, in collaboration with the OJCS team, that defines what the makerspace at OJCS is focused on, and how it will be leveraged.
  2. Provide scaffolded support to the Middle School Science teacher and two other teachers to develop an approach for designing lessons to be delivered in the makerspace.
  3. Provide recommendations in a final summary from consultancy on next steps to be taken with all teachers to integrate the use of the makerspace into their lessons.

The OJCS Makerspace Design Team will include Josh Ray, our Middle School Science Teacher, Faye Mellenthin, our Grade 4 General Studies Teacher, Mike Washerstein, a Middle School Jewish Studies and Grade 6 Language Arts Teacher, and will be headed up by Melissa Thompson, our Teaching & Learning Coordinator (and Grades 7 & 8 LA Teacher).  This ensures that the principles, the units, the standalone lessons, etc., cut across grades and languages and allows us to not only build content that we can use right away, but to build capacity that we can use to develop curriculum and programming into the future.

We have our first meeting next week and we will share results and updates as they start to happen.  Not only can we not wait to start using the Makerspace to its fullest potential, we also cannot wait to show you all that it can do and be.  Maybe even in person!  Stay tuned.

My 400th Post: Blogging “The Moral Imperative of Sharing”

I published my first blog post on July 27th, 2010, entitled “Southern Hospitality”.  It was during the summer that I transitioned from being the founding Head of the Solomon Schechter Day School of Las Vegas (z”l) to being the Head of the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School, in Jacksonville, FL.

Why did I start blogging?

Our teachers are required to blog and, therefore, so should I.  So here I am.

If only I had remained that pithy!

What did I plan on blogging about?

We are a 21st century learning school invested in the continuity of a five thousand year-old tradition.  Our attempts to marry the past and the future into an engaging present will largely be the focus of my blog.

That still sounds about right.

Who did I imagine my blog’s audience to be?

Most of my blogging will center on experiences here at school, but I hope to be of interest to anyone interested in Jewish day school, Jewish education, education in general, and in the kinds of stuff I think happen to be interesting and worth sharing.  I guess we’ll find out soon enough!

Or I’ll still never really know if and who is reading!

Why did I call it “A Floor, But Not a Ceiling”?

Because it represents what I believe the purpose of education to be – to ensure each child fulfills his or her own individual maximum potentials in academic, emotional, physical, and spiritual terms.  For there to be no ceiling has direct implications about what we teach and how we teach it.  I hope to use this blog to discuss these ideas and more.

And so here I am…

…11 years, 399 blog posts, three jobs and one country later.

I did a little research into my stats and metrics, but because I didn’t actually take ownership of my own website until coming here to Ottawa, most of the stats and metrics are skewed towards recency bias.  But there are a few things that (at least) I find interesting.

…here are my “Top 5” categories (a post can be assigned multiple categories):

  1. 21st Century Learning (145)
  2. Jewish Education (133)
  3. Community Building (107)
  4. Thought Leadership (106)
  5. Teaching & Learning (92)

(Crowd favorite “Transparency Files” clocked in at 60.)

…here are my “Top 5” tags (a post can be assigned multiple tags):

  1. Transparency (28)
  2. COVID (21)
  3. Innovation (20)
  4. 7 Habits (9)
  5. Second-Language Acquisition (8)

My audience has grown each year I have been here at OJCS (just like our school!) and so it comes as no surprise that 4 of my “Top 5” posts all come in the last four years:

  1. The Disruptive Miracle of Silvia Tolisano (1,171)
  2. OJCS Announces $1,000,000 Gift (689)
  3. The Coronavirus Diaries: OJCS Plans for a “Five-Day, Full-Day” Safe Reopening (495)
  4. Choosing Ottawa Again: Writing My First Second Chapter (446)
  5. L’hitraot Y’all: A Farewell to Seven Years of SaltLife (432)

So, why do I still crank out 40+ blog posts a year with a completely absurd and unacceptable average word count of nearly 900 words?

Because last week a parent emailed me to share some thoughts about something I wrote and it meant something to both of us.

Because I still believe in Dean Shareski‘s “The Moral Imperative of Sharing“.

Because it makes me a better educator, a better communicator and maybe, just maybe, a better person.

Because Silvia told me to.  [Read the post, I am still not able to talk about her in the past tense.]

Because I really believe in this stuff – that the act of putting stuff into the universe matters, even if when and how it matters is unseen or unknowable.

Because it is still true that “Our teachers are required to blog and, therefore, so should I.  So here I am.”

Here I am and here I plan to remain.  Even when I am not sure anyone is reading.  Even when I am sure that almost no one is going to comment (no matter how desperately I plead).  Here is where I will continue to plant seeds and sow dreams.  Here is where I will continue to be transparent, even when what needs to be said is difficult.  Here is where I will work out new ideas.  Here is where I will (occasionally) let my true personality be seen.  Here is where I will advocate for teachers, for students, and for Jewish schools.

Thank you to everyone who ever read a post, subscribed, shared, commented, encouraged or helped.  It is both a privilege and a responsibility to have a voice.  I feel blessed to have been able to share mine over these 400 posts and I look forward to showing up and sharing out over the next 400 posts.

[Under 770 words! Nailed it!]

There Is A “COVID Gap” But It Isn’t (Just) Academic

This is the jinxiest and most hubristic, fate-tempting opening thought, but as things seem to have settled into what I am now thinking of more as “late-COVID” times rather than “post-COVID” times, this feels like the right time to share some thoughts about what we are experiencing with students, teachers and parents who are simply not used to this much daily face-to-face (or rather mask-to-mask) human interaction.  Whereas much of the chatter in the wider educational world this summer focused on concerns about academic gaps – how far behind academically might many children be due to a combination of lengthy pivots to distance learning and individual learning challenges in distance learning – and we at OJCS will know more as we prepare to return to standardized testing in the months ahead; what I want to focus on here, are socio-emotional gaps, which we are seeing, are real and are worthy of unpacking.

I’d wager that our school did as good a job as any in terms of navigating the multiple pivots between in-person, at-home and hyflex learning from March of 2020 up until today.  I’ve written multiple blog posts (like this one) that goes into depth about the educational challenges and opportunities COVID has presented schools and how our school has adapted and responded.  I wrote just one post that tried to deal with the socio-emotional impacts of COVID, focusing on what it means to be a “trauma-aware” school – knowing that for many of our students, teachers and families, that living through COVID is a kind of trauma that has obvious impacts on schooling.  It is worth revisiting the key idea from that post to set the stage for what I want to share here:

Classic Trauma Reactions

Engagement                       dissociation ←→ vigilance

Control                                 passive ←→ urgent 

Empowerment                  victimized ←→ hyper-resilient

Emotion                              withdrawn ←→ hyper-arousal

Patterning                          amnesia ←→ recall & repeat

I see these responses all around me, all the time.  I see it in the normally vivacious student who is unusually withdrawn.  I see it in the normally laid back parent who has grown helicopter wings.  I see it in the normally contained teacher for whom everything is now on fire.  I see all the reverses as well.  I see different reactions from different people at different times in the face of different circumstances.  I see it in the parking lot and I see it in emails and I see it on social media.  And I most definitely see it in myself.

Whether we consider ourselves to still be in the trauma of late-COVID or whether we consider ourselves to be in the post-trauma of post-COVID, the impact of COVID and the trauma it created is both real and ongoing.  And my various claims of “I see it…” from when I wrote that post last year, carried forward into this one.  What I want to do here is name a few that feel the most urgent, believing that naming something is a great first step towards meaningfully addressing it.

The New Teacher Gap

As someone who moved here five years ago, I have heard and experienced the way our community – Ottawa, Ottawa Jewish, OJCS, etc. – welcomes newcomers and most people tend to feel like “we” could do a bit better.  It can be hard breaking into an established community and the more intimate the culture, the more double-edged the entrée can be.  In a still small (but growing!) school, the size breeds an intimacy that is a huge value add…until it isn’t.  So when a new teacher joins the OJCS Family (and I am using “family” on purpose), there is so much s/he has to learn and be acculturated towards!

One thing that we have seen in the past, but has intensified through COVID, is that our students and our parents are not always as welcoming – or PATIENT – with new teachers as we might otherwise wish.  New teachers at OJCS, in addition to everything else they need to learn, are also at a bit of a disadvantage as they work to build the deep relationships with their students and their parents that their colleagues have had years to invest in and benefit from.  Change can be exciting and inspiring.  Change can also be scary and breed resentment.  I am seeing less patience for new teachers to find their footing than I had seen a few years ago.

The Parent Separation Gap

Like it or not – and many actually did like it – in many of the younger grades, parents played a pivotal role in at-home learning.  However much independent learning was fostered in school, however much time was invested in cultivating our youngest students to be self-directed – with much more success than we would have imagined pre-COVID – it is true that for lots of individual students, a parent’s role as “partner” in the learning expanded to include tech support, guidance counselor, tutor and even co-teacher.  In many families, COVID led to way more contact time and more quality time spent together.  A full-time return to in-person learning has meant revisiting the kinds of separation anxiety that is more typical to the beginning of a child’s school journey (only).

So it is no surprise that we are seeing all kinds of behaviour from both children and parents that have this post-COVID separation anxiety at its heart.  We are seeing a lot more angst and tears at drop-off, including in grades where we typically wouldn’t.  We are seeing a lot more “homesickness” or expression of “just wanting to be home”.  We are also seeing parents much more invested in the daily goings-on of school than we would typically expect.  We all agree that it is better for everyone, but especially our students, to be back in school.  We just haven’t (re)learned exactly how to do that, which comes with challenges.

The Stamina Gap

The school day at OJCS has the opening bell at 8:30 AM and the closing bell at 3:45 PM.  That is a longer-than average school day (although many Jewish day schools have longer ones, and that is without French, but that is a blog post for another day) and you can definitely see which of our students struggle as the day goes on.  And it is reasonable to assume that children who have attention issues will potentially struggle even more to maintain their focus across the many classes, teachers and material they encounter.  That was true before COVID!  One feature of hyflex and distance learning is that it provided many students with some flexibility over time – it was the rare student who was expected to be on screen and engaged on a full-day schedule.  It was more common to create blocks of online engagement that came with long periods of offline engagement.

This means that the return to full-day, in-person learning presents for many students, particularly the younger ones and those who struggle with focus, a stamina gap.  Students are simply not used to being in school all day and we didn’t exactly build in a slow return to build stamina.  In most cases, we simply assumed things would go back to “normal”.  But they have not quite yet, resulting in feelings and behaviours that we are working through.

The Empathy Solution

What’s the solution to filling in these gaps?  Well, in that same post I posited that “empathy” was the most likely solution, or at least the best possible response to the behaviors we are experiencing.  What would empathy look like in response to the gaps I have named here?  I think that when it comes to new teachers, it is understanding how challenging it may be coming into a new community and a new culture – especially a community as tight-knit and a culture as intimate as ours.  Let’s give our new teachers a reasonable amount of time to find their feet and build their relationships.  When it comes to separation anxiety, all of us – students, parents and teachers – will need to alter our short-term expectancies while keeping our eye on the long-term picture.  It isn’t that we don’t maintain high expectations for appropriate behaviour or that we don’t issue outcomes in its absence – it is that our approach for managing them comes with empathy, which we need to make explicit.  And the same is true with the “stamina gap” – it isn’t that we stop teaching earlier in the day, it is that we plan with an empathetic eye towards those students who struggle to keep it together during their long (for them) days as they build back their stamina.

Naming something is just the first step to meaningfully addressing it, and so that will be true here as well.  Are there other gaps you see other than the ones I mentioned?  Let us know.  Are there other solutions?  Let us know.  As partners in this learning journey, we have a sacred responsibility to lean into challenges as the first step to overcoming them.  This guided our path before COVID…so shall it guide our steps through and past it.

The Scholastic Book Fair is fast approaching!  This year it will be in-person for students and remains virtual for parents, grandparents, family and friends.  Please pay attention to the information coming home from classroom teachers and the school.  We thank you in advance for helping to build out our classroom libraries, for supporting our Library and for celebrating literacy!

After being unable to conduct a proper search for a new Head of Jewish Studies the last two seasons due to COVID – this position being too important to be decided over Zoom – we are cautiously optimistic that this season will be different.  So we will be posting the position in the coming weeks and hopeful to find the best candidate possible to join our team!

#The65TweetChallenge – That I Totally Just Made Up

Yes, this is one of those blog posts that aggregates information from another source (this one being Twitter).

Yes, I 100% realize that not all our parents or stakeholders follow the school on Twitter (and you 100% do NOT have to, to be in the know).

No, it is not entirely because I am still barely recovered, let alone caught up, from the two-country, weeklong double Bat Mitzvah of my youngest daughter.

Yes, I intend to resume my normal style of blogging in the weeks ahead.  (Teaser alert: “The ‘COVID Gap’ is Real, But it is NOT Academic.”)

Yes, I totally made up #The65TweetChallenge to match that our school has sent out 65 tweets from the start of the school year until the day I created the visual below.  There is nothing magical about “65”.

However…

…with more and more OJCS Faculty utilizing Twitter to share thoughts, questions and observations with the larger educational world (as Twitter is the social media platform of choice for educators) and more and more OJCS Staff sharing ownership of the school’s Twitter account, I do think it is interesting to go through our school’s Tweets as a way of checking on our values and priorities.

I know what I see when I review the timeline below, but what do you see?

Evidence of our “North Stars”?

Artifacts of “The OJCS Way” or “The OJCS Difference” (how our school uniquely views teaching and learning)?

Diversity of subject, language, and grade?

Any other interesting patterns or meaningful absences?

Hit us up in the comments below or on Twitter (@the_ojcs) itself and let us know!

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!