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!

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…

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.

The Transparency Files: The 2021-2022 Faculty

Happy Monday!

We are heading into our final week with students and teachers, and somehow, despite it all, we are actually on track to successfully wrapping up this year.  We are also beginning to prepare for, what we have every reason to believe, will be a triumphant return to (perhaps a somewhat new) normal for the 2021-2022 school year.  Here are a few quick thoughts before sharing what you came here to read…

…we are looking forward to seeing actual human beings on campus this week for “Popsicles, Pals & Pickups”!  We know that the timing of when we received the rules from the province, to when we were able to make sense of them for our spaces and times, to when we were able to share them with parents, inevitably put pressure on already stressed working families.  This is regrettable and we are sorry for any extra drama this may have caused.  On the flipside, we can also tell you how incredibly excited we are to see many of our students in person!  If you are an OJCS parent and have any questions or concerns, please do be in touch with your child(ren)’s teacher(s).

…as hinted at above, we have no new information, other than what we shared in last week’s blog post.  What I can promise new and returning parents is that we will be transparently and proactively sharing details about next year’s plans for a safe, in-person return to school as they become clear.  I can also promise you that the information will be shared directly with families by email.  I may also share here, in my blog, but I do recognize that not every parent reads my blog religiously.

…for new and returning JK and SK families, I do want you to know that we are preparing for all circumstances – despite my sunny optimism from three paragraphs above.  My biggest regret from this year is that we (I) were not smart enough to start exploring daycare options so that our SK, dual-working, essential worker families had a landing spot for their children during the extended at-home learning pivots.  Even though the odds are truly small that we will be in this position again, please know that we have already begun exploring institutional partnerships and options so that in that unlikely event, we will have an address and a solution.  Our first priority will be JK and then SK and I look forward to reporting back to those families when I know more.  Your choice of school should not be determined by who gets to stay open and who has to close in a worldwide pandemic.  We are looking forward to the launch of JK done #TheOJCSWay and a smoother year for our youngest students.

…we are thrilled to have TWO Grade 6s next year (that will help you understand what you see below)!

…final caveats: the assignments below are tentative (they always are!) and there are at least two ways they could change: 1) JK and SK are the most likely to continue growing over the summer and, thus, additional sections could open (SK is the more likely).  If that happens, there will be a bit of a domino effect on staff assignments.  2) If the province’s rules for a safe reopening are different from what all schools are planning for, we may have to make a few adjustments as well.

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

The 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 & Aaron Polowin (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, Sophie Pellerin (Core) & Stéphane Cinanni (Extended) [TWO Classes]
  • Grade Five: Grade Five Teacher, Stéphane Cinanni (Core) & Dr. Sylvie Raymond (Extended)

Lower School Jewish Studies Faculty

  • Kitah JK: Susan Wollock
  • Kitah Gan: Shira Waldman
  • Kitah Alef: Ada Aizenberg [TWO Classes]
  • Kitah Bet: Bethany Goldstein [TWO Classes]
  • Kitah Gimmel: Sigal Baray [TWO Classes]
  • Kitah Dalet: Jewish Studies Teacher [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), Hebrew Teacher (Hebrew Alef for 6), and Marina Riklin (Hebrew Bet)
  • Jewish Studies: Mike Washerstein
  • Rabbinics: Lookstein Virtual Jewish Academy (supervised by Brian Kom)

Specialists

  • Art: Shira Waldman
  • Dramatic Arts: Andréa Black
  • PE: Josh Ray (Middle School) & PE Teacher (Lower School)
  • Library: Brigitte Ruel

Department of Special Education

  • Keren Gordon, Vice Principal
  • Sharon Reichstein, Director of Special Needs
  • Ashley Beswick, Resource Teacher & Behavior Support Coordinator
  • Brian Kom, Resource Teacher
  • 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

You will see some new names above!

We are excited to welcome Ashley Beswick (B.A., B,Ed., M.Ed), as our new Primary/Junior Resource Teacher. Ms. Beswick comes to OJCS with many years of invaluable experience supporting and teaching students with Special Needs at Mindware Academy, as well as through her own business. She is eager to meet our students, and brings much experience with strategic learning support, as well as behavioural and social skills coaching. Mrs. Signer is spending much time with Ms. Beswick to ensure a smooth transition.

We are also thrilled to introduce Madame Wanda Canaan (B. Sc., B.Ed., M.Ed.) who will be joining our French Faculty in the Middle School. Madame Canaan comes to us with almost two decades of teaching experience from all over the world. She is extraordinarily passionate about teaching Francais and looks forward to meeting you all in September.

Susan Wollock (B.A.A., ECE) is a familiar face here at OJCS, as both a parent and having taught with us in the past. She has two decades of ECE experience and will be our trilingual Junior Kindergarten teacher. Morah Shoshana is such a joyful and creative force who worked closely with our school community through the virtual Little Learners program this year.

This fall we will be moving away from music to introducing a new specialist activity across Kindergarten – Grade 5, and as a Middle Elective. We are thrilled to share that a Dramatic Arts program with Andréa Black will be launched and lead to opportunities for students to experience cooperative imagination-based dramatic play, music and movement, media studies that leaps off the page, and more…Morah Andréa has starred in more Theatre Shows than we can count, and we can’t wait for her to inspire our student!

We are already at final interviews for the remaining openings and between our extraordinary returning teachers and the quality of our new teachers, we know that the future is bright at OJCS.

Graduation is this evening at 7:00 PM and we are looking forward to celebrating our amazing Grade 8s who have earned the right to be celebrated considering all that they have experienced these last two years.  Graduation is a rite of passage for the school as much as the students, and we welcome our entire OJCS Community to watch the livestream and kvell along with us!

No Grasshoppers Here: Charge to Kitah Bet Upon Receiving the Gift of Torah

[This is the brief dvar that I shared with Kitah Bet, their parents, grandparents, and special friends on Friday, June 4th in honour of their Chagigat Ha’Torah (Torah Party).]

As I look at each box on my screen, representing teachers, students and their families, extended families and friends, and so on, I can’t help thinking about the distinction between “grasshoppers” and “giants” from this week’s parashah.

This week in Parashat Sh’lakh we get the famous story of the Twelve Spies sent by Moshe into Eretz Yisrael to bring back a report on the land they are poised to enter.  The majority of the spies report back that the land is filled with giants – Nephilim – and, thus, they should not attempt to enter and conquer.  The people are filled with fear, God is angered, and as a result the people are punished with forty years of wandering – until the entire generation of this episode dies out.  There are two reasons typically cited for this punishment.  The first is their lack of faith in God.  Remember, these are the same people who witnessed both Yetziat Mitzrayim (the Exodus from Egypt) and Matan Torah – how could they have lived through those events and still doubted God’s ability to lead them safely to Eretz Yisrael?  But it is the second one that I want to zoom in on (pardon the expression!) today.  The Torah says in B’Midbar 13:33 that the spies report back “…we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them”.  It wasn’t that B’nei Yisrael lacked faith in God; B’nei Yisrael lacked faith in themselves.

I’ve been thinking a lot about “grasshoppers” and “giants” during this spring’s pivot back to distance learning.  What this moment has asked of teachers, students, parents and families has sometimes felt so giant that it would have been easy to lose faith in each other and in ourselves.  One of our school’s “North Stars” is that we “each own our own learning”, but we never meant it literally.  Yes, we believe a school’s job is to foster self-directedness in its students, but not to this extent.  At various points going back to the beginning of the pandemic, it would have been easy for us to look out into the land of hyflex and distance learning, say “This is too big!” and refuse to enter or engage.  It would have been perfectly understandable.

But each and every day, I see the grit, the resilience, the care, and the love that each sacred partner to this holy endeavor – student, teacher and parent – brings and it fills my heart with gratitude and nourishes my soul.  Yes, there are moments and days when we are frustrated or overwhelmed.  Yes, the work is taxing and tiring.  Yes, as time goes on it gets harder to find those moments of joy and meaning that make it all worthwhile.   The size of your box may make you look like grasshoppers, but the heart you have shown this year proves you are truly giants; giants who have behaved with heroic courage while facing challenges unimaginable just a couple of years ago.

And that brings us to today.

We celebrate our children’s first accomplishments in the study of Torah with the (symbolic) gift of Torah.  Your choice to provide your children with a Jewish day school education forges the link between the Torah given at Sinai with the Torah your children learn and live today. Your choice connects your children to the generations who came before and to those yet to come.  Your choice joins your family story to the larger Jewish story.  Your choice honours the Jewish past and secures the Jewish future through the learning and experiences you have made possible for their Jewish present.

That is why, as was true with the Siddur they received at the end of Kitah Alef, the Torah they receive at the end of Kitah Bet is not a trophy to sit upon a shelf, but a tool to continue the Jewish journey they are just beginning.  It is our hope and our prayer that the work we have begun together as partners – parents and teachers; home and school – continue in the years ahead to provide our children with Jewish moments of meaning and Jewish experiences of consequence so that they can continue to receive and accept Torah in their own unique way, infused by a love of Judaism, informed by Jewish wisdom and aligned with Jewish values.

Thank you.

Thank you to the parents who have sacrificed in ways known and unknown to give your children the gift of Jewish day school.  Before COVID-19, we would describe teachers as in loco parentis – teachers who serve as stand-ins for parents at school.  Well, in this time of distance learning, we can aptly describe parents as in loco teacheris, and thank them for the extraordinary effort that goes into schooling-at-home.  Thank you for entrusting us with the sacred responsibility of educating your children.  It is not something that we take for granted.

Thank you to the teachers who give of their love, their time and their talent each and every day.  On a day like today, special thanks to Morah Batya who has poured herself into your children and into this day.  Our teachers play a significant role in shaping our children’s stories and we are grateful for the care they attend to that holy task.

Thank you to the students who show up each day as their authentic selves, even on Google Meet!  Your passion and enthusiasm for learning and for Judaism is why we wake up each day at OJCS with a spring in our steps and a smile on our faces.

My prayer for you is that you always see yourselves as the giants you are…

Mazal Tov!

Pandemic Faculty Appreciation Week 2.0

With all the “seconds” we are experiencing this spring during our current distance learning pivot, celebrating Teacher Appreciation Week has been among the most appropriate and depressing.  Depressing because instead of being able to directly hand our tokens of appreciation to our teachers and to take moments to directly express our thanks and to celebrate all that they do and all of who they are, we’ve had to again resort to gift cards and home deliveries and video tributes (thanks to all of you who took the time to offer your own!).  Appropriate, because nothing fosters appreciation for teachers like getting a birds-eye view from the vantage of distance learning…

As much as we would all like to know what is coming next – when will this lockdown end and when will we be permitted to return to in-person learning – today marked the end of Teacher Appreciation Week.  How did we spend it?

Have you taken an opportunity to show appreciation for your child(ren)’s teacher(s) yet this week?  Don’t worry if you haven’t…it is never too late!

Pump up this great “Teacher Appreciation Week” playlist, pick an item from below (aggregated from lots of blog posts) and make a teacher’s day:

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

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

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

I look forward to sharing results from the Annual Parent Survey next week.  If you have NOT yet contributed and you want your results included, please fill yours out by Monday, May 10th.  Please and thank you!

Celebrating Jewish Disability Awareness & Inclusion Month (JDAIM)

February is Jewish Disability Awareness & Inclusion Month (JDAIM) and OJCS is excited to celebrate – even if those celebrations (like everything else these days) has to come filtered through COVID protocols.  “Inclusion” is not simply an issue to discuss once a year, of course, and because it might have gotten lost earlier in the year, I actually want to start by highlighting an extraordinary post from way back in November by our Director of Special Education, Sharon Reichstein.  Entitled “Shifting the Spec Ed Narrative,” the posts opens by declaring the term “special needs” somewhat problematic:

The mere word ‘Special Education’ comes with a whole series of preconceived notions and ideas, often different for each person who hears it. For me, Special Education is a gift, a passion, and a commitment to ensuring every child gets what they need in order to succeed. I’ve spent my entire career building on this concept. For others, Special Education is viewed as something negative, something to hide, to be embarrassed about, or even ashamed of, and I hate that! For others,  Special Education is something placed in a box over to the side, an ‘other’, a silo, something that is about them and shouldn’t have anything to do with me. But what if we shifted that narrative so that everyone – administrators, teachers, parents, and most importantly, students – felt pride, empowerment, and understanding when they heard the term Special Education. I love to imagine a world and a school where Special Education becomes so ingrained in the normal, that no one sees it as “extra work” on the part of the teacher, something to “be ashamed” of on the part of the student, or something to “be worried” about on the part of the parent.

After a lengthy post that you should really read, she concludes with

At the OJCS we are well on our way with this shift. We strive to personalize instruction and encourage students to own their own learning. Understanding how each student learns and using their strengths to improve weaknesses is what we aim to do.

There is a bit of a delicate dance we do with issues like “inclusion”.  To the degree that we state that “everyone has special needs,” you run the risk of only focusing on who you presently serve and not look to see who you do not / cannot and then explore why.  To the degree that we state “every month is about inclusion,” you run the risk of missing a critical annual opportunity to reflect, to learn, to grow and to change.  We want to acknowledge the daily, weekly, and yearly work that we do to incrementally become better able to meet the needs of current students and to increase the circle of inclusivity.  But we also want to use JDAIM as a measuring stick and an inspiration – to have our thinking challenged, our minds opened and our hearts stirred.  We are blessed to be part of an interconnected Jewish community with partners to lovingly push and support us on our journey.

Last year, we were a little more easily able to celebrate in big ways and small.  (Here is a link to last year’s post if you are curious.)  This year, we have to be a little more careful, but the month is getting started with a few initiatives…

…Deanna Bertrend, our Student Life Coordinator, rolled out a Padlet to our faculty that includes all the links and ideas that have been collected, thus far.  As she put it, “While we spend time each day fostering kind and inclusive communities in our classrooms, it is our hope that you can add a spotlight to JDAIM in your classrooms throughout the month of February- pick and choose from the Padlet activities and/or create your own.”

…Brigitte Ruel, our Librarian, has a post on books that focus on “inclusivity”.

…we will again participate in Jewish Ottawa Inclusion Network (JOIN)’s “Youth Leadership Award Challenge”:

…new this year is the exciting opportunity for our students to participate in the Friends of Access Israel (FAISR) Speaker Series for students in Grades 5-8.  Every Monday through Thursday this month there will be a different and free JDAIM guest speaker.  The lineup of speakers is incredible!

Classroom blogs and student blogfolios will be a great place to find examples of how OJCS lives JDAIM this year.

It bears mentioning that our ability to meet existing needs with enhanced COVID safety protocols is only possible thanks both to generous supplemental grants from Federation and from its “Emergency Campaign” that provides flexible furniture, assistive technology, and diagnostic software to benefit learners of all kinds whether they are learning in-person or at-home.  As increased personalization is carried forward from all our COVID pivots, OJCS aspires to live a pedagogy of personalization that allows each student in our school to find the appropriate floor and to fly as far as their God-given potential permits without a ceiling.

This Jewish Disability Awareness & Inclusion Month, let us be reminded that to truly believe that each is made in God’s image requires that we apply the filter of inclusivity whenever possible.  The work of becoming more inclusive has no beginning and has no ending.  Inclusivity is both a process and a journey, one that OJCS has proudly been on for a while and one that we intend to keep walking with our community into the future.

Ken y’hi ratzon.

CBB Brings the Ruach to OJCS!

December in Ottawa can be kinda dreary in a good year.  The days are short and grey and the weather makes you yearn for a warm blanket and a good book.  Add to that the interminable distance from the end of August until the end of December (Expat Alert: That is the real meaning of American Thanksgiving!  You deserve a four-day weekend in November!) and you can see why in the best of times teachers and students (and parents) can hit the wall and limp into Winter Break.  These are not the “best of times”!  These are pandemic times and so that wall is a bit higher and sturdier than normal.

What do you do when your school and your students need a COVID-friendly booster shot of ruach to lift spirits and send us into Chanukah and out to Winter Break with joy and positivity?  You turn to a partner with ruach-expertise!  This week we were blessed to bring our friends from Camp B’nai Brith of Ottawa (CBB) to facilitate special ruach-filled activities in each of our grades at OJCS.

I’ve written in the past about my experiences and thoughts about Jewish camping and the power of informal/experiential education.  I won’t revisit all that ground, but I will say that when it comes to the exponential effect of multiple Jewish experiences (day school+ camp + synagogue + youth group), that…

Most importantly we encourage our students to be their authentic Jewish selves as they carry their experiences from context to context.  To me, that’s why experiential education matters.  It brings with the promise of making real what, in some cases, can only be simulated or sampled within the walls of a classroom.  Those are often the most important experiences of all…

Why is Camp magical?  Because it is often the place where children (and adults) feel the safest to be their truest selves.  Why is Jewish camp magical?  Because it is often the place where children (and adults) feel the safest to be their “authentic Jewish selves”.  Why is the combination so powerful?  Because what you learn at Jewish day school can be lived in Jewish camp.  The education that students at OJCS receive can be powerfully brought to life at CBB (and other camps and at synagogue and at home).  And for some of our students (probably the ones who need it most), CBB makes Judaism and being Jewish cool; that may be its most important gift to Jewish continuity.

All of this to say, that this was the week we brought the magic of camp – that special brand of ruach – to our school.  It was much-needed and much-appreciated.

This was the schedule:

This is a bit of what it looked like:

You may read and see more about it on our OJCS Student Life Blog.  Great thanks to our Student Life Coordinator Deanna Bertrend for putting things together on the OJCS side of things.  Great thanks to CBB Associate Director Jill Doctor and Assistant Director Marnie Gontovnik for leading things on the CBB side of things.  We look forward to increased collaboration between our communal institutions in the future.

Don’t forget to join us for our very special OJCS (Virtual) Family Chanukah Program on Tuesday, December 15th at 7:00 PM!  Our Jewish Studies Faculty has been hard at work putting this together and we don’t only want to celebrate our students and the holiday, but we want to celebrate a rare opportunity during these challenging times to come together as a school community.  Get your chanukkiyot, your PTA donuts, and your family together and join us on the Google Live Stream!

A Very Coronavirus Chanukah

This is normally the night where I am pouring through CAT-IV test results, doing some light statistical analysis and writing my annual blog post on our school’s results.  This is also the night historically where my primary duties are to be visible and schmoozing with parents as they come and go from Parent-Teacher Conferences.  So why is this night different from those other nights?

Wrong holiday, I know.

The very 2020 answer is, of course, COVID.  But what I am thinking about tonight is not just what is missing from this silent evening of virtual conferences and untaken standardized tests.  I am thinking about the holiday of Chanukah, which begins next week and what can be learned by refracting it through the lens of pandemic.

There is something about Chanukah which is tailor-made for this season.  Chanukah is the only Jewish holiday without a sacred text of its own.  (There is a Book of Maccabees, but it is part of the Catholic Bible.) Instead of a public reading, we are commanded to bear silent witness to the miracles of the season with a public doing – the lighting of candles in a window.

There’s nothing more COVID-friendly than a ritual that you do in your bubble, but visible to the public through a window!  That image – the action of a family candle-lighting silenced behind frozen glass – not only seems apropos of today (my first association is people visiting grandparents from the backyard) but also of Chanukah itself.

Chanukah is a fascinating holiday for many reasons.  In large part, the historical story is more of a civil war within Jewish society than a rebellion against a foreign power.  The Maccabees were fighting against (at least) two different strata of Jews – the Hellenizing elite and the acquiescing pietists.  The former were all too willing to assimilate and the latter believed it was only for God to act in the world.  The Maccabees took matters – and the covenant – into their own hands.  They were not content to let the world perfect itself; they understood themselves – and humanity – to be partners in the sacred work of repairing the world.

That’s a gross oversimplification, of course, but that idea of striking a balance between not letting the world overwhelm you, and taking appropriate action to perfect it, feels right for a Coronavirus Chanukah.  Since the Spring, we have been accustomed to controlling the things we can (hand-washing, masking, social distancing, bubbling, etc.) and forgoing precious, but now risky, experiences.  Perhaps as individuals that’s as much as we can do (which is still a lot!).  But as a society we aren’t simply content to let the virus do what it’s going to do; we have marshalled resources and expertise to develop therapeutics, vaccines, supply chains and distribution plans.  Like the Maccabbees, through human ingenuity and effort, we are active agents in our own salvation.

As we hopefully come through the virus night in the months ahead and begin to enter the vaccine day, let’s hope that by next Chanukah the image of a lit chanukkiah behind a window no longers resonates as COVID-proofing, but as a simple sharing of our collective joy of the holiday.

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!

OJCS Launches “Life & Legacy Circle”

It feels like a million years ago, I know, but it was only last February that we announced that our school would join fourteen other local Jewish organizations in a commitment to work together to support the future of the Ottawa Jewish Community.  Under the leadership of the Ottawa Jewish Community Foundation (OJCF), our community is in its second year delivering and implementing the Harold Grinspoon Foundation (HGF)’s “Life & Legacy” initiative.

We had only just begun our work when it – and the world – was interrupted by COVID-19.  If you want a quick refresher on the big idea, please watch this very short and excellent video produced by OJCF:

We feel passionately at OJCS that our value proposition could not be more clear – or more needed – than now.  In these uncertain times, the stability, excellence and innovation of our program; and the love, care and talent of our teachers are critical to the present and the future of not just the OJCS community, but the Ottawa Jewish Community.  Investing in Jewish school is investing in Jewish community.  The future leaders of this community are being developed within our walls – and for our virtuals learners on our screens – just as the current generation of leaders were.  A legacy gift to OJCS ensures a legacy of Jewish continuity for Ottawa – for your children, their children and future generations of children to come.

As the work of educating our community to the need, the value, and the ease of legacy giving, we are thrilled that we already have a number of families who have stepped forward to make their intent known.  We want to acknowledge and thank the first members of the OJCS Life & Legacy Circle:

Thank you, merci, and תודה רבה Life & Legacy Circle Members

  • Jessica Greenberg
  • Rabbi Eytan Kenter & Staci Zemlak-Kenter
  • Richard Roth and Dr. Riva Levitan
  • Ian and Estelle Melzer
  • Jeff and Rhoda Miller
  • Lisa and Mitch Miller
  • Dr. Jon and Jaimee Mitzmacher
  • Ilana Albert-Novick and Mitchell Novick
  • Joel Sachs
  • Lorne Segal
  • Fred Seller and Stacey Steinman

What do all the above have in common?  NOTHING!  That’s the point; other than a deep connection to OJCS, this list has all kinds of ages and income levels.  Every family can leave a legacy and secure the future.  Trust me, I’m on that list and I can assure you that you don’t need an estate or a measure of wealth to ensure the future of organizations that you care about.  But don’t take it from me, here is what another member of the Circle shared with us:

OJCS (aka Hillel Academy) has been a part of my life from as far back as I can remember. My spouse and I have included OJCS in our Life and Legacy plans because we want to ensure that Jewish education is a strong and thriving part of the Ottawa community now and long into the future.

As we look to grow our Circle, let’s end with another “circle” through the famous story of Honi ha-M’agel or Honi the Circle Drawer:

One day Honi was journeying on the road and he saw a man planting a carob tree. He asked, “How long does it take [for this tree] to bear fruit?” The man replied: “Seventy years.” Honi then further asked him: “Are you certain that you will live another seventy years?” The man replied: “I found [already grown] carob trees in the world; as my forefathers planted those for me so I too plant these for my children.”

Want to come plant with us?  You are invited to a special OJCS-OJCF (say that 5 times fast!) Virtual Parlour Meeting on Sunday, October 25th at 7:30 PM hosted by Roz and Steven Fremeth!  To get the link or to ask any Life & Legacy questions, please don’t hesitate to contact Staci Zemlak-Kenter, our Director of Development, at s.zemlak-kenter@theojcs.ca, or 613.722.0020  x 378.