Shofar So Good! (This is a LONG blog that I hope you read.)

The holidays start so early this year that I can barely squeeze in my favorite pun! With only four school days before Rosh HaShanah, we are doing our very best to get into the holiday spirit.  Our “Shofar Patrol” has been making the rounds, apples are being cut, and honey is being poured.  Let me take a moment to congratulate all our new teachers and all our new parents on a wonderful first week of school.  Your enthusiasm and your passion are welcome additions to our growing school and inspire our hopes not only for this year, but for the years to come here at the Ottawa Jewish Community School.

During our opening assembly, we talked as a school not only about the new colors and photos on the walls, but about the 18 new signs – 6 in Hebrew, 6 in French and 6 in English – that reflect what we now describe as “The OJCS Way”.  These are the “north stars” that came out of the work we did last year – the core values that help describe what is unique about our school.  We shared these values in a “Town Hall” last spring and they are described in greater detail in your OJCS Handbook.  We are excited to begin living those values and seeing how they impact culture and innovation in our school and community.  I also want to use them as a frame to discuss a few live issues we know are percolating…

“We learn better together.”

Those of you who are new to our school and to me, will learn that I embrace radical transparency.  I believe it is important to be authentic, honest, open to feedback and willing to lean into difficult conversations – all traits we believe worth modeling for our children. We have nothing to hide in our school and our parents are our partners. One of our north stars is that “we learn better together”. There are lots of “we’s” in our school – students with students, students with teachers, teachers with teachers, etc. – but parents are also part of the “we”.  Working together we can resolve almost any issue and adequately address any concern.

“Each person is responsible each to the other.”

I looked back to my blog a year ago and the number one issue facing our school was…our change to drop-off procedures!  It is hard to recall just how much bandwidth this took up, but it was significant.  There are a few lessons to be learned there…

We take the safety of our children as our highest concern.  The reason we invested so much energy last year in changing our drop-off procedures is that we wanted to ensure that the parking lot was controlled and safe.  We were so committed to it – and still are – that our entire administrative team commits itself each and every morning to being there.  (And we also think greeting our students each morning is the best way to start the day!)  It took a while for families to learn the ropes – and we have the emails to prove it!  But sooner than later, we got into a rhythm and now we have a safe and efficient drop-off.

It is deja vu all over again now that we have turned our attention to pick-up.  The issues are similar – we really want to make sure in a complicated world that each child finds his or her way to the right parent, carpool, bus or caregiver.  We also want to make sure students don’t wander into the parking lot or off campus without anyone noticing – things that could have happened here as a consequence of simply opening the doors and letting our entire school pour out.  There are minimal and maximal ways we could address this issue.  Lean too much to one side and you have greater convenience and less safety; lean too much to the other and you have greater safety and less convenience.  We are trying to find a middle path.

We invite your patience and appreciate your flexibility as we adjust to this new way of ending our day.  We firmly believe that sooner than later we will get into this rhythm as well, and we will add a safe and efficient pick-up to our safe and efficient drop-off.

“There’s a floor here – but no ceiling.”

This may seem like an odd place to anchor a conversation about snack and recess – which is the hot topic of the week – but it is actually where it lives.  The promise we make parents at the time of enrollment, not just at the beginning, but each and every year as we never take re-enrollment for granted, is that we have an appropriately rigorous floor for each student, but no ceiling of expectation for how far their passion and talent can fly.  That is why we are moving towards personalized learning, investing in innovation consultants, reimagining our schedules, introducing new technologies, playing with our space, etc., etc., all in the service of providing the highest-quality education possible.

We spent an enormous amount of time last year collecting data from alumni, former students and families, current students and families, the schools our children graduate into as we grappled with three really important conversations: What needs to be true about our French outcomes?  What needs to be clear about our Jewish expectations?  What is unique about teaching and learning at OJCS?  The answers to those questions were transparently shared out in Town Halls about French, Jewish Studies, and “The Future“.  And part of those answers required a re-imagination of our schedule, because time is a zero-sum game. And the reason we shared it so openly then was that we knew it would invite questions and we were happy to answer them then…and we remain happy to revisit them now that we are beginning to live them.

I want to focus here on the Lower School (K-5).  Up until this year, our Lower School had been functioning on a Middle School schedule – bells every 40 minutes dictating artificial changes that don’t suit the needs of younger students.  We wanted to move towards a larger block schedule that gives students and teachers the breathing room they need to let the learning flow at a more relaxed pace or to extend the learning where enthusiasm takes it.  So we have made that change.  It isn’t perfect (yet).  Some grades were easier than others due to personnel needs, but we are closer to where we want to be than where we were.

In Grades 1-5, in order to increase contact time in French and Jewish Studies – a need that came out loud and clear from our research last year – we are being more creative with the 50-minute block that was given to snack and recess each morning (a little over an hour after their arrival).  There has been no decrease in recess or physical activity.  (It has actually gone up with an added period of Physical Education.) What has changed – and where we are seeing the most questions and concern early on – is the nature of snack.  Our desire to provide our students with the nutrition they require remains intact.  Our willingness to provide our students with the time they require for snack has not changed.  What has changed – and where we have growing pains to work through – is that the time being given over to snack comes with a little bit of learning.

This will look and feel different in Grade One than it will in Grade Five. It will look and feel different in Week One than it will in Week Thirty. And the flexibility and autonomy our teachers have (now) allow them to make daily adjustments as per the needs of the children.  If some days the snack needs to come with little to no learning…that’s okay!  If some days the recess needs to be longer…that’s okay!  Another one of our “north stars” is that “we own our own learning” – and our teachers and students have full ownership of what needs to be true on a daily basis.  They are not being micromanaged by the administration.  That’s the real change to pay attention to – that we aren’t letting the bell dictate when learning begins or ends, or whether students can eat or not, or whether students get a body break or not – we are letting our teachers and students begin to take ownership of their learning since they know best what they need and when.

This is so new for us!  And for you.  It is natural that you have questions and concerns.  We welcome them directly.  We are having the same conversation with our teachers who also want to make sure that students have time to eat and time to play…and time to learn.  A number of parents have asked whether it would have been smarter to simply increase the length of the school day.  Believe me, I would love a longer day to work with and perhaps that’s a conversation we should be having.  But please don’t think that aren’t carefully considering the wellbeing – mental or physical – of our children.  We know the research on movement and on nutrition.  We believe our teachers – working with their students and with you – will discover what is best for each class and that we will land in a place that feels comfortable for all.

“We are all on inspiring Jewish journeys.”

One of the highlights of the first week was our inaugural “Welcome Ceremony” for Kindergarten students and parents.  Tears were shed as we took just a pause to name the liminal moment a child begins his or her formal Jewish learning.  To see them all under the tallitot surrounded by parents as our teachers shared a poem in Hebrew, French and English, and as Rabbi Finkelstein led a parental blessing before a final farewell, was to see the beginning not just of a family journey at OJCS, but – we hope – “an inspiring Jewish journey” leading…wherever it leads.  It was also a reminder of the sacred trust a family places in us for the education of their children and the holiness of such work.  A truly special way to begin the year…

“Ruach”

We added ruach (spirit or joy) as a “north star” not just because we needed six to make sure our “north star” was a “north Star of David”, but because we know how important ruach is in the life of a school.  We want our students and teachers to feel the joy of learning and the love of community.  We want each person to feel that special feeling when he or she can be their truest self and know that they will be heard and respected and loved.  That’s a lofty ambition, but one worth reaching towards.  It is why we are so excited about next week’s Middle School Retreat at Camp B’nai Brith of Ottawa (CBB).  It is why we are looking for greater parent engagement in our PTA and in our school.  It is why we created cafeteria space to eat and to sing together instead being siloed into classrooms.  It is why we raised money to install air conditioning in our hottest classrooms so our students can learn in comfort and not distress (with more to come).  It is why we are increasing field trip opportunities, adding electives to Middle School, and constantly re-imagining what we do and how we do it.  It is why we get up in the morning each and every day with a fire in our bellies and a smile upon our lips.

Research shows that one of the most important variables to academic success is teacher joy – when teachers are excited to teach, students are excited to learn.  And when students are excited to learn, anything is possible.  That’s the future we are building at the Ottawa Jewish Community School.  That’s why we are willing to make changes, even when those changes are hard and sometimes even when those changes fail.  We will never let fear of failure prevent us from reaching towards those (north) stars, because we’ll never get there if we don’t try.

As the eve of a new Jewish Year approaches, it is my most sincerest hope that this is the year we’ve been waiting for.  To all the teachers, staff, parents, students, donors, supporters, and friends in this special school- thank you for your enthusiasm and your hard work.  5779 is shaping up to be a quite an amazing year!

From our family to yours, “Shanah tovah!”

What a Difference a Year Makes

Sitting here in my office on the Friday before teachers report on Monday, I cannot but marvel at how different things are from just a year ago.  This will not be one of my overly-verbose and lengthy blog posts with oodles of details.  I do that often enough and if we are being honest, I will probably be doing it again sooner than later.  Here I just want to name the feeling…and that feeling is best described by one of our new “North Stars” – ruach.

We have had so many teachers in and out of the building this summer – which represents a major cultural shift – working and planning and preparing and organizing and beautifying. Why?  Because they are full of enthusiasm and excitement about the year to come…

We have had so many vendors, parent volunteers and campus employees working tirelessly this summer – which continues a major cultural shift – painting and repairing and cleaning and beautifying.  Why? Because they understand that how the building looks and feels matters and they are invested in the year to come…

Prototyping a new behavior management system at OJCS!

We have had opportunities for the administrative team and the teachers to gather for social bonding this summer – which begins a major cultural shift – axe-throwing and karaoke singing and eating and playing together.  Why? Because we know that our relationships contribute to the joy we feel when we come to work and we know that our joy is contagious to our students and parents and we have such high hopes for the year to come…

Last year was amazing, but it barely scratched the surface.  This year will be a huge leap forward, but it too will only be a step in the direction we are heading toward.  When we say that we intend to be the finest school in Ottawa, we do not mean it as hyperbole or as a marketing slogan.  We mean it literally and it is already beginning to happen.  We see it in our two kindergarten classes which are still growing even this close to the beginning of the school year.  We see it in our overall growth of nearly 10 percent.  We see it in the caliber of our new faculty – many of whom sought us out.

We know it from the additional new gifts from donors that we haven’t even had a chance to announce yet (stay tuned!), which will only bring the future closer.  We know it from the programmatic changes launching this year – many of which were described in prior posts – but hereto, includes some new ones that we have not yet had a chance to announce (stay tuned!).

I am as excited about this year of school as I have ever been about any year in any school I have had the honor of heading.  With our “North Stars” to guide us, a team of talented administrators to lead us, a group of gifted and loving teachers to make the magic happen, a community of caring parents to partner with, and – of course – our students whose voice will be amplified and whose educational journeys represent sacred work – this year will undoubtedly be our best yet.

If you were on the fence – get off.  If you were skeptical – believe.  The future of education is being written at the Ottawa Jewish Community School.

That’s #TheOJCSDifference.

How We Are Spending Your Summer Vacation

Happy Summer!

Even though this is my second summer in Ottawa, my internal clock is still tuned towards a Florida calendar, so it feels like summer should be over any minute!  But luckily (for all of us!) we still have plenty of time to recharge and refresh before a full return.

That does not mean that we are not hard at work preparing for what will assuredly be our best year yet in 2018-2019.  And it is not just the new colours on the walls (with other surprises yet to come) that is worth being excited about.  We are about to take a great leap forward and before we all get caught up in the hullabaloo of workaday life, I want to take a chance to highlight a few things that may have escaped your attention.  [If you are only interested in a hiring update…scroll down!]

Website / Google Classroom / Blogs

Please be aware that due to significant and overwhelming feedback from parents, teachers, and students that we are – with the help of the amazing Josh Max – currently transitioning to a new and improved website and transitioning away from Google Classroom to a blogging platform.  Our website is about to be a whole lot more accurate and helpful to current and prospective families, as well as to donors, supporters, volunteers and community stakeholders.  A new virtual platform is about to make it a whole lot easier for parents and students to know what is happening in their classes and for teachers and students to share pictures, videos, examples and reflections of the incredible work they are doing.

“We learn better together” is one our North Stars and this shift towards a better and more accessible platform will help us expand the concentric circles of “we” to amplify and share the learning.  We will likely look for opportunities to provide education for parents who wish for it and all our current privacy policies remain intact.  Parents will continue to maintain full control over privacy, even as we take the next step forward.  Stay tuned for more information.  Feel free to ask any questions.

Meet & Greet / Back to School / First Day / First Day of K / Trimesters

There are a whole lot of bullet points that describe minor, but meaningful changes, so let’s name them clearly:

  • We are moving next year to a “trimester year” – dividing the year into three trimesters, no longer into two semesters.  What is the impact of that?
  • It means that we will issue three report cards (not one progress report and two report cards) and that the schedule for “Parent-Teacher Conferences” (or “Student-Led Conferences” should any grade prototype them this year) will come a bit earlier than in years past (Fall and Winter).  What is the impact of that?
  • It means that we will not have a “Back to School” evening this year. With more accurate and accessible information available to parents from the beginning and with a first “Parent-Teacher Conference” earlier on the calendar, we believe this evening has been rendered obsolete.  What is the impact of that?
  • It means that we do want to provide an opportunity for families in the Lower School (K-5) to have an opportunity to meet teachers, see their classrooms, find their desks, etc., before the first day of school.  Now that you do not need to schlep all your materials, we have framed this day – Thursday, August 30th – as a K-5 “Meet & Greet” with an open-ended window from 3:00 – 5:00 PM for families to drop on by.  [We have timed it that way to flow into the PTA Welcome Back BBQ.]  What is the impact of that?
  • It means that all our students, including K, will be ready to begin school on its first day.  Parents of Kindergartners will be invited to stay for a brief ceremony marking their children’s transition to OJCS and all parents will be invited to stay for a brief PTA Welcome Back to School Breakfast.

Middle School Retreat / Tefillah

We have two Middle School prototypes colliding during the first month of school – the launch of our new daily Middle School minyan, which we unpacked at one of our “town halls” last spring and our inaugural Middle School Retreat at Camp B’nai Brith (CBB) of Ottawa.  To help ease our Middle Schoolers into minyan and to take advantage of being away together at camp to set the right tone and to introduce the right habits, we are looking at the beginning of the school year (with regard to tefillah) in three phases:

  • Middle School Tefillah Bootcamp: 9/2 – 9/11
    • We envision these first days serving as a “Part I” conversation of some of the whys and whats of tefillah, as well as a straight bootcamp of the basic matbeah shel tefillah [literally “formula of prayer”] we intend to use with Middle School.
    • These sessions will be non-performative and, thus, can be held as a full Middle School (or any combination we see fit) in either prayer space.
  • Tefillah @ Middle School Retreat: 9/12 – 9/14
    • We want to take advantage of these 2-3 days (depending on how we schedule out the travel days), with less time pressure, to launch “Part II” of the whys and whats of tefillah as a way of preparing for regular tefillah upon our return.
    • Students will be encouraged to bring tallitot and tefillin on the retreat as we will be dividing into minyanim and beginning our work together.
  • Tefillah @ Middle School Beginning 9/17
    • We return from the Middle School retreat and launch our regular Middle School Tefillah on Monday, September 17th.
    • Dr. Mitzmacher will facilitate the Traditional Egal minyan in the Chapel; Rabbi Finkelstein will facilitate the Traditional Non-Egal minyan in the Beit Midrash.
    • We are looking at a Monday-Friday template for Middle School Tefillah
      • Monday: Regular Minyan (straight davenning using the matbeah)
      • Tuesday: Iyunei Tefillah (meeting in small groups for conversation; sort of an ongoing “Part III” of whys and whats)
      • Wednesday: Regular Minyan
      • Thursday: Torah Reading / Torah Study / Student Divrei Torah
      • Friday: Kabbalat Shabbat (using a different matbeah)

Please bear in mind that these are prototypes – which means they are subject to constant tinkering as we learn what works and what doesn’t.

Hiring Update

We are pleased to share with you an update of new hires as we are almost completely staffed up for 2018-2019!  We are thrilled that these new teachers will be joining our amazing returning teachers to make next year our best yet!

  • Sharon Reichstein will be joining our Administrative Team this fall as our Director of Special Needs.  Ms. Reichstein is a specialist who brings decades of experience working with students who have special needs and looks forward to sharing her expertise with our faculty, students and parents.  As Director of Special Needs, Ms. Reichstein will be the central hub of ensuring all of our students’ needs are met through personalized plans.
  • Michael Washerstein is a passionate and experienced educator coming to us from Philadelphia to be our new Middle School English & Jewish Studies Teacher.  In addition to his secular educational experience, Mr. Washerstein’s time as a USY Advisor and experience as a MASA Teaching Fellow in Israel, will serve him well in his dual role at OJCS. Working closely with Rabbi Finkelstein, Mr. Washerstein looks forward to forging a strong connection with our Middle School students.
  • Yardena Shainbach has relocated to Ottawa after many years with the English Montreal School Board.  Ms. Shainbach is a fluent French speaker and will be taking on the Grades K-2 French position.  She is currently working on her Master of Education through the University of Ottawa.
  • Sigal Baray will be our new Kitah Gimmel Jewish Studies Teacher. Morah Sigal comes with decades of experience teaching Hebrew in Ottawa and is well known to our students from her time as an Occasional Teacher at OJCS.  She is currently engaged in coursework from an internationally recognized university in Israel.
  • Lara Vlajkov and Faye Mellenthin are certified teachers who will be Educational Assistants at OJCS next year.  Ms. Vlajkov will be part of our Kindergarten team and looks forward to lending her artistic touch to her day-to-day teaching.  Ms. Mellenthin will be working as an Educational Assistant with our Grade 3 class this year and comes with extensive teaching experience from the United Kingdom.
We are finishing up with final interviews and contracts for an additional Kindergarten EA, an additional Core French Teacher and a part-time Music Teacher, so stay tuned!

The Transparency Files: The OJCS 2018-2019 Faculty

It is amazing to note that we have reached June and the final three weeks of school are in front of us!  It is hard to believe how much we have accomplished and how much we have planned for next year.  I can certainly understand that no one wants to wish their summer away – including me – but we are so excited about what next year has in store at OJCS that we really almost cannot wait to begin again!  Speaking of next year…

As you hopefully have already heard, we are saying goodbye to Marlène Colbourne and Rachel Kugler who will be retiring at the end of this school year after long and distinguished careers at OJCS.  [Hopefully you are planning on attending their “Retirement Tea” on Sunday, June 24th at 2:00 PM here at the school.  Email the office to RSVP.]  We are also saying goodbye to two additional longstanding teachers – Stacy Sargeant and Rabbi David Rotenberg – and we wish them all the best in their new endeavors.  These four faculty members have contributed much to our school and each will be missed.  The search process to fill existing and new positions has already begun and we will update you periodically as we make hires.

You will see below that we are looking to hire a significant number of positions – more than the four alluded to above.  Let’s talk about why that is true…

…the first reason is pretty simple: we are a growing school!  With attrition down and recruitment up, we will need more teachers.  With 26 students enrolled for Kindergarten (and more prospects expressing interest), we will have two Kindergartens next year, and they each require not only a lead teacher, but an assistant teacher in order for us to deliver on our promise of personalization.

…speaking of delivering on promises, the second reason is due to the increase in contact time for French next year.  We will need two additional French teachers to join our French Department to ensure that the commitment to increased rigor comes along with the increased time.

…the third reason is a direct response to both our own lived experience and the feedback we heard loud and clear from the Annual Parent Survey.  With all the transition that took place from last year to this, our ability to meet the needs of our current special needs population requires more support. We are actively looking for a Director of Special Education who will work under our Vice Principal and with our Resource Teachers to ensure that our communication will be as clear and proactive as our accommodations.  We are also looking for a part-time Music Teacher to help clarify and streamline music education at OJCS.

One more point to make before we make the big reveal…

You will note a few structural changes as well.  The first is the aforementioned creation of a Department of Special Education.  The second is the formation of an Education Leadership Team (ELT) that will bring together members of the faculty who have been given “Coordinator” portfolios, signifying additional quasi-administrative responsibilities, and members of the administration to help move the innovation agenda forward, preparing us to take that next great leap forward.  The third is that we will be sharing out soon a revamped Middle School Jewish Studies Curriculum that may better explain the way we have described the positions below.

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 2018-2019 OJCS Faculty & Staff

Lower School General Studies Faculty

  • Kindergarten: Janet Darwish, a French Teacher & 2 Educational Assistants
  • Grade One: Ann-Lynn Rapoport, Lianna Krantzberg & a French Teacher
  • Grade Two: Ann-Lynn Rapoport & a French Teacher
  • Grade Three: Julie Bennett & Aaron Polowin (French)
  • Grade Four: Julie Bennett, a French Teacher (Core) & Aaron Polowin (Extended)
  • Grade Five: Melissa Thompson, Aaron Polowin (Core) & a French Teacher (Extended)

Lower School Jewish Studies Faculty

  • Kitah Gan: Shira Waldman
  • Kitah Alef: Ada Aizenberg & Lianna Krantzberg
  • Kitah Bet: Bethany Goldstein
  • Kitah Gimmel: A Jewish Studies Teacher
  • Kitah Dalet: Ada Aizenberg
  • Kitah Hay: Bethany Goldstein (Core) & Ruthie Lebovich (Extended)

[Please recall that this will be the last year of “Core” and “Extended” in Jewish Studies.]

Middle School Faculty

  • Science: Josh Ray
  • Mathematics: Chelsea Cleveland
  • Language Arts: A Teacher
  • Social Studies: Deanna Bertrend
  • Extended French: Stéphane Cinanni
  • Core French: Aaron Polowin (Grade 6) & a French Teacher (Grades 7 & 8)
  • Hebrew: Noga Reiss  (Level I) & Ruthie Lebovich (Level II)
  • Bible: A Bible Teacher
  • Rabbinics: Rabbi Howard Finkelstein

Specialists

  • Art: Shira Waldman
  • Music: A Music Teacher
  • PE: Josh Ray & Shira Waldman (Girls 7 & 8)
  • Library: Brigitte Ruel

Department of Special Education

  • Keren Gordon, Vice Principal
  • Director of Special Needs
  • Linda Signer, Resource Teacher
  • Brian Kom, Resource Teacher
  • Chelsea Cleveland, Math Resource

Education Leadership Team

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

Administration

  • Josh Max – IT & Technology Support
  • Ellie Kamil – Executive Assistant to the Head of School
  • Rabbi Howard Finkelstein – Dean of Judaic Studies
  • Jennifer Greenberg – Director of Recruitment
  • Keren Gordon – Vice-Principal
  • Dr. Jon Mitzmacher – Head of School

We are moving full steam ahead with candidates for all the above positions and between our extraordinary returning teachers and the quality of the candidates we have met thus far for new teachers, we know that the future is bright at OJCS.

Go to the Principal’s Office! You’ve Been “Caught Being Kind”!

If each time the school calls is to inform the parent that their child has misbehaved (or is sick or forgot their lunch), one imagines that when the phone rings and the school’s phone number comes up on the “caller ID”, the parent is not exactly excited to pick up.  But what if just every now and again we are calling to let them know how proud we are of their child?

How often do principals or heads of school get to call parents with good news?

We are on a mission at OJCS to inspire acts of lovingkindness by building a community of caring.  We want to be a school where we proactively avoid unkind behavior through explicit skill-building and incentivizing menschlichkeit, not (only) reactively addressing unkind behavior through meaningful consequences.  Our students are engaged in the work through Knesset (our student government) and our faculty are engaged in the work through its “Minds Up!” committee.  And the administration is eager to play its part as well…

If each time you were sent to the “principal’s office” was because you were in trouble, you probably wouldn’t want to be hanging out in that part of the building.  And if a principal only spent his or her time with students referred for misbehavior, there would be a significant gap in relationships.

As part of developing this spirit of leadership and a community of caring in our school, how wonderful would it be if each of our students – and our parents and teachers – held the additional title of “Kindness Ambassador”!

One step we look to take right away is to empower our teachers to start sending students to us when they do something kind.  We look forward, as an administration, to focusing on positively rewarding kind behavior as much, if not more, than applying consequences to unkind behavior, so that when the phone rings in the home of an OJCS parent and the school comes up on the “caller ID” that the emotion it triggers is excitement and not dread. Pick up the phone when we call…your child may have been caught in the act of being kind!

As promised

Taking a Leap of Fact

There they are…these are some actual members of our current Class of 2030.

All the talk and rhetoric about what we could be, what we ought to be – it is all for these children.  They are not an educational theory to be debated; they are flesh and blood children to be educated.  What we do now matters not in the abstract realm of philosophy, but in the practical realm of whether these girls and boys will be prepared for success in the 21st century in all the ways academic, social and Jewish that can be defined.  They – and all of the children in our school – are what it is really about.  They are the reminder and the inspiration; the goal and the promise.

January this year brings us a wonderful confluence of events – the publication and mailing of enrollment materials for the 2018-2019 academic year and the Jewish holiday of Tu B’Shevat – a holiday celebrating, among many things, the planting of seeds and the harvesting of fruits.  I always marvel when the rhythm of Jewish living intersects with the rhythm of school life – it never fails to create meaningful and new connections.

And so the time has come to see how well we have sown the seeds of confidence and competence; love and caring; rigor and renewal; energy and enthusiasm – have we begun to deliver on the rightfully lofty academic, spiritual, emotional and social expectations our children and parents have for us?

You are likely familiar with the phrase, “leap of faith”.  A “leap of faith” is predicated on the notion that one cannot really know (at least in scientific terms) religious truth and so in the end it is a matter of faith.  You believe…because you believe.

However, as admissions and enrollment packets find their ways into parents’ hands, all of us involved in the sacred and holy task of educating children look to this time of year and hope that we have nurtured the seeds we have sown with success.  We are not looking for parents to make a leap of faith and enroll their children in our schools. We are looking for parents to make a leap of fact and enroll their children in our schools – confident that our school is the right place for their children to receive the education they want and deserve.

The seeds were planted during the summer.  They were watered and nurtured during the fall and into the winter.  As winter moves on (and on and on) and slowly moves towards spring, the faculty, staff, administration, lay leaders, donors, and supporters of the Ottawa Jewish Community School look forward to a rich and satisfying harvest.

We look forward to many, many leaps of fact.

Speaking of facts…

…our work with NoTosh – which we described at length prior to Winter Break launched this week with a first site visit.  We debriefed the project with the full faculty and had our first Design Team meeting.  We look forward to sharing more as the work develops!

…our Grade 9 Alumni Survey has closed (our Grade 12 has another week of collection to go) and we look forward to sharing the results. We are working  on the “French outcomes” deliverable first announced here, but there are other important data points about how well (or not) OJCS prepared students for all aspects of high school that we’d like to share out as well.  [All current Grades 2 & 3 Families, any current francophone families or any prospective family who has questions or concerns about French at OJCS should “save the date” for February 8th.  Our “French Town Hall” will take place that evening; still tweaking the time.  Stay tuned.  Or restez à l’écoute.]

…our work with the Rabbinic Advisory Committee is moving forward as well.  We are currently working through elements of tefillah that will ensure we deliver on our promises of strengthening the “J” in “OJCS”.

The Silent Power of Chanukah

Why are these nights different than all other nights?

Photographed by Chayim B. Alevsky.
Photographed by Chayim B. Alevsky.

Wrong holiday, I know.

But there is actually something powerfully different about Chanukah that has much to teach us about the power of experiences and a pedagogy of meaning…

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.

For me the pedagogical takeaway isn’t so much the “silence” as it is the “act”.  It is an action that anyone can take; it is not so ritualistically complex that only the most knowledgable 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. 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.

“Grade 6 w/KISS FM celebrating the 107 purses collected for “Purses With A Purpose”.

It is one thing to teach social action; it is identity-forming for our children to go out into the world as part of their Jewish day school experience and make the world a better place by doing social action.

It is one thing to read about Israel; it is transformative to visit Israel.

And for this time of year?

It is one thing to study Chanukah; it is something infinitely more meaningful to light a chanukiah in the window, surrounded by family. Here at OJCS, we look forward to an opportunity to gather together to light the Chanukah candles and celebrate in song on Monday, December 18th at 6:00 PM (note new time) in the Gym.

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 those less fortunate than ourselves.

Chag urim sameach from my family to yours!

Where Does Healthy Parent-School Communication Live? (Hint. Not in the parking lot or on WhatsApp.)

I recently described in a post an activity we did as a faculty which introduced Roland Barth’s concept of the “non-discussible” and the “discussible”.  A “non-discussible” is something that is discussed in all the wrong places and all the wrong times preventing the issue from being resolved in a healthy and constructive manner. In the context of faculty, it is about all the things teachers talk about in the lunchroom instead of with the administration (although the administration almost always knows the conversations are happening about them/without them).  In the context of parents, it is about all the things folks talk about in the parking lot or on social media instead of with the school (although the school almost always knows the conversations are happening about them/without them).  In both cases you gauge the health of the culture by the degree to which you move your “non-discussibles” into “discussibles”.  The more willing we are to discuss what matters most in a constructive, healthy, transparent manner with the people who have the ability to address those issues honestly and responsibly, the healthier our culture.  The healthier the culture – whether we are talking about teacher-administration or parent-school – the more successful the school.

I was inspired by one of my rabbi’s sermons over the holidays to revisit a powerful idea from Martin Buber which I think informs this conversation.  [Buber “was an Austrian-born Jewish philosopher best known for his philosophy of dialogue, a form of religious existentialism centered on the distinction between the I-Thou relationship and the I-It relationship.”]

The basic idea (and I realize that I am butchering it for the sake of brevity) is 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 metaphor, but as an existential fact.

Now that takes a lot of energy.  So much so that it is perfectly natural to have “I-It” relationships or moments – sometimes I just want to pick up my allergy medication and go home; I am not seeking to have an “I-Thou” relationship with my pharmacist.  I do, however, want to have “I-Thou” relationships with my wife and children and it serves as a useful and sometimes painful reminder of how hard that can be when Jaimee and I (like many busy couples) are forced to use email or text to communicate because we are two ships passing in the night.  It is hard to invite God’s presence into an electronic communication…

Our success in building a culture which facilitates the transition from “non-discussible” to “discussible”, I would suggest, will be determined by whether or not we see each other as “Thou’s” and not “It’s”.  Have we done the work necessary from the start of school to develop “Thou” relationships with our teachers?  With our students and their parents?  We’ll know if we are able to identify the good that comes with each student and share it with his or her parents.  We’ll know if we are able to share the difficult truths which are our responsibility to share and have them received in the spirit in which we will surely wish it to be received. We’ll know if we are able to hear difficult truths about ourselves in the spirit in which they will surely be given, the spirit of genuine partnership where only the wellbeing of the child is important. The spirit of seeing the best in each other, even when it takes a little more energy.  The spirit that exists when we see each other as a “Thou” and not an “It”.

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

Finally, during these days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we engage in the act of teshuvah – the complicated act of acknowledging past wrongs, correcting past mistakes, promises of changed behavior, etc.  Here, in the most public of forums, please allow me apologize to all those I have wronged or hurt, intentionally or unknown over the past year.

Easy fasts for all who do so…meaningful reflections for all who feel the need.

Expat Files: Please and Thanks

Let’s talk about yogurt…

Nothing makes you feel more American than discovering what you think is snack-size is apparently appropriate for an adult meal. Nothing crystallizes my emigration experience from America like my search for a Canadian yogurt that doesn’t make me appear Brobdingnagian.

If your spoon doesn’t fit the yogurt container, it cannot possibly contain enough yogurt to be a meal.  Yes?  If the container fits in your closed fist, it cannot have enough protein to get you through four hours.  Right?  Maybe the European alcohol proofing in the beer makes it up on the other side?  I am definitely not starving here in Ottawa.  But I am definitely not satisfied with the yogurt situation. Stay tuned.

In other expatriate news, I have only returned my coffee three times forgetting that the default position for “coffee” apparently comes with milk and sugar.  You can get a joint checking account, but cannot get a joint credit card.  You can get tires at the supermarket and grills at the tire store.  The credit card machine comes to you.  Gambling is apparently legal and bingo is big.  The DVR has become a PVR and like half the channels appear two or more times in your guide, so I have wound up recording the same show like three times too many.

In expatriate educational news, you can be a Supply Teacher or an Occasional Teacher (that is my favorite job title ever), but not a Substitute Teacher.  You can be an Educational Assistant, but not a Teaching Assistant nor Assistant Teacher.  Do NOT confuse “college” for “university”.  You are in Grade Six, not Sixth Grade.  You do not misbehave, you dis-regulate.  (Giving new meaning to the idea of “staying regular”.  Ba-dum-bum.)  You don’t have snack, you get a nutrition break. Washroom (not bathroom).

You get the idea…Canada is a different country.  Brilliant.

I remember moving to the Upper West Side of Manhattan and revisiting Seinfeld reruns to pick up the nuances I missed upon first viewing.  I am not entirely sure what the exact equivalent is here, but I am considering The Kids in the Hall, Degrassi High and You Can’t Do That on Television for starters (and to totally date myself).

We have officially been in Canada for over two weeks and I am finishing up my second week here at OJCS.  I am very excited and encouraged by it all.  I am looking forward to seeing my kids next week (they are finished with camp and enjoying time with grandparents) and to having our whole family together again and here in Ottawa.  I am looking forward to attending Prizmah’s Governance and Fundraising Academy’s (GFA) conference in St. Louis next week with a few of our lay leaders.  It will be nice to reconnect with my friends from Prizmah and with my colleagues from the other participating Jewish day schools (with extra joy to see folk from my first school, the Solomon Schechter Day School of Las Vegas).

 

As I ease back into weekly blog posts, I am preparing to (re)focus on my OJCS stakeholder community as one primary audience.  I will begin linking my blog to the school’s website and pushing out new posts through its social media (in addition to my social media).  I will be thinking about how to integrate/revise the school’s existing channels of communication (Constant Contacts, email, GoogleClassroom, social media, website, etc.) to ensure parents, students and teachers have one clear address to find all they need and that all our communication vehicles are driving to that address. I will be sharing transparently about the big issues we are facing, the big conversations we are having, the big decisions we are contemplating, the big news we have to share and anything else worthy of your attention.  [Spoiler Alert: Announcing the OJCS 2017-2018 Faculty coming soon!]  Hopefully you will participate in those conversations by commenting on this blog, by liking/sharing/commenting on social media, by email, phone call or just dropping by for a cup of coffee (no milk, no sugar).

And for those of you who have been with me on this crazy journey across time zones, schools, organizations and countries, I hope you will continue to find this blog worth the read.

Please and thanks.

L’hitraot Y’all: A Farewell to Seven Years of SaltLife

“Salt Life” bumper stickers originated in Jacksonville, Florida and are originally stickers on the back of cars that used to indicate a surfer or body boarder whose life is centered on beach. Salt Life is a way of life and dress brand for individuals who adore surfing, boarding, and all things shoreline and wave related. The term “salt life” means a kind of boho beach lifestyle, now it’s also a company that promotes it.

My very first blog post was called “Southern Hospitality” accompanied by the above photo of Jacksonville Beach and was written almost exactly seven years ago.

How do you even try to wrap up seven years of a life?  Images, quotes, data, audio, memories start to flood the mind making it difficult to make sense of what a chapter that long in a life truly means.  We’ve all aged, but our girls have definitely aged in a much more fun way than their parents.  Professionally, I have had the unique (at least in my profession) opportunity to share farewells from each of the three amazing professional opportunities that occupied much of my time while living in Jacksonville.  Our journey from Las Vegas to Jacksonville was to assume the headship of the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School. Four years later it was time to say farewell

Next up was my executive directorship of the Schechter Day School Network.  Two years later it was time to say farewell

And just last week, I reflected and said farewell to Prizmah

So, I wouldn’t blame you for being sick of hearing me say “good-bye” at this point.  I’m tired of saying “good-bye” and we don’t actually leave for Canada for another week and change!  But. Professional good-byes only cover so much.  Seven years is longer than anywhere I have ever lived in my life as an adult and pretty close to the longest that I have ever lived anywhere at all ever.  A chapter of life this impactful is worthy of more than a series of professional reflections and thank-you’s however heartfelt.

And to think…that a guy who hates the beach could love a salt life.

Things That Definitely Happened During These Seven Years

  • Maytal went from 2 to 9; Eliana went from 4 to 11.
  • Jaimee and I went from 8 years married to 15.
  • We lived in two houses.
  • We voted in two different presidential elections and had very different feelings about the outcomes.
  • I successfully transitioned saying “y’all” ironically to non-ironically.
  • There were at least 11 days in which I did not sweat.
  • We went a on a variety of road trips only to abuse social media with friendly hashtags like #MitzmacherSummerFamilyRoadTrip2015Day12EatingASandwichInRoanokeVirginiaOnlyToAnnoyFriendsAndFamily
  • I had a love affair with no less than three styles of travel bags.
  • My children can identify each brand of Hilton by their signature cookie.
  • I can identify each airline by their signature customer service approaches to delays-cancellations-rebooks-refunds.
  • I checked “airport shoeshine” off my superficial bucket list (#SuperficialBucketList).  It was pretty awesome.
  • Who likes Mint Juleps?  Apparently we do.
  • I went from a .7 mile commute in Las Vegas to a .5 commute in Jacksonville to a 37-step commute inside my own house.  Take that carbon footprint.  Sure, I’ll be driving the same minivan for 23 years at this rate, but I saved the world from climate change.  You are welcome.

 

When we moved here seven summers ago, lots of folk asked “Why Jacksonville?”  (Just like now we are cycling through a round of “Why Ottawa?”)  Well, despite the risk of cliche, “southern hospitality” was really part of what drew us to this community – its genuine warmth and welcoming nature.  So warm and so welcome, in fact, that we were quite convinced when we first arrived with muffins delivered and wagons welcomed, that perhaps we, ourselves (or really who are we kidding, me) weren’t nice enough to live here. In the same ways that I found my work environment as nurturing and supportive as any I have ever worked in, I would say that we found our overlapping work, school, shul, and Jewish communities all that and an authentic biscuit.  All four of us leave Jacksonville with treasured friends for life.

Las Vegas is a community where (almost) no one is from; Jacksonville is community where (virtually) everyone is from.  We learned in Las Vegas the power of opening up our homes to build community – as teachable moments, for professional networking, to enrich our children, to make a life – and kicked it up a few notches in Jacksonville.  As our annual holiday celebrations grew and grew each year, no guest felt more grateful than Jaimee and I did as hosts. We hope to continue to pay forward the warm welcomes of prior homes in our next chapter.

Speaking of Jaimee…

How blessed am I.

I have no idea how someone can work full time while seemingly being a full-time wife and mother at the same time, but somehow Jaimee manages.  Her organizationals skills are epic and well-documented.  Her cooking skills have evolved past recognition from box-and-boil to multi-course-from-scratch delicacies.  Late-night meetings became biweekly business trips, but somehow everyone got where they were supposed to be.  She’s an amazing educator in her own right, influencing me professionally more than she knows, my closer, my partner, and my bestie.  For the last 18 years, we’ve taken many leaps of faith from job to job and from community to community, but always together.

 

And so we say our final (for real this time) goodbyes as we await the moving trucks in the days ahead…

What happened in Vegas definitely didn’t stay there; what happened in Jacksonville won’t stay there as well.  We will remain connected to the people and places who continue to shape and contribute to our lives as we look forward to all the new experiences awaiting us in Ottawa.  Follow our story on social media if you like, as we will surely follow yours.

We’ll always have flip-flops in January.  #SaltLife Out.