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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leaning Into Forgiveness 5782

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

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

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

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

Wow.

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

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

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

 

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

G’mar chatimah tovah.

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

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!

Keeping the “R”-uach in Siddu-“R”: My Words to Kitah Alef at Our Chaggigat Ha’Siddur

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

“Before I call each student by name to ‘give’ them their siddur, I want to take just a handful of minutes to share a few words…

The Hebrew word siddur comes from the Hebrew root samech-dalet-reish which means “order”.  (You have another common example from the Passover Seder – same root, same idea.)  The siddur, in this sense, represents the commonly accepted order of prayers for each service, handed down from generation to generation, with some changes and modifications, but largely intact from the days of the Talmud through today.  Thus, one way to view an event like today’s is to celebrate our children taking up their links in the chain of Jewish history.  And it is that, for sure, but there’s another idea I’d like to name.

As our students navigate their Jewish journeys at OJCS, they are introduced to a critical concept for understanding Jewish prayer – the idea that prayer exists on a spectrum between kevah, the fixed order of thingsand kavannah, the intentionality that one who prays brings to his or her praying.  Both are critical to meaningful prayer, but we tend to focus on kevah and forget the kavannah.  It is true that without kevah you cannot have community or continuity.  The fact that Jews throughout time and across the world say these prayers at these times with these words and this choreography creates a sense of shared experience which builds community and fosters continuity between generations.  But that cannot be the whole story.  Without kavannah, prayer becomes a rote or robotic exercise lacking in the joy and meaning that makes prayer nourishing and soulful.

Have you ever gone into a Kitah Alef classroom and listened to them pray?

I have, even though it has sadly been a while, and what I can tell you is that you don’t have to worry about joy or ruach or kavannah!  You got a taste of that this morning – the younger you are, the more spiritually open, and the more easily one finds it to sing without self-consciousness.  It sadly changes for almost all of us as we get older.  I view this, however, as a challenge to be met, not a fate to bemoan.  I view the giving of our siddurim to Kitah Alef not as a gift, but a brit – a contract.  Our job as a school, and I hope your jobs as parents with us as sacred partners, is to ensure that our children don’t simply learn how to say the words, chant the prayers, and when to stand, sit and bow.  Our job is to nurture and foster the joy and the meaning.  We don’t simply want our students to be technically proficient so they can perform at their Bar or Bat Mitzvahs.  We want them to know from experience why a high schooler, university student, young adult and adults in general would choose to pray when it becomes their choice.  That’s the holy work ahead of us in the years to come.  That’s why this rite of passage marks not an end, but a beginning.

It is why a Chaggigat Ha’Siddur – why a celebration of a siddur gifted by the school, decorated by the parents, and instructed in by the teachers is so appropriate to mark this stage of our journey.

One of our school’s North Stars is that “we are all on inspiring Jewish journeys” and the Chaggigat Ha’Siddur is just the next stop on a journey that began together under the chuppah on the first day of Kindergarten.  Another of our school’s North Stars is ruach.  My prayer for this class as they go on this journey together is that we manage to hold onto the Ruach in sidduR.  That’s how we can ensure that the siddur we give them today won’t be just a trophy to be admired on a shelf, but becomes a tool to be used for discovery and meaning.  Let today’s simcha not merely serve as a moment to celebrate, but an inspiration to reach the next stop, and the stop after that, in the extraordinary and unpredictable Jewish journey of this remarkable group of children and families.

Ken y’hi ratzon.

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

I Didn’t Want to Have to Write an Israel Blog Post

I found myself nudged early last week – and justly so – by my Jewish Studies Faculty for not having quickly issued a statement about the situation in Israel.  It wasn’t that I wasn’t paying close attention.  I just shared last month my perspective (and my pride) about having my older daughter studying in Jerusalem.  I always try to pay attention to what is happening in Israel, but I have naturally been paying even-closer-attention since she arrived.  I knew as soon as anyone about the current escalation of violence through the WhatsApp message you can see above.  I knew and I cared and yet still I delayed speaking.  Why?

Well, I guess that similar to other issues of national or international import, I am never entirely certain whether it is an appropriate use of my small slice of the blogosphere to add to a conversation in which I bring no particular expertise and no concrete suggestions.  Is there something I can say or offer that will help address what is going on in Israel right now and how we could or should respond?  Do I have something critical to share with our school community about how to process and discuss current events?

The truth is that our school is taught by talented and bright professionals who have access to a myriad of resources.  Our community (in concentric circles of city, province, country and international) provides all kinds of additional expertise which I do my best to funnel to our families, teachers and alumni.  I can be a hub for sharing inwards and a megaphone for sharing outwards, but I certainly don’t think that I have an answer or a perspective that will move the needle in anyone’s conversation or advocacy.

And yet…

Saying nothing at all doesn’t feel right either.  As a Jewish educator – as a Jew – I believe it is appropriate to speak purely from the heart about Israel…

…a place that changed my life in 1988.

…a place that changed it again in 1992.

…a place that changed it once again in 1997 and 1998.

…a place in 2021 that I have sent my older daughter to study, and will do the same for my younger one when she, too, reaches Grade 10 in 2024.

…a place that I anxiously await revisiting.

Because like a lot of Jews of my generation, a teen Israel experience (along with camp) was a crucial step on my Jewish journey.  It also was my very first job in Jewish education.

I’ve shared this first part before.  I first went to Israel in 1988 as part of our local Federation’s teen tour.  It was an extraordinary experience and I met friends that summer that I am still close with today.  I returned to Israel in 1992 as part of a NFTY in Israel summer experience.  (Yes, that is a bandana over my long, long hair.)

My very first job in Jewish education was working for the Bureau of Jewish Education of Greater Los Angles (BJE-LA) running teen programs, paramount of which was the LA Summer-in-Israel Ulpan.  I cannot provide a link to the program because, unfortunately, it no longer exists, but for many years it was a signature summer-in-Israel program combining the regular touring experiences of other trips with an actual Hebrew ulpan for which students received high school and college credit.  I spent the summers of 1997 and 1998 leading this trip and having an opportunity to provide teens with the experiences I had been blessed to have as a teen myself.

The power of the Israel experience is real.

That’s why we visit.  That’s why so many do our first or second b’nai mitzvah there.  That’s why we have Federation and synagogue missions.  That’s why we send our Jewish day school classes (like I hope we will one day do here at OJCS).  That’s why we send our teachers for professional development.  That’s why we make aliyah.

That’s why the current situation is heartbreaking.

I have no interest in injecting politics of any kind.  I have my beliefs and I am sure you do as well.  I don’t know what the answers are to safeguard our homeland, our beating heart.  I’m not even sure that I even know the questions.  I am sure that the opportunity to experience Israel transformed me and the opportunity to provide that experience to others transformed me just as thoroughly.  To contemplate the idea that one day it could prove too unsafe to visit stirs my soul to anger. To wonder if one day it could prove impossible shakes me to my core.

Our daily prayers call upon us to face our sacred ancestral home.  May a day come when peace envelopes our home, our Israel.

And may that day come without delay…

A Parent’s Perspective on a Teen Israel Experience

I think after last week’s blog post was rendered moot by outside events within hours of publication, you’ll forgive me for seeking comfort in a non-COVID and pretty much a non-OJCS conversation…and I like the idea of talking about Israel as we just commemorated Yom HaZikaron and are now celebrating Yom Ha’Atzmaut.

My oldest daughter, Eliana, pictured above in the middle, arrived this week to Jerusalem where she was supposed to be spending her spring semester of Grade 10 as part of the TRY (Tichon Ramah Yisrael) Program.  With her bags packed since January, the universe finally aligned itself this week, and teenagers from all over North America have finally found their way to Israel.  Leaving aside the impossibility that I could be old enough to have a daughter old enough to be doing this, I thought it might be a good opportunity – especially since teen Israel experiences that aren’t the March of the Living aren’t particularly well-embedded in the culture here in Ottawa – to make a pitch and a plea for teen Israel experiences.  (And, yes, I am aware that lots of Canadian Jewish day schools do have Israel trips, and yes, I would LOVE to see us eventually do that here in Grade 8.  But that’s a different post for a different time.)

Like a lot of Jews of my generation, a teen Israel experience (along with Jewish summer camp) was a crucial step on my Jewish journey.  It also was my very first job in Jewish education.

I first went to Israel in 1988 as part of our local Federation’s teen tour.  It was an extraordinary experience and I met friends that summer that I am still close with today.  I returned to Israel in 1992 as part of a NFTY in Israel summer experience.  My very first job in Jewish education was working for the Bureau of Jewish Education of Greater Los Angeles (BJE-LA) running teen programs, paramount of which was the LA Summer-in-Israel Ulpan.  I cannot provide a link to the program because, unfortunately, it no longer exists, but for many years it was a signature summer-in-Israel program combining the regular touring experiences of other trips with an actual Hebrew ulpan for which students received high school and college credit.  I spent the summers of 1997 and 1998 leading this trip and having an opportunity to provide teens with the experiences I had been blessed to have as a teen myself.  And now as a parent, I am blessed to pass it forward to my children.

The power of the teen Israel experience is real.  Here’s excellent proof (even if a bit dated):

A 2011 study conducted by Ramie Arian and sponsored by iCenter indicated the following:

  • Roughly 11,000 teens traveled to Israel in 2010 – almost the same number that participated in peer-trips to Israel in the late 1990s. One difference, however, is that over 130 agencies took teens to Israel in 2010.
  • The majority of teens traveled with youth organizations, middle schools, high schools, community trips and camps.
  • The mifgash is becoming a normative part of the teen Israel travel experience, with a few select groups extending it to the full length of their programs.

Based on two iCenter convenings of 30 teen Israel trip stakeholders, the following was underscored:

  1. An experience in Israel must be seen as an essential component of Jewish Education. Ideally, students participate in multiple Israel Experiences over time.
  2. The Israel Experience is most impactful as part of a Jewish Educational continuum (pre- and post-trip programming).
  3. Teen years are critical from a developmental perspective to help form identity and relationships.

I am so excited/thrilled/jealous that my daughter gets to have this first amazing Israel experience and I look forward to seeing over the next months and years how it impacts her and our family.  And I look forward to my next daughter’s experience when it becomes her turn.  In the meanwhile, in this week that we celebrate Israel’s birthday, let us pledge not just to celebrate her with flags and falafel, not just with social media posts and tzedakah, but with a commitment to bring as many of our teens to Israel as we can.

And for the folks here at OJCS…are we ready to start talking about a Grade 8 GRAD Trip to Israel?

The Trauma-Aware Jewish Day School

Now that I have had eighteen hours of rabbinical school under my belt, I find myself becoming a bit self-conscious whenever I make a connection between something I am learning in school and the work we do here at OJCS each and every day.  I am so barely into the first baby steps towards becoming a rabbi that it almost feels chutzpahdik to make mention of it at all.  (At my current rate of taking classes, I can definitely pencil in my ordination for the Spring of 2037.)  However, I am becoming a rabbi for a reason, and as I explained when I first shared this news, it was both likely and desirable that it lend a new perspective on my work.

One of the books for the current course I am taking is Wounds into Wisdom by Rabbi Tirzah Firestone.  It is a terrific book that deals with the phenomenon of “collective trauma” and its impact on future generations.  Without doing any of her work justice, it perhaps could be best understood in a Jewish context by recognizing that the children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors may very well suffer – consciously or subconsciously – the effects of trauma, even if they did not experience the original trauma.  In the context of my course, where all my classmates are either already or will likely be serving in a pulpit or chaplaincy, or otherwise engaged in some form of pastoral counseling, the application is a bit more obvious.  You will inevitably have congregants who suffer from trauma and, thus, let’s spend some time recognizing what trauma looks like and how one might think about managing/addressing/navigating it.

For me, the dots connected differently, but no less powerfully.

We are now into our second year of pandemic schooling.  “Collective trauma” is not an abstract idea that only applies to the victims of genocides and terror attacks, it is literally our lives.  For over a year, our students, parents, teachers and community have been – and continue to – live in and with trauma.  I think this is something we know intuitively, but if you want a little evidence, let me share with you a chart I shared with our Educational Leadership Team this week:

Classic Trauma Reactions

Engagement                       dissociation ←→ vigilance

Control                                 passive ←→ urgent 

Empowerment                  victimized ←→ hyper-resilient

Emotion                              withdrawn ←→ hyper-arousal

Patterning                          amnesia ←→ recall & repeat

Does this not sound like, I don’t know, everyone you know right now (including yourself)?

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

There are techniques and methods from the worlds of psychology, counseling and pastoral care that have proven to have some success in moving individual people through trauma.  When it comes to collective trauma there is much less to fall back on.  (When it comes to inherited collective trauma, even less than that, thus Firestone’s book.)  When it comes to COVID-based trauma…

When I think about all those way-too-long “Weekly Update” emails I sent last spring to our parents and each blog post I have written as part of “The Coronavirus Diaries” series, I can see that I keep coming back to one saving gracenote – empathy.  That’s what I mean when I say that we have to give each other space to make mistakes.  It is what I mean when I encourage and express gratitude for patience and flexibility.  Empathy.  Empathy for the collective trauma of pandemic living doesn’t necessarily change outcomes, nor does it serve as an excuse.  It doesn’t mean that we necessarily do anything differently.  But it does help.

If in a Jewish context we can employ empathy by keeping the notion of b’tzelem elohim – the idea that each and every one of us is made in the image of God, that we each share a spark of the divine – front of mind, perhaps we can find the strength to take a breath and assume the best of each other.

At least we can try…

Tips for Planning Your Pandemic Seder 2.0 Too Good to Passover

If it was weird a couple of weeks back to note that Purim was the last holiday that we celebrated before COVID, it is equally as weird (and a bit depressing) to note that Passover will be the first holiday we are preparing to celebrate a second time during COVID.  I am surely not the only one who made a gallows humor joke at the end of last year’s seders around “L’shanah ha’ba-ah…” and where I assumed I would be spending next year’s seders.  Little did I know that I would be spending it in exactly the same place…in my house, with my immediate family and a Zoom.

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

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

No pressure!  I got you.

One thing that I noticed when reviewing last year’s post is that I kinda forgot that if anyone were to be truly be inspired and wish to adequately prepare, that it would be helpful to give them enough time to actually do it!  I typically post too close to Passover itself to allow anyone to put any of these ideas into practice.  So, this year, I am going combine my Passover posts into one (long) helpful guide and I am going to push it out with a little more lead time.

So if this is your year to lead – whether it is something you do annually or if you are being pressed into service for the first or second time – let’s see what we can do.  Even if you have a Zoom guestlist, the seder is still a wonderful opportunity for families to spend time doing something they still might not otherwise do—talk with one another!  The seder was originally designed to be an interactive, thought-provoking, and enjoyable talk-feast of an experience, so let’s see how we might increase the odds for making that true, even during Pandemic Passover 2.0.

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

1.  Tell the Story of the Exodus

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

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

2.  Sing Songs

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

3.  Multiple Haggadot

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

4.  Karpas of Substance

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

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

5.  Assign Parts in Advance

In order to encourage participation in your seder, you may want to consider giving your partner and children a little homework.  Ask them to bring something creative to discuss, sing, or read at the table.  This could be the year you go all in and come in costume – dress like an ancient Israelite or your favorite plague – your kids can’t worry about being embarrassed in front of their friends this year!

6.  Know Your Audience

This one seems kinda obvious this year…if you don’t your family by now, I can’t really help you by Passover.

7.  Fun Activities

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

8.  Questions for Discussion

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

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

Jon’s “Fifth Questions” for Passover 5781

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

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

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

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

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

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

9.  Share Family Traditions

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

10.  Preparation

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

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

Pandemic Purim: It Has Never Been More Comfortable to Leave Your Comfort Zone

It is a busy Shavuat Ha’Ruach (Spirit Week) at the Ottawa Jewish Community School!  We are so glad to be back at school – both in general, and after February Break  – that there is lots of joy in the building; the added joy of Adar and Purim just makes it that much…er, joyful.

However, as is often the case in Jewish life where we weave moments of historical tragedy into even the most joyous of occasions (the breaking of glass at a wedding to remember the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem being the most well-known example), this Purim carries with it not just the echoes of past tragedy, but current tragedy as well.  Purim was, for most of us, the last holiday we celebrated before COVID and, thus, likely the last opportunity to be together in groups, in synagogues, in community, etc., that we have had.  That was certainly true here.  Last Purim in Ottawa was actually ground zero for the first potential exposure we experienced as a community and within days we had shut down and settled in for the great unknown of lockdowns and distance learning.

And so here we are one Jewish Year later…

As Zoomed out as most of us are, as hard as it has been for every organization, school, synagogue and institution to provide meaningful and engaging programming over the last year, it is equal parts depressing and inspiring to look back at what we have collectively accomplished and experienced together.  Each event, each milestone and each holiday that we have been forced to reimagine stretches from last Purim to this one in a chain of creative reinterpretations.  I mourn what was lost and celebrate what was gained, like everyone else.

How might that inform our celebration of Purim tonight and Friday?

Too often as parents we treat Judaism the same way we treat Disneyland – as something that we sacrifice for in order to give our children an “experience”.  We scrimp and we save and we sweat in line so that our children can go on Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.  We also scrimp and save and sweat over paperwork so that our children can receive a Jewish education and go to camp and have a bar/bat mitzvah.  But what about us?

Maybe this year, not in spite, but because we are home with our families, we can take our turn on Mr. Mordechai’s Wild Ride?

Purim is a holiday of reversals and opposites, of mask-wearing and mask-shedding.  You can be anyone you wish in service of being your truest self.  If you think that wearing a costume is childish, what do you have to lose this year?  You can wear a costume like nobody’s watching…because no one is!  If you are typically shy about booing Haman with all your gusto in a crowd, this is your year.  You can boo Haman like nobody’s listening…because no one is!  If you are someone who likes to indulge a bit on Purim, you can drink like no one is driving…because no one is.  You get the idea.

Virtual Purim means that it has never been more comfortable to make yourself uncomfortable.  Take advantage of the opportunity to do something silly as a family tonight and tomorrow.  Not only should you not let your children have all the fun, your silliness makes a very serious statement about what it means to be Jewish – every year, but especially this one.

From my family to yours…chag Purim sameach & a freilichen Purim!

Seeding the Jewish Future With Hebrew: A Twist on Tu B’Shevat

We recently completed a very exciting set of virtual “parlour meetings” to share the school with different cohorts of prospective parents.  It is always nice to have an opportunity to share our school with people and these form critical touchpoints on the journey from interest to admissions.  Of course, during these meetings we spend time sharing our school’s North Stars because what better way to paint a picture of #TheOJCSWay than trying to bring our North Stars to life!  One talking point we emphasize is how our ability to “learn better together” is amplified by our proximity and relationship with the Israeli Embassy.  How blessed is our school to have access to people and resources that come with being a Jewish Community School in a nation’s capital!  Today, our students got a firsthand (virtual) opportunity to see this relationship in action…

We were thrilled last spring when in the changeover in Embassy personnel, we asked to collaborate on what we started calling “A Celebration of the Hebrew Language” – a day for our community to acknowledge and celebrate the miracle of modern Hebrew, to join together in Hebrew-focused activities, to learn more about the teaching of Hebrew, etc, etc.  Our original plan was to hone in on the January birthday of the founding father of modern Hebrew, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, as an ideal date; and with us able to facilitate in-person learning from August through Winter Break, we were on schedule and on task for a special day.

And, of course…the unplanned pivot.

While still hoping for an in-person experience, we postponed this special day until Tu B’Shevat, believing that there are all sorts of natural connections between celebrating the rebirth/growth of the Hebrew language in Eretz Yisrael and celebrating the rebirth/growth of trees (and wider environmental concerns) in that same Land.  And, of course…we did not wind up back to in-person learning by the 28th.

So…without being able to predict the future and wanting to make the best of things, we went ahead today with our combined “Celebration of Hebrew” / Tu B’Shevat at OJCS in partnership with the Israeli Embassy!  It may not have all the bells and whistles that it could have – and will in the future – but it did include…

…and highly informational video put together by our own Morah Ruthie (and Josh Max), starring some of our Grade 8s (with an overgrown older guest) and special appearance by our friends at the Embassy!

…special Hebrew and Tu B’Shevat programming during Jewish Studies time!

…specially integrated information and activities prepared by Jewish Studies Faculty and integrated by General Studies/French Faculty into their blocks.

…and a few multigrade shared experiences.

[Check our social media for pictures and videos from the day!]

Whereas in the future we will be able to incorporate other aspects of our program and other partners in our community, we still feel blessed that we are able to pull off a special day.  On a day that we celebrate the physical seeding of plants and trees and connect the dots to our larger responsibility as Jews to the physical land of Israel (and our responsibility as humans to steward the physical world), it adds meaning to celebrate the miracle of modern Hebrew and to acknowledge the role it played and plays in seeding the Jewish future.  We look forward to the ongoing planting of these twin seeds in the soil of our school, to watering them through meaningful engagement, investment and partnerships and to celebrating their bloomings each season with our Israeli Embassy partners.

Chag sameach!