Marching With Fruits & Vegetables (5780 Remix)

As promised, after having shofar-ed into Rosh Hashanah and leaned into Yom Kippur, it is time to hop into my favorite holiday of them all…Sukkot!

We are looking forward to celebrating this holiday at school with the assistance of our OJCS Sukkah [to be finished this today] (with great thanks to the Zaret Family & Gemstone), in which we look forward to eating, celebrating, shake-shake-shaking and hopping in as a school community when we resume school during Chol Ha’Moed next Wednesday.  [By the way, it seems like whenever we discuss the timing of the fall Jewish holidays relative to the start of the school year, we always describe them as coming “early” or “late”.  They don’t ever seem to come “on time”!]  Great thanks to all our teachers for the hard work that goes into holiday preparation/celebration and keeping the normal routines of school moving forward as per usual.

As I mentioned above, Sukkot is absolutely my favorite holiday of the entire year.  There is nothing else like it on the Jewish Calendar – sitting outside in a sukkah you built yourself (which is pretty much the one and only thing I actually can and do build), with handmade decorations from your children, enjoying good food with friends and family in the night air, the citrusy smell of etrog lingering and mixing with verdant lulav – this is experiential Judaism at its finest.

But here is a complicated truth: Even though our school will be closed on Monday and Tuesday for Sukkot, it is reasonable to assume that a significant number of our students will neither be found in a synagogue nor a sukkah enjoying what is known as “The Season of our Rejoicing”.  But I know that many, if not most, were in synagogue a couple of days ago for Yom Kippur.  So when it comes to “atoning” we have a full house, but for “rejoicing” we have empty seats?!

If our children – if we – only experience the Judaism of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and not the Judaism of Sukkot, the simple truth is that we are not exposing them to the full range of beauty and joy that our tradition has to offer.  So why, in fact, is this such a common occurrence?

lulavI’m not entirely sure, but I think it has to do with the exotic nature of the holiday.  As someone who did not grow up celebrating this holiday, upon coming to synagogue as an adult and watching a congregation march in circles waving fruits and vegetables – well this was not the Judaism I knew!  But for me, that is precisely what makes it so unique, special and not-to-be-missed!

No one likes to feel uncomfortable, and adults especially, are wary of feeling under-educated or unprepared.  I know how I felt encountering new Jewish rituals for the first time as an adult – it was scary.  I, however, was lucky.  I was pursuing a degree in Jewish education and, therefore, had all the support and resources I needed to learn and grow.  I realize that most adults coming at new Jewish practices for the first time (or the first time in a while) are not so lucky.  The amount of “stuff” Judaism asks of us to do – building the sukkah with precise specifications, shaking the lulav and etrog in the proscribed way, chanting less-familiar prayers, coming to synagogue on unfamiliar days – can be overwhelming.

But don’t lose the sukkah through the trees…

I’d simply ask you to consider this: When building your child’s library of Jewish memories, which memory feels more compelling and likely to resonate over time – sitting in starched clothes in sanctuary seats or relaxing with friends and family in an outdoor sukkah built with love and care?

You don’t have to choose just one, of course, that is the beauty of living a life of sacred time – there is a rhythm to the Jewish calendar, evocative and varied.  Come to synagogue for the High Holidays, to be sure.  But don’t miss out on Sukkot (or Simchat Torah or Shavuot or “Add Jewish Holiday Here”).  Let this Sukkot truly be the season of our great rejoicing.  I hope many students find their way to synagogue and into sukkot this Sukkot.  I hope many parents push themselves out of their comfort zones and join the parade.  [Next year under the guidance of our new Head of Jewish Studies, Dr. Marcovitz, our school will take a more active role in providing families with the tools they may need to get started through parent workshops and community sukkah-building parties.]  But if you are curious or inspired…go ahead…pick up your fruit and vegetables and join the parade!

Chag sameach!

Leaning Into Forgiveness

I don’t know if it is the schedule, the calendar or my unconscious, but I noticed today, that in just about each year that I have blogged, that I skip from some kind of “Shofar, So Good” blog post heading into Rosh Hashanah right into some kind of “Marching With Fruits & Vegetables” blog post heading into Sukkot (spoiler alert for next week).  Is it just timing or bandwidth that causes me to skip over Yom Kippur?  Is there something about the “Day of Atonement” of which I struggle to find words?

In the hope of answering those questions, at least for myself, I’m going to use this week’s blog post to lean into forgiveness…

Repentance (Hebrew: תשובה, literally, “return”, pronounced “tshuva” or “teshuva”) is one element of atoning for sin in Judaism. Judaism recognizes that everybody sins on occasion, but that people can stop or minimize those occasions in the future by repenting for past transgressions. Thus, the primary purpose of repentance in Judaism is ethical self transformation.[1]

The Mishnah states: To a man who says, ‘I will sin and repent, I will sin and repent’, Yom Kippur brings no atonement. For sins against God, Yom Kippur brings atonement. For sins against one’s fellow man, Yom Kippur brings no atonement until he has become reconciled with the fellow man he wronged.[3]

Before we can ask God to forgive us for how we treat each other, we have the responsibility to not only ask those we have hurt for forgiveness, but to go the extra mile to work on ourselves, so that we are less likely to behave in unkind or unethical ways in the future. That is the “ethical self-transformation” referred to above, and that is the work of this season.  It is easy (and sometimes not so easy) to say “I’m sorry,”; it is hard to grow yourself into the person you want to be.  But that is what this time of year asks us to try to do…

Without falling guilty to oversharing or self-psychologizing, in the spirit of these עשרת ימי תשובה‎ (ten days of repentance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur), I thought I would pick one thing general enough to my work with students, teachers, parents, colleagues, community, etc., to name as an area for personal growth this year. Doing this publicly, I hope, will inspire others to think about how they wish to grow this year and will provide me with a little public accountability to keep me honest.

A confession.

I am painfully shy.

That is either completely obvious to you or a complete surprise to you, depending on the kinds of interactions you are used to having with me or how well you (think you) know me.  But it is true regardless.  I am really shy and that can leave me a bit awkward in some kinds of social situations.  Sadly, that shyness oftentimes reads as aloofness at best, arrogance at worst.  Of course, sometimes I am just being aloof or arrogant, but oftentimes, I promise that I’m not!  I’m just uncomfortably shy and rendered speechless by that discomfort.  This is not new (to me) and I have, through the years, worked out all kinds of coping mechanisms and developed workarounds that help me do what I need to in order to keep myself and my work moving forward. There are lots of ways that I would love to “self-transform” in this area and I’d like to think that I have been on a journey of self-transformation for quite a while.  But there is one specific way I want to grow this year, anchored in both an apology and a promise.

I want to be more curious.

When I reflect on conversations I have with lots of folk I encounter in my life, I find that I am easily more expressive when asked a question. I can be quite comfortable sharing my opinions, my feelings and my experiences.  In that sense, I am quite transparent.  Where I fall short is asking questions of the other.  I struggle to convey my genuine curiosity about your opinions, feelings and experiences – especially in unplanned face-to-face moments –  and it can leave the opposite impression, that I am only focused on myself and incurious about others.

So during this time of introspection, let me take this opportunity not only to ask forgiveness in general for anything I have done – purposely or unknowingly – to cause offense or upset during the last year, but let me specifically apologize for any moment in which I didn’t convey my interest or concern in you.  If you left an interaction with me not feeling heard, I am sorry.  If we had a conversation and I didn’t seem as invested in learning more about you than I was in talking about myself, I am sorry.  If you were looking to make a genuine connection and I appeared disinterested, I am sorry.  To say, “It isn’t you, it’s me,” in this case is both trite and true.

I take seriously the responsibility to role model the values and ideals of our school.  Part of what it means to “learn better together” is showing care and curiosity in the other.  Part of what it means to “take responsibility each to the other” is being aware of the concerns and needs of the other.  And part of what it means to “own our learning” is being accountable for one’s shortcomings and seeking to grow.

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 teshuva you are seeking.  From my family to yours, wishing you a tzom kal (easy fast) and a day of meaning.

G’mar chatimah tovah.

Shofar, So Good!

I realize that anything might sound anticlimactic after yesterday’s exciting announcement.  But the truth is, that as meaningful as that gift is for both today and tomorrow, it is the actual work of teaching and learning that inspired it and us.  And this is definitely the season for inspiration!

It is also the season for my most favorite and best/worst pun!  How are things going at OJCS finishing our fourth week of school and headed into Rosh Hashanah you may ask?

Well.  Shofar so good.

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 month 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.  While our newest faculty members are acquitting themselves with great aplomb, our returning teachers have plenty of new tricks up their sleeves to mix with their tried and true excellence.

Echoing my thoughts about the calm before the calm, I looked back on my last two years of “Shofar So Good” posts and in each one there were major systemic changes necessary to explain in response to lived experience and parent feedback.  We had changes to carpool and dismissal (twice!), changes to our schedule, changes in online platforms, etc., etc., all (ultimately) positive changes, but all significant enough to warrant detailed conversations.  What has been wonderful shofar this year, is how smooth and calm things are.  I have been so impressed with how prepared our teachers have been, how positive our parents have been, and how enthusiastic our students have been to start the year.

Although, outside of French, we are not launching any major initiatives this year, what is bubbling up are major programmatic advances to align our practice with our “North Stars”.  Hopefully those of you who were able to join us for this week’s “Parent Night” saw evidence of that firsthand.  After conducting our AGM (Annual General Meeting), Melissa Thompson, our Teaching & Learning Coordinator, led us through our online spaces to help parents know exactly how to find the information about their child(ren)’s class(es), including homework/quizzes/tests parents want and need to know about to be wonderful partners and advocates.  We did touch briefly on the whys of blogs, blogfolios, use of technology, etc., but have scheduled a “Parent Workshop” on October 24th (8:45 AM & 7:00 PM) for exactly that conversation.

For our final session, we gave parents the choice of four different topics.  Some stayed with Mrs. Thompson for a little more hands-on support.  We had a conversation led by Keren Gordon, our Vice Principal, about how our new Homework Policy is taking shape.  We had a conversation about our new school-wide behavior management program (based on the “7 Habits“) led by Sharon Reichstein, our Director of Special Needs, and Deanna Bertrend, our Student Life Coordinator.  Our new Head of Jewish Studies, Dr. Avi Marcovitz hosted a discussion on connecting the Jewish living and learning at OJCS with life at home.

If you missed any of those sessions and want more information, you can find the slides uploaded to our website and you are welcome to contact any of the above to find out more.

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.  5780 is shaping up to be a quite an amazing year!

From our family to yours, “Shanah tovah!”

2019 OJCS Middle School Retreat

Woo-hoo!

That’s pretty much all I can say.  We left exactly one week ago for our second annual three-day Middle School Retreat at Camp B’nai Brith Ottawa (CBB) and it was everything we could have hoped for in a Jewish informal educational experience.  We had learning, games, athletics, prayer, social bonding, community building, hiking, white-water rafting, and a campfire to boot!  It was like we squeezed a summer’s session of camp into just three days…and we were all tired enough to prove it!

After having spent a good chunk of time putting together a video of our experience, I will let the video do the talking.  We didn’t necessarily know what we would come out with, so I apologize to parents and students that not everyone may have made it in – it is not a reflection of anything other than happenstance.  We will more than make up for it with photos and videos throughout the year.  It is, I hope, a taste of why this retreat has become an important part of our middle school.  Our relationships are forever changed – for the good. We will be able to do things within the walls of the classrooms that we never would have without having spent time together outside of them.

Here’s a taste:

Here is a final reminder about September 25th…

In order to encourage attendance in both parts of the evening, we are (for the second year) combining our AGM (Annual General Meeting) with a hands-on parent workshop to ensure parents are able to be meaningful partners in their child(ren)’s education.

The evening will begin at 7:00 PM in the CHAPEL with an approximately 30-minute AGM.  We will begin the Hands-On Workshop at 7:30 PM, beginning in the GYM, where we will start with some hands-on learning, exploring and subscribing that will help you know exactly where to find the information about your chid(ren)’s class(es), including homework/quizzes/tests/projects that you want and need to be wonderful parents and advocates.  We will then move into a choice of topics for parents to attend featuring “Homework”, “Behavior Management” & “Extending Jewish Learning” – all facilitated by members of our Educational Leadership Team.  The evening is intended to conclude by 8:30 PM.

This evening is about ensuring that parents know how to find, access and use all the tools we have available to help keep them in the know.  We are scheduling a different day – October 24th (8:45 AM & 7:00 PM) – to engage in a more substantial conversation about the what and the why of our approach to technology and innovation.  Why is the school moving to BYOD and what does it (really) mean?  What are blogs and blogfolios and how are they used in service of learning?  What role should schools play in developing media literacy and digital citizenship?  What does the latest research tell us?  If these questions, or others, are on your mind, we hope that you are able to join us at one of these conversations.

My Charge to Kitah Bet Upon Receiving the Gift of Torah

I was very moved after this morning’s Mesibat He’Chumash that a number of parents asked that I post the dvar I shared with the families before giving each student the gift of Torah.  You may find it below…

“Before calling each student up by name to give them the symbolic gift of Torah, I just wanted to take a minute or two to say a few words…I know that I am the only thing keeping you from cake, so be assured I will be as brief as I am capable of being…

Have you noticed that our social media is eager to share memories with us? It seems like each day, a picture from years ago appears unprompted asking us to take moment to remember. Why? Why does Facebook organize itself with a timeline and Instagram by stories?

Because they know what we do – that human beings are hardwired to respond to stories.

We are storytellers by nature because that is how we make meaning of our lives. We weave together memories and events to create the narrative arc of our lives. As parents, we have the awesome responsibility for authoring the experiences that set that arc into motion. We provide them with the moments that shape their narratives and help them make meaning. As they get older, of course, they begin to write their own stories and – if we are lucky – they will continue to look to us for editing.

What is true for us as individuals is also true for us as a Jewish People. We are a collection of stories that extend backward to Creation and through our collective authorship of the present, serve as a bridge to the future. We are the People of the Book because we acknowledge our spiritual heritage and take responsibility for moving our part of the story forward…

That’s what makes a day like today special. Your decision to provide your children with a Jewish education gives them moments and experiences that will shape the narrative arc of their lives even when they assume primary authorship. Today is one of those moments. And by linking it to the gift of Torah – as we prepare to celebrate the holiday of Shavuot, which commemorates our original receipt of Torah – we link our children’s stories to the story of the Jewish People.

As was true with the Siddur they received at the end of Kitah Alef, the Chumash 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 write the chapters of their lives and that of the Jewish People that they are intended to – uniquely their own, 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. Thank you for your schlepping and your partnership. Thank you for entrusting us with the sacred responsibility of educating your children. It 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 authentic selves. 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. We can’t wait to see who you will become!

And on a final note, I know you don’t need me to tell you quickly time flies. But. For some of you this is your first Mesibat Chumash and for some it is your last. You have given us the gift of your children and we have together given your children the gift of Torah. Let me give you the gift of time, just 30 seconds, to soak in the moment. Not to document it, but to be in it. Because as a parent of a child who will be graduating from this school in just a few weeks, I could swear it was just yesterday that she received her chumash in Kitah Bet.

Pause

It is now my pleasure to invite our teachers to join me as we celebrate each of our students…”

Chag sameach…

OJCS Announces $50,000 Gift to Strengthen the “J” in “OJCS”

We are thrilled to share with the community that an anonymous family has stepped forward to allow OJCS to continue to keep the promises it has made by making a new $50,000 gift to strengthen the “J” in OJCS.  This gift feels extra special considering it has come during this liminal moment in the Jewish calendar between meaningful Jewish holidays.  As we reflect on what our People has experienced throughout its history, as we celebrate our collective triumphs and as we commit to securing the Jewish future of our children and our community – it is a blessing and a sacred responsibility for our school to receive a gift of this magnitude.  This will allow us to further strengthen and deepen our commitment to the Jewish studies and Jewish experiences that help make our school a laboratory for Jewish living and help ensure our community continues to have Jewishly literate and committed leaders into the next generation and beyond.

This now makes the third and final commitment that connects the dots between the three major areas we designated for attention in Year One, invested resources and made significant changes in Year Two and now stand ready to go deeper and farther in Year Three: the OJCS value proposition, French outcomes and Jewish mission/vision.

Each of these three has had its own cycle of candid honesty of what was, an exploration of what could be, an investment to clarify and move the work forward to what presently is and now set up for a new round of investment to continue to shape what will be, as we move together into a third year of an OJCS reimagined and revitalized.  In a nutshell…

In Year One, we identified the need to define what OJCS uniquely believes to be true about teaching and learning, we secured an anonymous gift (in partnership with Federation) that allowed us to begin a consultancy with NoTosh which led to our “North Stars”.  In Year Two, benefiting from a different anonymous gift (also with help from Federation) we were able to complete our work with NoTosh, begin our work with Silvia Tolisano and have launched a ton of innovative prototypes to transform teaching and learning at OJCS.  In Year Three, thanks to a grant from the Congregation Beth Shalom Legacy Foundation we will open the first Makerspace in any school in Ottawa, among other new and returning prototypes that will help us live our North Stars.

In Year One, we identified the need to clarify our French outcomes.  We conducted research and held an initial Town Hall.  We made certain commitments to changes in the schedule and the program that we have been living in Year Two, while continuing to add to our research.  We reported back to our parents recently on our progress and then announced a huge investment in French Language PD to ensure that we take significant steps in Year Three to better address ongoing questions and to make long-term strategic planning decisions.  [We are finalizing contracts now and will share out very soon in greater detail as to the who we are partnering with and what the partnership will consist of…stay tuned.]

In Year One, we identified the need to better determine our Jewish mission and vision.  We formed a robust Rabbinic Advisory Committee with active participation from our entire, diverse rabbinic community.  We conducted research, did work, and held a Town Hall to declare our plans to strengthen our program for Year Two.  We have been living those commitments this year – daily minyanim in each grade with options in the Middle School to satisfy differing needs, increased contact time with Jewish Studies, increased rigor and immersiveness in Hebrew Language, introduction of a revised, text-based Middle School Jewish Studies Curriculum, prototyping Torah Trop classes in Grades 5 & 6, and so much more.  And now, thanks to today’s gift, we know that we will go into Year Three with an amazing opportunity to build on our successes and introduce new and deeper Jewish engagement for our students and our families.

So.

What might this investment lead to in 2019-2020?

We have only begun to dream the new dreams, but we do have ideas!  As we prepare to say goodbye to our beloved Dean of Judaic Studies Rabbi Finkelstein, we will be revisiting our leadership team.  I will have more to say about this when it becomes concrete, but we are very excited about the possibilities we are exploring.  We also have – similar to French – opportunities to import second-language acquisition professional development so that our teachers of Hebrew will have the same resources available to them as our teachers of English and French do and will.  Updated curriculum, more Hebrew-language books and materials, and expanding our Jewish Studies Resource are all worthy to consider for investment.

This gift reminds us that it is important not only to count your blessings, but to make your blessings count.  We have a responsibility to steward these gifts with care and to ensure that they are being invested strategically.  We have to have clear expectations, measurables and deliverables to be sure that we are not only charting an exciting and innovative course towards the future, but actually finding our way there.

Spoiler alert.

We are.  And, yes, say it with me, that’s “The OJCS Difference”.

OJCS Parents: I emailed out the Annual Parent Survey this morning.  Please do fill it out!  Due back May 10th if you want your feedback included in reporting.

This is my 300th blog post!  There are no words to express to Silvia Tolisano and Andrea Hernandez how much they have impacted my journey as an educator and as a professional.  I have tremendous appreciation to the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School (MJGDS), the Schechter Network and Prizmah for letting me carry my blog from organization to organization and to use it as a platform for learning and connection.  Special thanks to my Mom, my Aunt Donna and Nancy Davis for ensuring that at least three people read it.

In all seriousness, to anyone who has ever read, commented, or shared my blog…thank you, thank you, thank you.

A Purim Prescription for Pediatric Judaism

It has been a busy Shavuat Ha’Ruach (Spirit Week) here at OJCS!  As we gear up to Purim (tonight and) tomorrow, I thought I would take a moment to pivot away from our children and spend a little time on us – Jewish parents.

When we think about Purim as parents, we probably think most about this: “What shall I dress my children as this year for Purim?”

But hopefully for many families, including ours, the question isn’t what are we going to dress our children as for Purim.  Rather, we ask ourselves what are we going to dress as for Purim?

I would wager a bet that no more than 15-25% of families attending Purim services and/or carnivals this year will come in costume.  Why?

The phenomenon is often referred to as “pediatric Judaism” and I find that Purim is its paradigmatic Jewish holiday.  I Googled “pediatric Judaism” to see who should get credit for its coinage and the best I could come up with was the following from a Reform Judaism Magazine article:

Why, then, the emphasis on what Rabbi Larry Hoffman, professor at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, calls “pediatric Judaism”? “We have planned for our children only,” he wrote in 1996. “In our understandable anxiety to pass on Judaism as their heritage, we have neglected its spiritual resources for adults, leaving ourselves with no adequate notion of how we too might draw sustenance from our faith as we grow up and grow older.”

That sounds about right.

Far too often, even those who are the most engaged – the ones who do affiliate with synagogues and do try to provide their children with Jewish educational experiences – they work to ensure their children experience and participate, but neglect to include themselves.

When as a graduate student in Los Angeles, I first attended a synagogue in which adults participated in Jewish holiday celebrations as adults – active, joyous and engaged – it was almost surreal.  That was not a Judaism for children – costume contests, parades, pony rides and candy (although that may all have been there as well) – but a Judaism that adults took seriously for themselves.  They were not lining the walls watching the children within; they were celebrating the joy of being Jewish for themselves.

What’s the problem with “pediatric Judaism”?

For me it is the perpetuation of the idea that being Jewish, or perhaps more accurately doing Jewish, is something that is only for children.  We are our children’s most powerful role models and teachers and they are surely paying attention.  When they can see that we take something seriously, it is a signal to them that they ought to as well.  Children learn how to be an adult by watching our adult behaviors.  We understand this as parents and so we think carefully about how we behave in front of our children, what kind of language we use, and what kind of values we express and try to live by.  So, too, it is with being a Jewish adult.  Our children are looking to us to see what adult Jews do and it presents us with a big opportunity and a huge responsibility.

I don’t wish to pile on parents.  We will all need to do more if we are ever to cure ourselves of “pediatric Judaism”.  In our schools and our synagogues, we need to reach out to parents and provide them with the support, education, experiences and love they will need to find the courage to try on new ideas and behaviors.  We will need to present a Judaism worthy of the education and sophistication of our parents.  Luckily, Judaism contains within it all that and more.

So…what are you going to be for Purim?  Don’t let your children have all the fun…and don’t let them think that the fun of Purim is only for children.

Chag Purim Sameach!

Jewish Day Schools As Incubators of Jewish Leadership

What is “Jewish leadership”?

Does it refer to Jews who serve in leadership roles?  Is it about Jews who lead in accordance with Jewish values?

The first is common; the second is rare.

We’ve been thinking about it a lot at OJCS.   We have come to believe that Jewish day schools can serve as incubators for Jewish leadership because they have the opportunity to encourage and inspire both.

I had the privilege of addressing this topic last Shabbat when I spoke at Congregation Machzikei Hadas and it went well enough that I was encouraged to blog about it this week.

About three, four, years ago I had the opportunity to visit Donna Klein Jewish Academy  in Boca Raton, Florida and I can still recall how each time we entered a new classroom, how a student would automatically pop up, come over, introduce themselves, tell us what was happening in the class, and then offer to answer any questions we may have. Class after class after class.  No prompting from teachers.  I further noted how each teacher had a personal mission statement on the doors of each classroom.  The hallways were labeled in both Hebrew and English with each of the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

That was how I was first introduced to the “7 Habits”.  I further learned how CAJE-Miami helped provide training for many of the Jewish day schools in South Florida to receive training in The Leader in Me – which helps schools bring the 7 Habits to life – and provided some Jewish value translation work to ensure they could live throughout the Jewish day school experience.  And, with some stops between then and now, that is how it came to be that OJCS began prototyping its own version of the 7 Habits this year.

I have been blogging about the details of this prototype as we have introduced each new habit (and, yes, I am actually now one behind) and in preparation for last Shabbat I came across an article from Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks that helped me connect some dots.  “Seven Principles of Jewish Leadership” is the title and the symmetry was too good to pass up.  As a first step, I expanded upon a visual already created by CAJE-Miami and I created a visual that integrated Rabbi Sacks’ “Seven Principles” with the “7 Habits” with Jewish values. What I did conversationally, was link each of the “sevens” with Jewish text and real examples of what it looks like in a school or classroom.  In a nutshell, I tried to answer the question of what happens when a Jewish day school moves Jewish leadership from the implicit curriculum to the explicit curriculum.

Here’s a graphic organizer to help you get oriented:

You may note that all of the “sevens” are further divided along Rabbi Hillel’s famous dictum from Pirkei Avot 1:14 (again borrowed from CAJE-Miami) – the first three focus on the individual, the second three on the relationship between the individual and community, and the final on, let’s say “timing”.  So.  How about we explore what this can look like in real life and in real classrooms?

  • #1: For me, the relevant texts are the juxtaposition between the lack of responsibility taken by Adam in the Garden of Eden (the serpent made me do it!) and Cain (Am I my brother’s keeper?) and how Moshe responds when he sees a Hebrew slave being beaten or when he discovers Yitro’s daughters being harassed by shepherds.  In terms of examples, in our school being proactive and taking responsibility lives in both formal structures like Knesset (student government) and informal structures like prototyping.  Two recent examples come to mind.  A member of Knesset pitched us on letting a student co-own the school’s Instagram account to make it more student-friendly. Also, the entire Grade 4 pitched us on allowing them greater access to student blogging:

The prototyping culture we are creating encourages and incentivizes students to take responsibility, to be proactive and in the parlance of our “North Stars” to truly “own their own learning”.

  • #2: Here we look to Sefer D’varim (Book of Deuteronomy) in which during the last month of his life, Moshe sets out a vision and a set of laws to secure it.  When we think at OJCS about the future, about “beginning with the end in mind,” we want our students to learn how to envision a future for themselves and then learn how to communicate and achieve it.  We provide them with opportunities to develop these skills through a variety of student-led experiences with both high and low stakes.  We collaboratively goal-set with each student around academic and behavioral outcomes, for example, as we head down a path that will likely end in student-led conferences (replacing parent-teacher conferences).  We also provide students with opportunities to plan and run clubs such as our “Detective Club” and “Alien Club”.
  • #3: Thinking about “putting first things first” and an overall sense of timing leads me to Rabbi Tarfon who said in Mishnah Avot 2:16, “It is not for you to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it.”  In the life of school, this resonates with all the ways we are trying to help our students navigate time management and executive functioning.  We now offer a Study Skills Elective each week.  We offer twice-weekly Study Hall.  We are looking at an Executive Functioning Boot Camp model for next year.  We are looking at tools like Google Calendar and Google Keep.  Another way we think about “putting first things first” is building on the success of our Middle School Retreat in helping create a sense of community and shared expectations for our middle schoolers each and every year.
  • #4: This next one is a little dense, but is actually one of my favorite teachings about leadership.   Rabbi Eugene Borowitz, a leading theologian and philosopher from the Reform Movement, wrote an article years and years ago in which he asserted that (religious) leadership should model itself on the kabbalistic notion of tzimtzum. “Tzimtzum” as described by Isaac Luria is the idea that in order to create the world, God had to contract Godself in order to make room for creation to take place.  In other words, sometimes leadership is about making space for others to lead.  These ideas are embedded in two of our North Stars – “We learn better together” & “We are each responsible one to the other” – and live in the commitment we have made to project-based learning and conflict resolution.
  • #5: The Torah teaches that a king must write his own Sefer Torah which “must always be with him, and he shall read from it all the days of his life” (Deut. 17:19).  Leaders learn.  At OJCS, this lives in the North Star of “A floor, but no ceiling,” and in our emphasis on personalized learning.  This year we are prototyping “Genius Hour” projects as just one example of letting students lead with their passion and letting their passion lead to their learning.  In terms of “seeking first to understand and then be understood” we are working with JFS to provide “Kindness Workshops” to our students to help them skill-build towards active listening.
  • #6: Here I am going to quote directly from Rabbi Sacks in his article when he says, “One of Judaism’s greatest insights into leadership: The highest form of leadership is teaching.  Power begets followers.  Teaching creates leaders”.  We provide our students with lots of opportunities to learn through teaching and to learn leadership skills by “owning their learning”.  Whether it is a Grade 6 WE Day project, leading a Rosh Chodesh assembly, designing a Hebrew Escape Room or interviewing residents at Hillel Lodge, our students develop the skills to see projects through, to dream dreams, to speak publicly, and to organize.  These are all the building blocks of leadership.
  • #7: There are no shortage of examples of stressed out and overwhelmed leaders in the Bible.  Moses, Elijah, Jeremiah and Jonah – just to name a few – all at some point prayed to die rather than carry on as a Jewish leader.  That is certainly an extreme example of the toll leadership can take, but we acknowledge that stress is very real for our students and families.  It is partly why one of our North Stars is “Ruach” – we have intentionally and explicitly named joy and spirit and wellness as a guiding value in our school.  Studying in school (and teaching!) is supposed to be joyful.  We do our best to provide wellness and mindfulness into the school day.  It is why we remain committed to Art, Music and PE as part of a well-rounded experience.  Students deserve to feel successful and joyful and not each student is going to find that in the traditional academic subjects. It is why we have a “Ruach Week” and a Middle School Retreat.  It is also why we are looking at advisory and guidance models.  The emotional and spiritual wellbeing of our students is important for them as human beings, and as future leaders.

We cannot take for granted that what was once true will always be true.  It has been true for generations that the leaders of Jewish organizations, schools and synagogues have come from the ranks of Jewish day schools; and flourished as a result.  If we want that to continue – if we want to secure the Jewish future – our schools will need to work to make what was once implicit, explicit.  Jewish leadership requires Jewish leaders who know how to lead – not just as Jews, but Jewish-ly.  Ken y’hi ratzon.

“Caught Being Kind” at OJCS: One Year Later

Almost exactly a year ago, I wrote:

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?

And that was before we had clarified our “North Stars” or launched our “7 Habits“.  It was simply a desire to flip the script.

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.

We made a commitment that our teachers would start sending students to us when they do something kind.  That way when the phone rings in the home of an OJCS parent and the school comes up on the “caller ID”, the emotion it triggers is excitement and not dread.

So, how’s it going?

It actually took a bit longer than expected to get going, but it has been slowly building this year.  The above is just from the last few weeks…so…pick up the phone when we call…your child may be next!

Marching With Fruits & Vegetables (5779 Remix)

What’s that giant sukkah you ask?  That’s our brand new (to be finished today) OJCS Sukkah – thanks to the Zaret Family & Gemstone – which we look forward to eating and celebrating in as a school community when we resume school during Chol Ha’Moed next Wednesday.  The timing of the holidays with the start of school has been crazy/amazing as we are doing our best to launch all our new procedures, initiate all our new projects AND prepare for/experience the joy of our fall Jewish holiday season!  We have come out of Yom Kippur and are headed straight for Sukkot on Sunday evening…and hopefully I will find time to put mine up before the holiday!

Sukkot is absolutely my favorite holiday of the entire year.  There is nothing else like it on the Jewish Calendar – sitting outside in a sukkah you built yourself (which is pretty much the one and only thing I actually can and do build), with handmade decorations from your children, enjoying good food with friends and family in the night air, the citrusy smell of etrog lingering and mixing with verdant lulav – this is experiential Judaism at its finest.

But here is a complicated truth: Even though our school will be closed on Monday and Tuesday for Sukkot, it is reasonable to assume that a significant number of our students will neither be found in a synagogue nor a sukkah enjoying what is known as “The Season of our Rejoicing”.  But I’d wager that many, if not most, were in synagogue a couple of days ago for Yom Kippur.  So when it comes to “atoning” we have a full house, but for “rejoicing” we have empty seats?!

If our children – if we – only experience the Judaism of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and not the Judaism of Sukkot, the simple truth is that we are not exposing them to the full range of beauty and joy our tradition has to offer.  So why, in fact, is this a common occurrence?

lulavI’m not entirely sure, but I think it has to do with the exotic nature of the holiday.  As someone who did not grow up celebrating this holiday, upon coming to synagogue as an adult and watching a congregation march in circles waving fruits and vegetables – well this was not the Judaism I knew!  But for me, that is precisely what makes it so unique, special and not-to-be-missed!

No one likes to feel uncomfortable and adults, especially, are wary of feeling uneducated or unprepared.  I know how I felt encountering Jewish ritual for the first time as an adult – it was scary.  I, however, was lucky.  I was pursuing a degree in Jewish education and, therefore, had all the support and resources I needed to learn and grow.  I realize that most adults coming at Jewish practice for the first time (or the first time in a while) are not so lucky.  The amount of “stuff” Judaism asks of us to do – building the sukkah with precise specifications, shaking the lulav and etrog in the proscribed way, chanting less-familiar prayers, coming to synagogue on unfamiliar days – can be overwhelming.

But don’t lose the forest through the trees…

I’d simply ask you to consider this: When building your child’s library of Jewish memories, which memory feels more compelling and likely to resonate over time – sitting in starched clothes in sanctuary seats or relaxing with friends and family in an outdoor sukkah built with love and care?

You don’t have to choose just one, of course, that is the beauty of living a life of sacred time – there is a rhythm to the Jewish calendar, evocative and varied.  Come to synagogue for the High Holidays, to be sure.  But don’t miss out on Sukkot (or Simchat Torah or Shavuot or “Add Jewish Holiday Here”).  Let this Sukkot truly be the season of our great rejoicing.  I hope many students find their way to synagogue and into sukkot this Sukkot.  I hope many parents push themselves out of their comfort zones and join the parade.  I pledge that next year OJCS will take a more active role in providing families with the tools they may need to get started through parent workshops and community sukkah-building parties.  But if you are curious or inspired…go ahead…pick up your fruit and vegetables and march with us!

Chag sameach.