The Coronavirus Diaries: A Fifth Question for a Pandemic Passover

As was true in last week’s post, we continue to navigate uncharted territory – at home, at work and here in school.  As we close out Phase I of the OJCS Distance Learning Program this week and prepare to launch Phase II on Monday, April 20th – with no way to predict how long we will be in it – we are doing our best to approximate and innovate the kinds of Passover programming one would typically expect to find in a Jewish day school headed into its Passover Break. We may not have had the kinds of model sedarim we would typically run, but we did have lots of experiences, singalongs, show-and-tell’s and other creative ways to bring the (virtual) joy of the season into our students’ homes and families.  I continue to be equal parts grateful and awestruck by what our teachers are able to create and what our families are capable of doing.

I mentioned last week, that one outcome of social distancing during Passover is that many of us may be leading our first seders in quite a while.  That’s why I gave my “New and Revised for COVID-19 Top 10 Tips for Planning a Seder Too Good to Passover” and I hope they were helpful.  There is one tradition for upgrading and updating a seder that I have highlighted in the past, that I would also like to revisit and reframe for the times we are living in.

It has become a tradition for organizations to use the pedagogy of Passover to advocate for causes.  We can change customs (“The Four Children”), add customs (“Miriam’s Cup), or adjust customs.  One common adjustment is the addition of a “Fifth Question”.  In addition to the traditional “Four Questions,” we add one to address important issues of the day.  You can go online and find a myriad of examples of “fifth questions” that deal with everything from gun violence, hunger, drought, Israel, peace, etc.  You can find a “fifth question” for almost every cause.

Of course sometimes the questions and the conversations they inspire are more important than the answers…

As we collectively prepare to celebrate our fragile freedoms in a time of pandemic and social distancing, I would like to share with you some of my “fifth questions”:

Jon’s “Fifth Questions” for Passover 5780

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 distance learning program and incorporate them into schooling when we return to school?

Israel Advocate: How can I be inspired by the words, “Next Year in Jerusalem,” to inspire engagement with Israel during a time when I am unable to visit?

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?

Parent: How will I take advantage of all the extra time that I am getting with my children during a time of social distancing (#COVID19SilverLinings)?  What new routines (#DaddyDaughterPE) will I try to incorporate into my parenting when things go back to normal?

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

Wishing you a chag kasher v’sameach…

You Can’t Count On Uncle Moishy This Year – NEW & REVISED Tips for Planning Your Pandemic Seder Too Good to Passover

In the rush to figure out how to work, study and live in this time of social distancing, it may just now be occurring to you that if your family is going to have a meaningful Passover Seder this year, that is actually going to be up to you to plan and lead it!  If you have been lucky (that may not be the right adjective for each family) enough to be a guest at someone else’s seder for years and years, you haven’t had to take responsibility for anything other than showing up (and hopefully helping to clean the dishes).  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.

But don’t worry!  This blog post that you have likely ignored each year, is right here again, ready and updated for just such an emergency!

The first time I took responsibility for leading the seder from my father (of blessed memory), I was in the middle of my studies at the University of Judaism (now American Jewish University) and deeply immersed in Jewish text and learning.  I was eager to discuss the history of the traditions, ready to parse language, prepared to study the midrash, excited to sing the traditional liturgy and totally misread the room.  I had a great seder, but I’m pretty sure no one else did!  But over lots of time and practice, I have mostly kind of figured out how to blend the traditional structure, text, prayers and songs along with newer innovations and customs into something that makes sense for the ranges of ages and backgrounds who come to my mother’s table each year in Las Vegas.

This year, however, our seder table – like most, if not all, of yours – will now be reduced to my immediate family and so even I am rethinking my plans.  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 experience, so let’s see how we might increase the odds for making that true, even in this most unusual of years.

Without further adieu, here are my 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 – again depending on your level of observance you could consider beginning elements of your seder before candle-lighting to incorporate this element.

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 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.

When candle-lighting times are late or children’s patience runs short, 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, we 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?!  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?

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?

One assumes – and I’ll have more to say about this next week – that the current situation may raise new questions or may cause us to view familiar text and traditions in new ways.  As you read through the haggadah, push yourself to ask these type of questions, and open them up for discussion.

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.

Next week, we’ll revisit the tradition of adding a “Fifth Question” in light of current circumstances.

Update: Impact of $50K Gift to Strengthen the “J” at OJCS

As our Middle Schoolers write exams and our entire school gets ready for the triumphant return of “Winter Fun Day” heading into a “PD Day” and February Break, I thought it would be a great opportunity to provide a second “Update: Impact” post.  Two weeks ago, I provided an update on the impact of our French consultancy.  Today, I would like to provide an update on the impact of last spring’s $50,000 gift to strengthen the “J” in OJCS.

At the time, I described the possible impact in a blog post as such:

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.

What might this investment lead to in 2019-2020?

(W)e 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.

How is it going shofar?  (I know.  I am past that pun window, but I feel like in a post dedicated to Jewish Studies that I can pull it off.)

Well, some of what we had imagined has in fact come true.  We have purchased new and additional Hebrew-language books and materials. We have made connections to second-language acquisition experts to improve our pedagogy.  And we have added Hebrew resource teachers and contact time to better meet the needs of students.  And all of that has made a meaningful difference.  Other things, however, we could not have predicted because new people bring new ideas.

The biggest change this year in Jewish Studies at OJCS is the addition of our new full-time Head of Jewish Studies, Dr. Avi Marcovitz.  Like our Dean of Jewish Studies Emeritus Rabbi Finkelstein, Dr. Marcovitz is a critical member of our Middle School Faculty.  Unlike Rabbi Finkelstein, Dr. Marcovitz does not have another important day job, but has the opportunity to focus all his energy and creativity at our school.  He may still be getting acculturated, but in addition to assuming leadership of our Jewish Studies Faculty and building relationships with synagogues and community leaders, he has also found time for launching new programs.

Parasha & Pancakes

“Parasha & Pancakes” now takes place on  Tuesdays (Grades 3-5) & Thursdays (Grades 6-8).  With great thanks to the OJCS PTA for providing support, we have students volunteering to come to school early to learn Torah!  Who knew?  Students are taking responsibility for the cooking and Dr. Marcovitz for the learning.  Tasty pancakes to feed the body with words of Torah to feed the soul – what a great way to start the day!

Rabbi Simes z”l Yom Iyun

This grew out of a wonderful assignment with our Grade 8s who have been exchanging questions (sh’eilot) and answers (t’shuvot) with rabbis in our community on hot button topics.  The work has been so rich that we got the idea to invite those rabbis to be with us for a day of learning, which we are dedicating to the memory of our beloved teacher and communal leader, Rabbi Yehuda Simes z”l.  We are looking forward to a special day on February 24th.  Contact the office for more information.

Do you want to see the amazing intersection between Jewish Studies and STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math)?  Go no farther than Morah Ruthie’s Kitah Zayin (Grade 7) Hebrew II class!  They learned all about the Israeli city of Tzfat and showed what they learned by creating VR (virtual reality) projects.  The views below aren’t as cool as viewing them through VR goggles, but they are pretty cool.  I have left one sample for you to check out below, but if you want to see them all, please check out Morah Ruthie’s blog post:

What’s next?  Something really exciting…perhaps even a game-changer.

Based on a model I first experienced (not created, it was there before me) in my last headship at the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School, we want to launch a brand-new Middle School Jewish Studies Curriculum that is predicated on the idea that both Torah leads to deeds AND deeds lead to Torah (Kiddushin 40b).  We want to create an integrated Jewish Studies / Tikkun Olam (Social Justice) program in which the text our students learn Monday-Thursday gets put into action on Friday, each and every week.  Aligned with our North Stars, “We own our own learning,” and “We are each responsible one to the other,” we would create a committee of students, teachers, parents and community leaders to develop this curriculum which integrates key Jewish values, deep textual learning and practical hands-on projects.

For example, during a week (or unit), students in Grade 6 would study on Monday-Thursday texts that describe the ethical treatment of animals and then on Friday go out into the community and volunteer in animal shelters.  Students in Grade 7 would study texts that help us understand our responsibility to feed the hungry and then on Friday go out into the community and either feed the hungry, or volunteer in both kosher and community food banks.

This new program will be a direct and weekly application of Jewish wisdom.  It allows for individual choice (we imagine some of the “Mitzvah Trips” having choice for students), but more importantly through the experience of many “Mitzvah Trips,” students will make meaning of which mitzvot, which tikkon olam projects, etc., are personally meaningful.  They will also build connections to people and organizations that will strengthen their sense of peoplehood.

We want to provide our students with Jewish experiences that inspire them to learn more Torah and we want to help our students make personal connections between the Torah they learn in school and the larger world around them.  We want our students (and families) to recognize that part of being Jewish is to make the world a better place, that doing so requires both learning and doing.  Locating this work in our Middle School allows for practical connectivity to the b’nei mitzvah process.  Providing these opportunities in a Jewish Middle School in a community without a Jewish High school, is critical to inspiring students and families to see and feel value to their Jewish learning beyond the walls of the school.

As a parent who had one child experience this program before and another one eligible to receive it now, I can tell you firsthand how impactful it is and can be.  As a principal who watched families eagerly anticipate middle school so they can start going on “mitzvah trips” and watched alumni eagerly anticipate opportunities to come back and volunteer on “mitzvah trips,” I know this creates a wonderful opportunity for our school to retain and attract students through Grade 8.

Wouldn’t you want your child to have an opportunity to make the world a better place each and every week?

A Loop in the Chain

I think because of the holidays and the break that I have been thinking a lot about family recently…

There is a bag of very old, not suitable for use, tefillin sitting on the top of one of the bookshelves in my office.  They belonged to my paternal great-grandfather Alexander Mitzmacher.  I never met him and other than the very few anecdotes that have been shared with me over the years by my family, I know almost nothing about him other than the fact that he had a set of tefillin.  I can’t even say for sure that he treasured them or that he ever in fact wore them.  I only know that my grandfather of blessed memory had them in his possession and when I became the first person in my family since (at least) Alexander to put on tefillin they were given to me as just about the only non-jewelry heirloom we have.

We talk often about “Jewish continuity” and “links in the chain” as if there was a natural and smooth transference from one generation to another.  As a parent and educator, I need to believe that we have the ability to influence, guide and mentor the next generation to value and practice that which we consider important through education, experience and the making of memories.  As the observant grandson of Morris Mitzmacher, who jumped out the cheder window in 1922 and never looked back…well, I know that life is a bit more mysterious and unpredictable.

I am an only child (explains a lot, doesn’t it!) who only had one living grandfather and was that man’s only grandchild.  Let’s just say that we were exceptionally close.  He was equal parts proud and bemused by the Jewish journey that led me to a life of Jewish education and ritual observance.  He lived long enough to dance the night away at our wedding.  He died three years before our first daughter, Eliana, was born and six years before our second daughter – his namesake – Maytal joined the family.

I think of him often and marvel at how the boy who escaped Judaism grandfathered the head of a Jewish Day School.  He never stepped foot inside a synagogue again save for my Bar Mitzvah and my wedding and yet, all the while, he continued holding onto a frayed bag of ancient tefillin.  For all those years, he neither threw them out nor gave them to his son (who would have found them equally unnecessary).  Why?

I never got an answer the one time I asked and he was gone before I could ask again.

And so they sit on my bookshelf and watch me go about my work.  They tell a cautionary tale – perhaps had my grandfather had a more meaningful Jewish education he would not have jumped out that window without so much as a regretful look back.  They are humbling – we cannot ultimately control the choices our children make.  They are inspiring – it is never too late to join a Jewish journey, begin a Jewish education or try on a new Jewish practice.  The tefillin were present even when we were absent.

What are the artifacts sitting on your shelves telling silent stories? Write them down, or better yet, tell them to your children.  For by doing so we can do our part to ensure that despite the links and loops life brings us, the chain can indeed remain unbroken.

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.