What is Lost and What is Gained When Blessings Become Songs

[NOTE: I will be in the States next Sunday-Wednesday attending my first Fall Retreat as a rabbinic student at the Academy for Jewish Religion.  I was asked to share a brief iyun about Birkat Ha’Mazon.  You will find it below.  It is not intended to describe what is or is not true for the children and families at OJCS; rather it is a larger observation about what I do believe is true for many children and families in the larger Jewish world.]

I’m not sure by what age I realized that all the “whoop-dee-doo”s and “sour cream”s were not officially part of the liturgy, but it was definitely older than it ought to be.

Like a lot of folk, my introduction to Birkat Ha’Mazon came at Camp (for me it was UAHC Camp Swig, of blessed memory) and what was missing by way of almost any sense of where this complex and important recitation of blessings after meals actually came from, or what it was intended to do, was made up for by way of ruach.  In fact, I’d say there was an inverse relationship between the attention paid towards singing Birkat Ha’Mazon as a community-building song of ruach and the attention paid towards a religious understanding of why we take the time after eating to thank God in a very specific way for the meal we just ate.

And I don’t think this is unique to me.  After about 25 years in Jewish Education, where I have worked from camps to congregations to Israel experiences to day schools – all in either Community or Conservative contexts – I feel pretty confident that the majority of children in our camps, schools, and congregations if they encounter Birkat Ha’Mazon at all, will experience it as a song with lots of changes in melody/tempo (depending on how many parts they include), lots of elaborate hand-motions, clapping and table-banging, and plenty of creative inserts, mostly innocent, occasionally not so much.  And what is true for Birkat Ha’Mazon, I believe is likely true for tefillah in general.  And so instead of zooming in on the particular brachot of Birkat Ha’Mazon, I want to zoom out and ask the broader question of what does it mean when our blessings and prayers are (only) experienced as songs (and largely songs without [Hebrew] comprehension).

What is gained and what is lost?

Clearly what is lost is understanding, at least more than just in the broadest sense.  I assume most children know that Birkat Ha’Mazon is our way of thanking God for the food we just ate.  I assume most (including adults) don’t know its Biblical source, its Rabbinic formulation, its specific blessings and themes, etc., and most don’t wrestle with either its theological implications (Do we believe in a world without the needy?) or its modern-day relevencies (What do we really know about the means of production?).  What is gained if done with any regularity, I would argue, is not just ruach, but an implicit sense of ritual and structure that is largely inoperative for many of our children (and families) outside the context.  They may not conceive of singing Birkat Ha’Mazon as fulfilling halakhah, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true.

Where does that leave those of us tasked with inspiring children and families to take on (what for most are) non-normative practices like daily brachot and tefillah?  If ruach to prayer is like the traditional placement of honey on the alef-bet, then, yes, absolutely let the sweetness and joy of communal singing be the price of admission, and don’t sweat the mild dispresect that comes as its cost.  But let’s not let that be the end either!

My takeaway from having been asked to prepare this iyun is to bring a version of it back to my school.  If our students can prepare weekly divrei torah (which they can and do), let’s see if once a month a student can prepare an iyun Birkat Ha’Mazon and by doing so, make our lunchtime tables not just a place for raucous singing, but also a place for meaning and reflection.  What might you do in your context?  Can’t wait to find out…

OJCS Marks Clean Speech 2022 – Clean Speech Contributes to a Community of Kindness

November is “Clean Speech” Month in Ottawa, and OJCS is proud to be one of the many organizations participating in this annual attempt to elevate our language in service of creating and sustaining communities of kindness.  In addition to what we will be doing in school (check the blogs!), I thought I would kick things off by connecting the dots backwards to two posts from last year and then forward to this year.

Last year, I took a bit of risk by asking the question, “Does the school (Do I) have responsibility for how our students behave outside of school?”.  And I answer, “yes” – with my focus being on how the school ought to address what our students do outside of school, when they come back inside.  A couple of months later, I asked a bit more provocative of a question, “What responsibility do parents play in this, and what ought the school do to facilitate constructive parent behavior?”.  And I kinda answered, but also kinda dodged because that is both a hard question to answer and a chutzpahdik question for the school (me) to answer.

Fast-forwarding into this year, children continuing to be children, parent continuing to be parents, humans continuing to be humans – becoming evermore kind is a process, not a destination.  As a few things bubbled up in a particular cohort, I wound up sending an email to parents that was more specific than what I had blogged out in answer to my own question.  Not a few parents/teachers suggested that that message was more than appropriate for the school as a whole, not simply that cohort, and so let me use this launching of Clean Speech Ottawa 2022, as the opportunity to share this message more widely.

From time to time, even when it feels a bit uncomfortable, I feel a responsibility to reach out to parents to raise awareness when the conversations and activities that take place outside school follow our children back inside.  There are two ways that this typically happens, which I’d like to share with you in the spirit of strengthening our community.

The first is to simply name that there are official and unofficial channels of communication.  For example, the school provides a Google Group of parent emails and uses it to communicate with all parents in the grade – that’s an official channel.  Almost always, parents create their own, unofficial channels, like a parent’s WhatsApp.  There are lots of good reasons for parents to do this!  The school does not need or want to be a party or privy to each and every conversation parents wish to have with each other.  (We do assume healthy and constructive conversations are taking place there, both in terms of how parents engage with each other and about school in general.)  Sometimes, however, subgroups of parents may create additional unofficial channels which may not be so inclusive.  We might be able to understand why that could be true, but generally do not prefer them.

Why?

Because it is almost 100% true that everything that lands in any unofficial channel will wind up being heard by everyone – whether they are in the channel or not.  Meaning, you should assume that anything you say in the unofficial Grade Whatever Parent WhatsApp will find its way to the school.  And, anything that you say in an unofficial subgroup of parents in a separate WhatsApp will find its way to all the parents in the grade.

How do we know?

Because it happens all the time.  Hurtful statements eventually find their way to their objects which only causes more harm and never leads to good outcomes.  We simply ask that you treat these communications as if they could be read by all and act accordingly.

In a similar vein, parenting is a complex and noisy endeavor.  Our children are sponges – they hear and absorb everything that is said.  They are also eager sharers – they like to share everything they hear.  This means, if your children hear you discussing other children – innocently or not; intentionally or not – they are going to come to school and let everyone know, including those children, about how you feel and what you have said.

How do we know?

Because it is happens all the time.

Parenting is hard and getting harder all the time.  Let this be a gentle reminder about how our words tend to take on a life of their own, sometimes with uncomfortable outcomes.  And let this be a request for partnership – we ask that you please be careful about how you discuss school matters with other parents and with (or in front of) your children.  There are appropriate channels – official and unofficial – for expressing concerns, making requests, sharing frustrations, venting, asking questions or anything else a parent may need or want to do.

Let’s work together to ensure that our children get to come to school each day with fresh starts and positive attitudes.  They have so much goodness in them and ahead of them, as individuals and as a group.

Stay tuned for a Parent Survey about our as-promised new offerings for both French and Jewish Studies after-school programming!  We are working with the JCC, and we look forward to seeing what we can offer.

Let’s Talk About the “J” in “OJCS”…Again: The JS Town Hall 2022

As discussed, connected to our larger theme this year of “Getting Our Mojo Back”, last night we held the first of our three critical conversations this year that will both hearken back to give everyone equal footing and dream forward to give everyone an equal stake.  Last night’s “town hall” was dedicated to the school’s Jewish Journey these last six or so years, and thank you to the parents who turned out to listen and to share.  [For those of you who might have participated had we had made a virtual option available, please know that there will be occasions when we do go hybrid.  We just felt/feel that for these conversations, it is easier to navigate live.]

What I’d like to do here, is provide a kind of annotated guide to the slides that were presented – layering in a bit of my own commentary – and ending with both some proposed next steps and opportunities for onboarding more questions and feedback from more parents.  Parent voice is critical to our ability to dream big dreams since you, our parents, are our most important stakeholder community and partner.  I am making a plea, here, while my word count is still under 200, to please add your voice to the conversation in whichever way is comfortable for you – comment on this blog, shoot me a private email, or make an appointment to come in.  This takes the village.

We began by turning the clock back to 2017 or so to remind ourselves of where our journey began.  Looking back is never intended to be disrespectful or disparaging of what was – there were, of course, lots of good things happening prior to my arrival (this is not about me!) – but we do want to be honest about what was true.  So here’s…

Again, this did not mean that we did not have excellent teachers or that teachers simply showed up each day without having planned their lessons.  We did and they did not.  But it is fair to say that we had done the work of clarifying much about our program as a whole – its ultimate benchmarks and standards when it comes to academics, and its mission and vision as a “Community” school.

That’s pretty straightforward.  That’s how much time we spent in Jewish Studies and how they were divided.  What jumps out in the K-5 is the decoupled nature of “Hebrew” and “Jewish Studies” and the mirroring of French in terms of when streaming took place and what we called it.

It is hard to measure outcomes without data.  But pay attention to those bullet points because the fact they were flagged then by parents as being of utmost concern absolutely guided what happened next.  [That’s why adding your voices now is paramount!  We really do act based on what you tell us!]

OK, that is what was true at the time.  So…

We had a big task in front of us!  Remember – or, know – that unlike in General or French Studies there are no external standards, curricula, or philosophies for Jewish Day Schools (of any type).  It is up to each school to make these decisions – schedule, curriculum, and clarifying what kind of “Community Day School” to be – important and exciting work indeed.  So…

 How did we begin the work?  DATA!

But also…

One of my great joys is that we have managed to create a space where each pulpit rabbi in our community is willing and able to sit around one table to engage in debates and disputes that are truly “for the sake of Heaven”.

So once we collected data, what did we wind up doing, beginning in the 2019-2020 school year?

That was quite a lot!  And since then what else…

Great that’s what we have done as a result of all the feedback and work over the last few years.  But…

We are very excited about these current initiatives and look forward to sharing back updates, results, gleanings and deliverables as each of these initiatives and programs starts to take shape.  That first bullet point hearkens all the way back to the first slide or so and closing that loop is among our highest priorities.  It is a huge task and hugely important – so no promises on anything other than transparency as to its process and a pledge to share whatever we can, as soon as we can.

But that’s just today!  We have also been thinking about…

That second bullet point is where you start to come in.  As will be true with French, in the weeks ahead we will be reaching out to parents to better understand what kinds of before- and after-school classes and experiences we might offer or be willing to host that may help to either fill gaps or simply enhance our Jewish Studies Program for all our families or, if desired, subcommunities of our families.  We really want to make sure we are doing whatever we can to meet needs in whatever ways we realistically can.  We do not have time to offer every possible Jewish Studies course or experience, but if we can partner with our parents to add what we can, when we can, it will be a win-win.  Stay tuned!

And finally, because I believe in naming those things which need to be named, let me acknowledge what I believe to be…

When we did this last, Hebrew was the priority and, to be fair, it is part of our mission.  But it is reasonable to ask the question of whether that is still true and to acknowledge that it comes at a cost.  And we definitely know that there are a variety of opinions about how much time we could and should spend in Jewish Studies – and I encourage an expansive view of that, including both academic class time and experiences.

One interesting piece of feedback that came from the town hall was that maybe, just maybe, there is an appetite for extending the school day to make the task of delivering a high-quality trilingual program a bit more attainable?  Do you think that’s true?

And finally, here are some big-picture questions we will be wrestling with as we go about dreaming the next dream for strengthening the “J” in “OJCS”…

So…let me repeat that parent voice is critical to our ability to dream big dreams since you, our parents, are our most important stakeholder community and partner.  I am making a plea, here, while my word count is now well over 1,000, to please add your voice to the conversation in whichever way is comfortable for you – comment on this blog, shoot me a private email, or make an appointment to come in.

This takes the village.

Please be sure to join us for our next Critical Conversation, “L’assembleé de Français – What is currently true about our French outcomes and what can parents expect moving forward?” on Thursday, November 24th at 7:00 PM.

A Non-Judgy Plea for Sukkot

If you have read, or are at least familiar with, my blog, you know that for years and years, I push out a pre-Sukkot plea for families to treat the joy of Sukkot with the same degree of intentionality as they tend to do for the solemnity of Yom Kippur.  Part of why these posts (click here and here for recent examples), tend to be so cookie-cuttered is that I don’t know how else to formulate either the question or the answer.  And so maybe that’s on me.  Perhaps it is my failure of imagination that is preventing me from either better identifying the core issue or better deriving a meaningful response.  I’m open to that.  But as I sit here, coming out of Yom Kippur and preparing for Sukkot, I am uneasy.  I don’t know how else to approach the matter that doesn’t leave me tilting at windmills or spitting into the wind.  One thought that I am left with, that I will attempt to name here, is that perhaps it isn’t the content of the message that fails to land, but the tone.

I am not a rabbi (at least not yet!) and (, regardless,) the school is not my pulpit.  That doesn’t mean that I am unwilling or unable to say hard things when necessary.  But, perhaps, it does mean that my “bully pulpit” requires me to stay in what is more reasonably understood to be “my lane” – and that how a family chooses to celebrate (or not) Jewish holidays is not it.  Maybe.  I’d prefer to split the baby a bit and suggest that as a Jewish day school with “Inspiring Jewish Journeys” as a North Star, that the subject is appropriate.  But, equally true, is that I have a responsibility to deliver a message less preachy.  So.  In that spirit, let me make a positive, non-judgemental pitch for making room for Sukkot in your cycle of Jewish celebrations.

On the school side of things, we are definitely looking forward to celebrating Sukkot at school with the assistance of our OJCS Sukkah [to be finished this week] (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.  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.

But what about the two days of school we are closed?  [I’ll share some corresponding thoughts about the next two days we are closed next week.]

If the idea of building a sukkah is either overwhelming or unrealistic at this time, in the spirit of trying to turn etrogs into etrog-ade, let me invite you to think of this year as an opportunity to pick one new tradition to experiment with.  Shake a lulav and etrog.  Eat in the sukkah (or in something sukkah-adjacent).  Attend or livestream a service.  Ask your child(ren)’s Jewish Studies Teacher(s) to send home.  Come use the OJCS Sukkah.  Come borrow OJCS lulav and etrogs.

How can I help?  What can I do?  These are actual questions – email me and it would be greatest pleasure.  My sukkah doors are open as well.  Literally, be my guest.  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.  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 fun.  But most importantly, I hope we – OJCS – is up to the task of educating, inspiring and working in partnership with our families so that those who wish to, are able to add Sukkot as a next stop on their Jewish journeys.

Chag sameach!

By the way, speaking of trying to be “non-judgy”, I don’t want to assume that the many families who already celebrate Sukkot – in whatever ways – aren’t also worthy of our school’s partnership!  Many, many OJCS families will be in synagogue and sukkot and, of course, if there are ways that our school can work in partnership to amplify their Sukkot experiences, we should be equally focused and desirous of being called-upon for them as well.  If you are in this camp, I ask you, too, to let us know how we can be a better partner for your family, if not for next week then in future years.

The 2022 OJCS Middle School Retreat: Friendship is Magic (Getting Our Mojo Back)

We did it!

After a couple of years of COVID-friendly day trips in lieu, our Fifth Annual OJCS Middle School Retreat was a triumphant return to Camp B’nai Brith of Ottawa and a return to the true spirit and format of what this experience is supposed both be and mean.  Our theme for The 2022 Middle School Retreat was the same as it was for Faculty Pre-Planning Week as it is for the whole school for the whole year: “Getting Our Mojo Back”.  Over three days, we engaged in three different peulot (informal Jewish educational programs) where our students, by class, by grade, and as a full middle school had a chance to review and lean into the Jewish values that will enable us to maintain and grow a healthy and constructive middle school community and culture.  I sometimes think that our school culture is a three-legged stool, with our North Stars, our “7 Habits” and our Jewish Values keeping us steady and stable.  I was very impressed by the level of engagement and the quality of conversation – whether we were inside, outside, sleepy or wide awake – that our students contributed to this part of the experience.

Here’s a snapshot (or 12) of our experience:

Day #1

Our day got started at school and we were quickly on our way to CBB by about 9:00 AM.  We arrived at Camp by about 10:00 AM, unpacked the bus, moved into cabins and enjoyed some free time and an opportunity to sample some of the recreational activities campers enjoy at CBB during the summer.  We then had lunch and moved into our activities for the day…
As has become our tradition, the first thing we do on the Middle School Retreat  are a set of fun, team-building activities planned and led by our Grade 8s:
[You can check out the school’s social media for some exciting tug-of-war videos!]
After that we moved into our first of three peulot (activities) for the Retreat.  We used the peulot to explore Jewish notions of “friendship” and “community”.  The first one was about Lashon Ha’Rah (Gossip) and how we can do a better job of observing the mitzvah of Lo Lashon Ha’Rah (Not Gossiping).  We explored a little text, did a little role-play and each grade recorded a 90-second PSA that we will look forward to sharing.
After the peulah we were ready for more free time and to get ready for dinner.  After dinner we went into our second peulah.  This one was about the Jewish value of Hokheah Tokhiah, which literally means “reproof”, but is shorthand for dealing with “conflict resolution”.  Again, we studied some text, did a few role-plays, learned a little about Martin Buber‘s concept of “I-It / I-Thou”, and practiced healthy ways we can navigate conflict.
Day #2

This morning we woke up bright and early and enjoyed a yummy bagel breakfast!

From there we went on a brief nature-themed Tefillah experience where we chose a location at CBB that best exemplified the “big idea” of each prayer.  For example, for the Yotzer which celebrates Creation, we climbed onto a balcony to revel in the beauty of the great outdoors.
After Tefillah, we packed up, boarded the buses and headed off to Caverne Laflèche par Arbraska for our main event!  We were split into groups and alternated between exploring the caves…
…and enjoying a ropes course and zipline adventure!
After all that adventure, we…
…headed back to camp and got ready for a yummy BBQ of hamburgers, hot dogs and chicken wings.
…played a game of Capture the Flag.
…built a campfire and did classic campfire things.
Day #3
We began the day with a spirited (bit-too-early) Kabbalat Shabbat and then moved into our final peulah of the retreat, “Dilemmas of Friendship,” which tried to tie together the themes of the retreat and set us up to be a healthy Middle School Community upon our return.
We then cleaned up our cabins and the camp, packed and loaded up the bus, and headed out to Gatineau Park for lunch and a hike.
We then boarded the bus and headed back to OJCS!
Speaking of “triumphant returns” – please join us for our in-person “Back to School Night” taking place on Wednesday, September 21st from 7:00 – 8:30 PM.  (Although we are not offering a hybrid experience, materials will be made available to parents who are unable to join us.)
Will I have time to squeeze out my annual pun-tastic High Holiday post before Rosh Hashanah?  Stay tuned!

A Chance to Be Our Best Selves: My Words to Kitah Alef at Our Kabbalat Ha’Siddur

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

“Before we call each student up by name to give them their siddur, I want to take just a minute or two to share a few words.  I realize we have a large class and I am the only thing keeping them – and you – from cake, so I really will be as quick as I can…

The Hebrew verb “to pray” is l’hitpallel.  The root of the word – peh/lamed/lamed – means “judgement” and the grammatical structure of the verb is reflexive.  That means that the most accurate way to understand what it means to pray in Judaism is to see prayer as an act of self-judgement.  In other words, in addition to all the reasons why we could and do pray – to express gratitude, to connect to community, to be part of a chain in history, to offer petition, to engage in mindfulness, to talk to God, etc., – the gift we give ourselves when we find time to pray is an opportunity to measure ourselves against our best selves.  And that’s the gift that our children give us – as parents and as teachers.

Each day, our children present us – their parents and their teachers – with an opportunity to be our best selves in service of them.  For parents, this is the sacred obligation we take on when deciding to have children.  For teachers and schools, this is the holy task we are entrusted with when parents take the leap of faith to provide their children with a Jewish education.  It is a responsibility that we do not take lightly or for granted.  It is what gets us here early and keeps us here late.  It is why a Kabbalat Ha’Siddur – why a celebration of a receiving a siddur gifted by the school, decorated by the parents, and instructed in by the teachers is so appropriate to mark this stage of our journey.

One of our school’s North Stars is that “we are all on inspiring Jewish journeys” and the Kabbalat Ha’Siddur is just the next stop on a journey that, for many, began together under the chuppah on the first day of Kindergarten.  My prayer for this class is that in the same way that the siddur we give them today is not a trophy to be admired on a shelf, but a tool to be used for discovery and meaning; let today’s simcha not merely serve as a moment to celebrate, but an inspiration to reach the next stop and the stop after that in the extraordinary and unpredictable Jewish journey of this remarkable group of children and families.

Ken y’hi ratzon.

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

Tips for Planning Your Endemic Seder 1.0 Too Good to Passover

After two years of making gallow humour jokes at the end of Passover seders by wondering if L’shanah ha’bah-ah will continue to end with b’Zoom, this may be the year that you and yours are preparing to actually be back around a seder table with friends and family.  Perhaps you will have a limited attendance, perhaps you are going all the way back in…or perhaps you are still keeping things small and/or carrying forward a hybrid seder with remote participants.  Whatever you are doing, here’s hoping it feels one step closer to normal…

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

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.

Now even if you are not the host, it still may be likely that the seder is falling to someone who may not (yet!) have a ton of experience filling this role and you may be called upon to help.  No pressure!  I got you.

This year I tried to remember that if anyone were to be truly be inspired and wish to adequately prepare, that it would be helpful to give them enough time to actually do it!  I typically post too close to Passover itself to allow anyone to put any of these ideas into practice.  So, this year,  I am going to push it out with a little more lead time.

So if this is your year to lead or co-lead – whether it is something you do annually, or if you are being pressed into service for the first or second time – let’s see what we can do.  And even if you still have a Zoom guestlist, the seder is still a wonderful opportunity for families to spend time doing something they still might not otherwise do—talk with one another!  The seder was originally designed to be an interactive, thought-provoking, and enjoyable talk-feast of an experience, so let’s see how we might increase the odds for making that true, even during Endemic Passover 1.0.

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

1.  Tell the Story of the Exodus

The core mitzvah of Passover is telling the story.  Until the 9th century, there was no clear way of telling the story.  In fact, there was tremendous fluidity in how the story was told.  The printing press temporarily put an end to all creativity of how the story was told.  But we need not limit ourselves to the words printed in the Haggadah.  [This may be especially true if you have not been hosting Passover and don’t actually have haggadot.  During the last two years, mine were with my Mom – so, we dusted off some vintage ones.  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 to write or record their stories, which you could incorporate into your seder (depending on your level of observance).  There may still be lots of families who will be using technology to expand their seder tables to include virtual friends and families – however, this year’s timing with Shabbat makes it harder for those who might normally try to sneak some of this in before candle-lighting.

2.  Sing Songs

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

3.  Multiple Haggadot

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

4.  Karpas of Substance

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

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

5.  Assign Parts in Advance

In order to encourage participation in your seder, you may want to consider giving your partner, children and guests 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 – don’t succumb to “Pediatric Judaism”, you are allowed to be silly and fun at all ages and stages.

6.  Know Your Audience

This may seem obvious, but the success of your seder will largely depend on your careful attention to the needs of the seder guests.  If you expect many young children at the seder, you ought to tailor the seder accordingly.  If you have people who have never been to a seder before, be prepared for lots of basic questions and explanations.  Do not underestimate your guests; if you take the seder seriously, they will likely respond positively.

7.  Fun Activities

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

8.  Questions for Discussion

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

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

Jon’s “Fifth Questions” for Passover 5782

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

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

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

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

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

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

9.  Share Family Traditions

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

10.  Preparation

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

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

And for OJCS Parents…we hope you are looking forward to next week’s Model Seders and other Passover Activities!

The Text is Timeless; I am Not: Re-re-reading “The Sabbath”

Or “How I Spent My February Break”.

This past week marked my third required reading of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s The Sabbath as part of my third seminary experience.  As much of a north star as this book has been for my twinned personal and professional Jewish journeys, I am struck by how different and how similar my responses have been from those different waypoints.  My first reading – as a single person studying for his first set of graduate degrees at the University of Judaism – along with other books, helped inspire me to take on a maximal Shabbat observance as it provided me, at that time, with what felt like a rational and modern justification for an otherwise irrational set of behaviors.  My second reading – as a married man with a pregnant wife studying for his doctorate at the Jewish Theological Seminary – provided us with inspiration and courage for making Shabbat the center of our not-yet-family with hope for what it would mean for us and our not-yet-children.  This third reading – as a nearly half-century-old man with teenage daughters studying to be a rabbi at the Academy for Jewish Religion – reaches me at a point in my life where the trickle of sand through the hourglass feels more like an avalanche and the desire to experience time as infinite is palpably more painful.  Shabbat as a “palace in time” in my twenties was a brilliant metaphor; in my thirties and forties it has been a family fortress; as I prepare to enter my fifties, I yearn to make it real.

Heschel’s “Shabbat” is decidedly non-Kabbalistic, but that doesn’t make it rational, however I may have read it in my twenties.  What jumped out at me during this reading of The Sabbath is that I would describe his view of Shabbat as “mythical” – his “palace in time” is not a metaphor advocating better work-life balance (to use a more modern valance), but an actual experience of transcendence.  For Heschel, the value of Shabbat is that it is not the other six days of the week – the goal is not to extend Shabbat’s transcendence into the week or even to devalue the this-worldly occupation of the work week.  Shabbat provides us with a taste of the “World to Come”  so that this life has added meaning.  Eastern philosophy wants us to use the tool of mindfulness to transcend the world through detachment; Judaism wants us to use the tool of Shabbat to experience God in this world through attachment – that’s where the imagery of weddings and couples bleed into reality and fuel transcendence.

In my first two readings of The Sabbath, I was more interested in what Shabbat wasn’t than what it was.  The “palace in time” was more about what I was keeping outside than what I could be experiencing inside.  Shabbat was an oasis of rest, of joy, and of family, precisely because that is not how the rest of the week was experienced.  This reading, perhaps influenced by my other rabbinic studies or by my own midlife ruminations, leaves me more interested in living beyond time than within it.  My understanding of the metaphor is such that it is halakhah which provides the frame and the construction – one can only build a palace in time through normative Jewish behaviors – and as I was coming to these behaviors in adulthood, I was much more interested in building the palace than dwelling in it.  As my children were born and have since transitioned into adolescence, my emphasis has shifted to dwelling in it, but more like a cottage or vacation home than a vehicle for God’s holiness (although there has always been a holiness in sacred family time), in that the reason for weekly visitation is at least as much, if not more, the opportunity it presents for togetherness, rather than transcendence.  Now, as the waystation of empty-nested-ness is within reach, I am forced to wonder who will dwell in this palace in the end?

On Friday evenings, sits a palace in time.  The famous piyut (poem) Lekhah Dodi is the midpoint of that palace’s drawbridge between Kabbalat Shabbat and Shabbat Maariv – coming literally after six psalms representing the six days who are not Shabbat and (just about) the beginning of the evening service.  It is the liminal moment when Shabbat transcendence becomes available – if the palace had a registration desk and a check-in time, they would both be Lekhah Dodi.  My hope is that the straight line of my temporal life continues to intersect with the sacred circle of weekly time each and every Shabbat, and that Lekhah Dodi serves as both entrance and exit.  And that if I am lucky, in addition to family and friends, meaning and mindfulness, peacefulness and rest; that my palace in time not only be visited by divinity, but that I be capable of recognizing and experiencing it – in my time, in this world.

Ken y’hi ratzon.  Let it be so…

Please know that as the situation continues to unfold in the Ukraine that we are, in grade-appropriate ways, providing our students with both information and opportunities for thinking about how we can respond.  Teachers have been provided with resources, including Jewish prayers for peace, and we are having conversations about a larger school response.

This feels like one of those moments that is bigger than the curriculum…we are a school that values student voice, leadership, global connectedness, social justice, mutual human and Jewish responsibility, etc.   We want to provide our students with all the information and support they need to be educated and active citizens in the world.  If you are looking for family resources, I recommend you start with this blog post from our amazing librarian, Brigitte Ruel.

Reinventing Middle School: The (Soft) Launch of OJCS “Mitzvah Trips”

If you have ever moved from one place or organization to another, you know that the last thing people want to hear is, “In my last…”.  There is a reasonable shelf-life for looking back to prior experiences in service of carrying forward ideas and programs that work, but here at OJCS, as I sit halfway through my fifth year, we ought to be past the, “In my last school…”.  And if not for COVID, I’d like to think we would.  But there is one big idea that I have been so excited to bring to OJCS that has been on pause since we teased its arrival back in the halcyon days of almost exactly two years ago in February 2020.  But the time for waiting is no more, COVID notwithstanding, and I am beyond pleased and excited to share the next stage of reinventing and reimagining Middle School (Grades 6-8) at the Ottawa Jewish Community School.

Beginning with a soft launch this March, we are pleased to introduce a new Middle School Social Justice Project – The OJCS Mitzvah Project – that is predicated on the Jewish value of tikkun olam, the idea that each of us are here to do our part to make our world a better place.  We will begin the work of integrating the formal Jewish Studies curriculum that our Middle School experiences on Mondays through Thursdays, with social justice experiences on Fridays, each and every week.  Aligned with our school’s core values [North Stars alert!] of “We own our own learning,” and “We are each responsible one to the other,” we will create a committee of students, teachers, parents, and community leaders to develop this project, 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 transition will require a “revolution” in our school that includes our schedule, our curriculum, our community partnerships and parent engagement.  It will require us to redo our middle school schedule so that all of our Jewish Studies classes would flip on Friday to the afternoon, so they can end their day with our weekly “Mitzvah Trip”.  It will require a brand-new curriculum (subjects, values, key ideas, Jewish sources, etc.) that is organized around the “Mitzvah Trip” experiences.  It will stretch our existing community partnerships and require us to invest time and energy in creating new ones, seeking a balance between Jewish and secular causes and organizations.  Logistics alone will require parent participation to help shepherd our students each Friday to the location of that week’s “Mitzvah Trip”.  However, the opportunity to transform parent participation into parent engagement is a huge value-add of their volunteerism.

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 where many parents are not looking towards 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 barely still eligible to experience 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?

Seeding the Jewish Future: Tu B’Shevat & Enrollment

January this year brings us a wonderful confluence of events – the publication of enrollment materials for the 2022-2023 academic year and the Jewish holiday of Tu B’Shevat – a holiday celebrating, among many things, the planting of seeds and the harvesting of fruits.  I always marvel when the rhythm of Jewish living intersects with the rhythm of school life – it never fails to create meaningful and new connections.

Having our students mostly back to learning at school (while many meaningfully engage at-home), is a reminder that despite all the many challenges COVID has brought, and continues to bring, that our truest North Star are our children themselves.  Our students are not an educational theory to be debated; they are flesh and blood children to be educated.  What we do now matters not in the abstract realm of philosophy, but in the practical realm of whether these girls and boys will be prepared for success in high school and beyond in all the ways academic, social and Jewish that can be defined.  All of the children in our school are what it is really about.  They are the reminder and the inspiration; the goal and the promise.

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

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

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

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

We look forward to many, many leaps of fact.

With two sets of successful “Parlour Meetings” behind us and lots of interested folk hoping to set (COVID-Friendly) tours ahead of us, please be in touch with our Admissions Director Jenn Greenberg (j.greenberg@theojcs.ca) to get more information about all things OJCS!