Leaning Into Forgiveness 5781

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

Empathy is the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within their frame of reference, that is, the capacity to place oneself in another’s position.

I worry, in general, that one of the challenges we have in the world is a genuine empathy gap.  I think that we find it harder and harder to feel, show and teach empathy.  I think that COVID only makes this harder.  But instead of focusing on others or the culture or the pandemic, this time of year calls upon us to focus on ourselves.  And I want to spend this year shrinking my empathy gap across the stakeholder groups I encounter…

Students

School came really easily to me.  Sure I had some social concerns around adolescence (I am sure being forced to wear headgear to school did not help), but by-the-by school was a comfortable and safe place for me to be.  I had a secure social group and I got lots of positive reinforcement from teachers who recognized and appreciated my natural (and in no way earned) skill set and performance.  I fully appreciate that my experience of school is not that of all, or even most, of my students.  Part of my job is spending meaningful time with students who don’t find school easy, safe or enjoyable.  Their discomfort is made manifest in all kinds of ways – some productive, some less so – but I am making it a goal this year to start with empathy.

Before I leap to judgement or into problem-solving or consequences, I want to do a better job trying to understand their lived experiences.  I hope that helps deepen my relationships with the very students who would benefit from it the most.  I hope it helps me be more constructive in my feedback and my response to students in distress.  I hope it makes me a better principal.

Teachers

I was never a teacher.  My path to day school leadership was highly atypical.  Although I did have a brief stint as a (very) part-time teacher in the late 90s at a Jewish day school in Los Angeles, I came into Jewish day school sideways.  After a brief career in Jewish camping and some time as a congregational educator, my first full-time job in Jewish day school was as a founding head.  I was never a full-time teacher and I never worked my way up from teacher to administrator to principal to head.  I came in as the head and that’s all I have ever been.  This unorthodox (no pun intended) path has its advantages and its disadvantages.  I have always found the biggest disadvantage to be in my lack of empathy.  Do I truly understand what I am asking of teachers if I have never had to live it myself?

We have set the bar very high for teachers at OJCS, with the teachers themselves often leading the way.  COVID has only made it harder to reach towards our North Stars.  This year, I want to make sure that I dedicate time in all my teacher discussions and encounters towards building empathy.  Am I asking the right questions to truly understand the lived experience our expectations demand?

Before I leap to judgement or into problem-solving or accountability, I want to do a better job trying to understand their lived experiences.  I hope that helps deepen my relationships with the very teachers who would benefit from it the most.  I hope it helps me be more constructive in my feedback and my response to teachers in distress.  I hope it makes me a better head of school.

Parents

I am a parent.

I am struggling with how to best express this next part, because I for sure do not wish to imply that my marriage or my children or my family doesn’t have all the same stressors and challenges and flaws as everyone else’s.  It definitely does!  But I think it is fair to describe my marriage as healthy and my children as fairly typical and my family as relatively functional.  Luck has as much to do with this as anything else…

I say this only to state that I recognize that life and luck may not be equally distributed across all families and there are parents in our school and community who are dealing with challenges that I have not experienced.  As the head of school, I am sometimes privy to the burdens parents carry, but just as often, I am completely unaware.  When a parent comes forward with a question or a concern or to provide feedback or for help, I want make sure that I lead with empathy.  Have I done enough work to truly understand a parent’s experience or perspective before I offer thoughts of my own?

Before I leap to judgement or into problem-solving, I want to do a better job trying to understand their lived experiences.  I hope that helps deepen my relationships with the very parents who would benefit from it the most.  I hope it helps me be more constructive in my feedback and my response to parents in distress.  I hope it makes me a better leader.

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 show empathy towards you.  I am sincerely sorry and ask for your forgiveness.

As you ponder the purpose of this season for you and your family, I hope you find the time for introspection and the inspiration for the teshuvah you are seeking.  From my family to yours, wishing you a tzom kal (easy fast) and a day of meaning.

G’mar chatimah tovah.

The Very Unique & COVID-Friendly 2020 OJCS Middle School Retreat

We just completed our third annual Middle School Retreat and I am so proud of our students and teachers (and families).  Just figuring out how to conduct a retreat adhering to COVID protocols was a challenge in and of itself.  But compliance was not our goal – creating community, inspiring growth and fostering (this year’s theme) grit was.  And even if we were unable to do all the things we wanted to (the ability to mix the grades being the single biggest loss), we still made it happen.  It was so nice to be outdoors, to hike, to zip, to talk, to play and to learn together.  It was like a little slice of normalcy during abnormal times.

Our theme (borrowed from last year’s graduation) was grit.  Over a decade ago, academic and psychologist Angela Duckworth released her first paper on the notion of grit and its application to education.  In both her TED Talk and her book, Duckworth defines grit as “a combination of passion and perseverance for a singularly important goal” that is a key ingredient for high achievement, not only in school, but in life.  If there was ever an adjective that described this year it would be “grit”.

We fused together these notions of grit – spending the first day focusing on “passion” and the third day on “perseverance” (with the second day spent ziplining through the trees) – with Rabbi Hillel‘s famous three questions:

If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I?  If not now, when? (Pirkei Avot 1:14).

In between the social bonding, the hiking, the scavenger hunts, the sports, and the ziplining, our students found their passions, set goals, explored the relationship between the individual and the community, culminating in the concluding conversation, answer the question:

How can we work together as a Middle School Community to foster each other’s passion, to overcome each other’s obstacles and to show grit on our way to achieving our individual and communal goals for 2020-2021?

We ended our retreat by doing what comes naturally at OJCS, giving back to the community, by launching a project with our local Kosher Food Bank: developing social media campaign to amplify the important work of feeding our community.  All in all, we spent three days living our North Stars and strengthening our Middle School Community.  You can see for yourself…

A huge thank-you goes out to our Student Life Coordinator, Deanna Bertrend, for all her hard work putting this together!  Putting the Middle School Retreat together isn’t easy in a normal year, but doing it while we are just a week or so into figuring out how to reopen in the middle of a pandemic, and having to adapt the retreat to all kinds of protocols…well that’s a lot.  Our students and school are grateful for her leadership.

We are looking forward to next week’s “Virtual Back to School” on Wednesday, September 23rd beginning at 7:00 PM.  We will be sending out a schedule and links early next week.

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.  Let’s make sure that 5781 is not only an amazing year, but a safe one at that.

From our family to yours, “Shanah tovah!”

The Coronavirus Diaries: OJCS Creates & Delivers PPE to Hillel Lodge

There is some irony (that may not be the best word) that COVID-19 delayed our official grand opening of the OJCS Makerspace (with generous support from the Congregation Beth Shalom of Ottawa (CSBO) Legacy Endowment Fund), and that the OJCS Makerspace has yielded our school’s first significant contribution to the community’s response to COVID-19.  We had softly opened the space prior to pivoting to distance learning while furniture and equipment were still coming in, but our official grand opening had to be indefinitely postponed.  This week, however, we got a firsthand look at what having a makerspace for our students can mean for their learning and for our community.

The Talmud (Kiddushin 40b) describes a debate about whether the study of Torah leads to action or whether action leads to the study of Torah, and like most talmudic debates, the answer is, of course, “yes”.  At the Ottawa Jewish Community School, we deliberately create experiences and learning holistically.  Our Jewish learning and values inspire us take action to repair the world and our engagement in the world inspires us to further our Jewish learning.  This project is a wonderful embodiment of this idea in practice.

Going back a number of weeks, a parent and frontline healthcare professional, Dr. Joanne Tannebaum, came to us with an idea.  A colleague of hers had worked out a design for 3D-printing face shields and “ear-savers” and she wanted to know if we wanted to participate.  We talked it through, brought in our Middle School Science Teacher Josh Ray, and decided that the most logical partnership for our Community School would be the Bess and Moe Greenberg Family Hillel Lodge, our community’s Jewish Home for the Aged.  I reached to their CEO, Ted Cohen, and with his enthusiastic support and partnership, we were on our way!

The next step was to host a meeting between our Middle School, Dr. Tannenbaum and the leadership from Hillel Lodge to officially launch our project for producing PPE for their frontline healthcare workers through our school’s 3D printer.  During that meeting, our students got a chance to hear firsthand about the importance of PPE and were given both a design challenge (How can we make face shields and surgical masks more comfortable?) and a practical challenge (How will we create, assemble and deliver the final product?).

Mr. Ray went ahead and safely retrieved our school’s 3D printer from the Makerspace, gathered supplies, recruited student volunteers and the work began!

The easier of the two to produce is the ear-saver:

OJCS 3D-Printed “Ear-Savers” for Surgical Masks

This item helps anyone who has to wear a surgical mask or face shield relieve the pressure off their ears.  You loop your mask on the appropriate notch and voilà – your ears are spared.  This one is easily printed, comes in lots of colours, and our students have even managed to personally inscribe messages.

Why does this work matter?  Let’s see what Mr. Ray has to say:

For me, this project is so important for many reasons. It teaches students 21st century skills like 3D modeling, while connecting the importance of community and empathy at the same time. I think everyone is always looking to serve, and give back wherever possible. The need for PPE in the community has provided both the students and I that opportunity. I’m so proud of the commitment and character shown from the group of students that volunteered their own time to get involved.

OJCS 3D-Printed Face Shields

The face shields were a little more complicated.  Because we have a smaller-sized 3D printer, it took some time, research and trial-and-error to find a program that allowed us to print plastic to hold a full-sized shield.  But Mr. Ray and team eventually figured it out and we are thrilled that we can now deliver these to Hillel Lodge.

Our first (there will be more!) delivery took place on Wednesday, June 17th and it was wonderful have a couple of our Grade 8 students – Talia C. and Jessica A. – join me, Mr. Ray, Ted Cohen, Karin Bercovitch, CFO and Morag Burch, Director of Nursing to commemorate the occasion.

What is the impact of this project?  Let’s see what Mr. Cohen has to say:

All long-term care homes including the Bess and Moe Greenberg Family Hillel Lodge has a critical responsibility to keep our residents safe during the COVID-19 pandemic. Personal Protective Equipment such as face-shields and masks are vital to protecting our residents and staff during this pandemic. We are grateful for the strong partnership we have with the Ottawa Jewish Community School and for their assistance creating face-shields and masks extenders for our front-line workers. This innovative initiative is not only an educational experience for the students but provides our team with vital supplies. We are thankful for the assistance we’ve received and look forward to continuing to develop our partnership.

At the end of the day, this is an example of what it means to live our values, to reach towards those North Stars.  I cannot think of a better way to express what it means when “We own our own learning,” and then make sure that “We are each responsible one to the other”.  I know that it is easy to reduce things to slogans and hashtags (guilty as charged), but slogans and hashtags are meaningful when they serve as both reminders and catalysts.

So, what does it mean when we say #WhenTorahLeadsToAction?  Let’s ask Talia:

It was such a meaningful experience for me to be able to help my community in a time of crisis. It always feels good to give back to the Jewish Community, and be a part of something bigger.

What does it mean when we say #TheOJCSDifference?  Let’s ask Jessica:

Over the years, Hillel Lodge has provided me with so many life lessons and experiences that have enriched me as a person. Since kindergarten I have been involved with Hillel Lodge therefore, I wanted to give back to a place that has so much significance in my life.

Thanks to everyone at OJCS and Hillel Lodge who played a role in bringing this partnership and project to life!  Let our next innovative collaboration be inspired by health and joy…

Becoming a Dugma Ivrit

How about we take a break from social protest, social distancing and COVID-19 for just a week?

Next week, we will laud our amazing OJCS Graduation Class of 2020, and then we will introduce the 2020-2021 OJCS Faculty & Staff, and – of course – we will have ongoing conversation about how we will safely reopen school.

But just for a week, can we pretend that things are normal?  It would be so good for my state of mind to talk about normal things for just a week, so please indulge me in a non-emergency, non-urgent, post about something I care a lot about…Hebrew.

There is a Hebrew expression often used in Jewish educational settings known as a dugma ishit – a personal example.  We remind ourselves as leaders, and our students (or campers or youth group members) of what it means to be a role model and an example to others.  I take this concept seriously, not only for my teachers and students, but for me. As a Jewish educational leader, I should strive to be a dugma ishit. However, as I am constantly reminded in conversation and meetings with Jewish Studies Faculty, Ellie, and not-an-insignificant-number of parents in a school like ours that prides itself on language immersion, what that really means is that I also must strive become a dugma ivrit.

My youngest daughter is now in grade six.  Having attended preschools where she always had at least one Israeli teacher and being in day schools that utilize immersive curricula, she has developed a cute little Israeli accent.  She, like many of her classmates, have been listening to Hebrew for as long as they can remember and although they (naturally) vary in their abilities, they are comfortable speaking Hebrew.

Let me define “comfortable”.

The biggest difference between adult learners and child learners is self-consciousness.  As an adult, I am very conscious when I make mistakes and, as an adult, I am uncomfortable making them.  As a child, I am often less conscious when I make mistakes, but more importantly, as a child, I am comfortable making them – because that’s what learning is.

You can learn Hebrew as an adult.  I did.  I was in my 20’s attending ulpan as a prerequisite to begin graduate school before I spoke my first Hebrew sentence.  I was a pretty good student and so I learned.  But as I good as I ever got in the heart of my studies, I could never escape the heart palpitations when called upon to speak.  What if I didn’t know the correct word?  What if I mixed up my verb tenses or used the wrong grammatical construct?  And so even though I have lots of Hebrew in my head and would be considered somewhat “fluent” by some, I still have to manually shift my brain and screw up my courage to speak.

For example,  Jewish Studies Faculty meetings are typically conducted in Hebrew.  And I am perfectly capable of participating.  But when it is my turn to speak, I may get a few Hebrew sentences out, but will almost automatically switch to English.

Here’s the irony.  (Or, perhaps, hypocrisy.)

I have been on a mission since arriving here to up the intensity of our Hebrew immersion.  As an educator, I know that any hope at true second-language (or in our case third-language depending on how you rank them) acquisition and authentic fluency is dependent on our ability to provide as pure an immersive environment as possible.  And yet when Dr. Mitzmacher comes to teach prayer – I mean Tefillah – to First Grade – I mean Kitah Alef – he speaks to the children in English, while praying with them in Hebrew.

Some dugma ishit that guy is!

So after almost three years of hearing me preach Hebrew immersion (in English!), it is time to ask a hard question: Why don’t I speak to the kids in Hebrew when I am teaching Jewish Studies?  If we want to truly be more of a trilingual school why don’t I make school announcements in Hebrew or speak Hebrew during school assemblies and other events?

Why don’t I?

Because it scares me.

What if I forget the words?  What if I say it incorrectly?  What if I get nervous and go blank?  What will people think?

And for me it is about more than Hebrew.  Because if a school prides itself on transparency and praises spirited failure, then it requires that leaders lead.

So even though it terrifies me, I have set some new professional goals for next year.  I am going to try to speak in Hebrew when I am teaching Jewish Studies.  I am going to try to include spoken Hebrew in major school events, like graduation.  I am going to try to speak Hebrew during Jewish Studies faculty meetings.  I am going to try to speak Hebrew with my daughters.  I am going to try and I am likely to fail.  But I will try to keep trying.

Because that’s what it means to be a dugma ivrit.

By the way…if I had any hope of learning French at my advanced age and reduced bandwidth, I promise I would add that into the mix as well.  All the larger points above apply equally well to French.  But you have to crawl before you can walk, which for me means that you have to try being bilingual before you try trilingual.

L’Zoom V’Zoom: Charge to Kitah Bet Upon Receiving the Gift of Torah

[This is the brief dvar that I shared with Kitah Bet, their parents, grandparents, and special friends on Thursday, May 28th in honour of their Chagigat He’Chumah (Chumash Party).]

As I look at each box on my screen, representing teachers, students and their families, extended families and friends, and so on, I can’t help thinking of the language used to describe B‘nei Yisrael as they prepared to receive Torah at Sinai.  It says in Devarim (Deuteronomy) that, “You stand this day, all of you, before the Lord your God…” (29:9).

When it says, “all of you” we are meant to believe that the entire extended Jewish family – past, present and future – stood together at Sinai.

When it says, “this day” we are meant to understand that the gift of Torah was not a one-time act in ancient history, but rather a forever present-tense experience of covenantal renewal as each Jewish person, in their own way, stands to receive and accept the gift of Torah.

There are important lessons to be learned from these ideas…

We are living through most interesting and challenging times.  Our senses of time and space are becoming distorted through social distancing, online learning and remote workplaces.  We are all playing with differing notions of “together alone” and “alone together” at school, at work, at synagogue, with our families and our friends – all in service of maintaining feelings of connectedness with the people and things that matter most.  A day like today bridges ancient wisdom and modern technology.  We all stand together today to witness these children accept the gift of Torah – whether that is immediate family physically together, extended family and friends virtually together, or the memory of generations spiritually together.

When we stand together on this day, we are reminded that there are parents and teachers amongst us whose “this day” – an OJCS/Hillel Academy Grade 2 Chumash Party – happened years ago, but lives again today.  There are parents for whom this is their first child to reach this milestone and others for whom this is their last.  The experience of Jewish memory, however, is not that of fixed moments sealed in amber.  Our holidays, our rites of passage, our texts and our prayers are not designed to encourage nostalgia for what was, but rather to make the past present, and thus, enrich our future.  On Passover, we don’t remember what took place in ancient Egypt, we relive the experience so that it becomes ours as well.  When a child becomes a Bar or Bat Mitzvah – when anyone is called to the Torah – the blessing one says is written in the present tense, “…notain et ha’Torah” – who gives the Torah.  God didn’t give the Torah once upon a time to our ancestors.  God gives the Torah to each of us whenever we are present to receive it.

And that brings us to today.

We celebrate our children’s first accomplishments in the study of Torah with the (symbolic) gift of Torah.  We choose to do this on the morning of Erev Shavuot to explicitly link our children’s receipt of Torah in school with our people’s receipt of Torah at Sinai.  Your choice to provide your children with a Jewish day school education forges that link.  Your choice connects your children to the generations who came before and to those yet to come.  Your choice joins your family story to the larger Jewish story.  Your choice honours the Jewish past and secures the Jewish future through the learning and experiences you have made possible for their Jewish present.

That is why, as was true with the Siddur they received at the end of Kitah Alef, the 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 continue to receive and accept Torah in their own unique way, infused by a love of Judaism, informed by Jewish wisdom and aligned with Jewish values.

Thank you.

Thank you to the parents who have sacrificed in ways known and unknown to give your children the gift of Jewish day school.  Before COVID-19, we would describe teachers as in loco parentis – teachers who serve as stand-ins for parents at school.  Well, in this time of distance learning, we can aptly describe parents as in loco teacheris, and thank them for the extraordinary effort that goes in to schooling-at-home.  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, even on Google Meet!  Your passion and enthusiasm for learning and for Judaism is why we wake up each day at OJCS with a spring in our steps and a smile on our faces.  We can’t wait to see who you will become!

Mazal Tov & Chag sameach!

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!