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!

How Studying to be a Rabbi is Making Me a Better Head of School

We have been conducting a series of “Town Hall” meetings with Middle School classes as part of amplifying student voice [North Star Alert!  “We own our learning.”] and I found myself in Grade 7.  We were chit-chatting at the end and a student raised his hand and asked me a question: “I heard that you were in school or something?  That you are studying to be a rabbi?”

Yup!

And after a little more back-and-forth, the money quote: “Why would you choose to be in school when you don’t have to?!”

Why indeed!

As I am spending my late nights and Sundays preparing my final papers and studying for my final exams, I sometimes wonder that exact same thing!  But as I am preparing to finish my first year (this marks the end of my third trimester) of rabbinical school, I wanted to reflect for a bit about what this journey has meant to me, not only personally, but professionally – how has becoming a rabbinical school student impacted my headship?

I am currently taking my fourth and fifth classes.  (I barely have the bandwidth for two classes a trimester, which is why I am on a long, slow journey towards ordination.)  My first class was a unique “Peace & Conflict Studies” course that dealt with navigating conflict in a Jewish workplace with a spiritual dimension.  My second and third classes were a Liturgy class about the High Holidays and the second trimester (I was grandfathered in) of Beginning Talmud.  I am currently finishing out the Beginning Talmud track and am taking a Halakhah class about “Genetics & Jewish Law”.  However interesting or not you may think those classes sound, let me take a moment to answer my own question.

It feels good to put myself outside my comfort zone and inside a student’s mindset once again.  I look forward to sitting at the kitchen table and doing my Jewish Studies homework alongside my children.

That’s what I wrote last January when I announced that I was becoming a rabbi.  The first part for sure has come true.  (The second part is true metaphorically, if not in practice.)  And that is what I shared with my Grade 7s – that the fact that I am struggling to remember long-ago buried Hebrew, while working in Aramaic trying to unpack talmudic conversation, and having to do so publicly, out loud in front of classmates and teacher, really does give me much-needed empathy for my students.  I have days when I pray that the teacher calls on me because I am totally excited to share my learning, and there are days when I pray that the teacher doesn’t notice me because I am not sure that I understand something and I don’t want to be embarrassed in front of my peers – “student’s mindset” for sure!

Whether it is time management (when do I do my homework?), imposter syndrome (will they realize that I don’t know things?), second (or third) language acquisition (please don’t make me express myself in a language that I am not totally comfortable in!), and so much more – for my students for whom academics are not their strongest suit, this experience has been and will be wonderful for my empathy.  And that empathy will, hopefully, help me think carefully about the kinds of supports those students need to be – and, more importantly -to feel successful.

Of course, for those students who LOVE to learn…me too!  Other than not having enough time in the day or days in the week, I am so enjoying learning again (especially Talmud)!

What is most fun for me, however, is when I can make a direct application between something I am studying and something I am working on.  [Obviously, a Jewish workplace would never have conflict so that class on “Peace & Conflict Studies” wouldn’t apply.  Ha.]  I have the pleasure – which I mean sincerely – of leading services each morning with Grade 6.  One of the things we have studied this year in Talmud is the Weekday Amidah, especially the first three brakhot.  In a wonderful bit of happenstance, that exact sugya of Talmud is one that we were studying – how did the Rabbis decide how many brakhot we should say, what should they be about and from where were they derived?  The fact that I could unpack that in a very grade-appropriate way with our Grade 6s is exactly why I wanted to go to rabbinical school.  Not because it was neat for me (it was so cool!), but because it allows me to subtly enhance the learning of my students and to add their link of learning to the chain of Jewish learning through the ages.

So, one year down, many (many) years to go!  In the meanwhile, I can put my report card on the fridge next to my children’s and I will doubly enjoy Winter Break with both my student and principal hats.

Do you want to see how JK at OJCS will set your child up for success in school?  Do you have a friend or relative with a child entering JK?  Please contact our Admissions Director, Jennifer Greenberg (j.greenberg@theojcs.ca), to find out more or to book a COVID-friendly tour.  You may also reserve your spot at our upcoming “JK Parlour Meeting” scheduled for Tuesday, December 17th at 7:00 PM (link made available when you RSVP).

We will be sending home information next week about how the school will navigate COVID protocols coming out of Winter Break, including providing families with rapid testing.  Please be on the lookout for an important EMAIL.

We have a VERY EXCITING ANNOUNCEMENT to share next week that you are definitely going to want to hear!  No spoilers here!

Actions Speak Louder Than Candles: A Chanukah Pedagogy

I guess if the High Holidays came early this year that all the other ones probably will as well?  So I guess I can’t be surprised that Chanukah begins this Sunday evening!  As part of my blog post last year, I wrote:

Instead of a public reading, we communicate the story of Chanukah silently, with the act of lighting candles at the window so that Jews and non-Jews alike recognize our celebration of the miracles that occurred.

I found a pedagogical “a-ha moment” in my re-reading and it isn’t so much in the “silence” as it is the “act”.  Why?  Well, in the case of candles, it is an action that anyone can take; it is not so ritualistically complex that only the most knowledgeable amongst us can perform it. It is an action performed publicly and in the home.  And it is an act through which the meaning can be found through the doing.  It is truly an act of “na’aseh v’nishma“.

This quotation from the Torah (Exodus 24:7) has been interpreted in many ways in Jewish tradition.  The meaning which speaks most deeply to me is: “We will do and then we will understand.”  This meaning comes from a rabbinic story (also called “midrash”) that explains Israel’s unconditional love for the Torah.  The midrash is as follows:

When the Children of Israel were offered the Torah they enthusiastically accepted the prescriptive mitzvot (commandments) as God’s gift.  Israel collectively proclaimed the words “na’aseh v’nishma“, “we will do mitzvot and then we will understand them”.  Judaism places an emphasis on performance and understanding spirituality, values, community, and the self through deed.

Simply put, we learn best by doing.

This idea has powerfully stimulated my own Jewish journey and informs my work as a Jewish educator.  I think there are two major implications from this:  One, regardless of the institution, we have a responsibility to provide access to informal Jewish educational programs to our young people.  Two, our formal educational institutions can stand to learn from what makes informal work.  [This is precisely why in our search for a new “Head of Jewish Studies” we have expanded the position to include “Jewish Life” – our ideal person will have an informal and/or camping background in addition to their formal education and experiences.]  Namely, I believe strongly in education that is active, interactive, dynamic, and most importantly experiential.  It is one thing to teach Judaism; it is something more powerful to teach people how to live Judaism.

It is one thing to teach social action; it is identity-forming for our middle school students to go out into the world each Friday and in lieu of their Jewish Studies Curriculum make the world a better place by doing social action.  That’s why we are working so hard to launch our new “Mitzvah Trip” program this spring, COVID challenges notwithstanding.

It is one thing to read about Israel; it is transformative to visit Israel.  That’s why we are exploring how to one day transition our GRAD Trip in Grade 8 from Toronto or NYC to Eretz Yisrael.

And for this time of year?

It is one thing to study Chanukah; it is something infinitely more meaningful to light a menorah in the window, surrounded by family.  Hopefully, your family is planning on joining our OJCS Family in this year’s Annual (Virtual) Chanukah Family Program on Thursday, December 7th at 7:00 PM!

Finally, this and each Chanukah, let’s not forget our Jewish values of tzedakah (charity) and kehillah (community).   Along with your normal gift-giving, consider donating a night or two of your family’s celebration to local healthcare or other essential workers whose light of courage amplifies and enhances this Holiday of Lights.

Chag urim sameach from my family to yours!

BTW – if you like a playlist and a signature cocktail for your celebrations, why don’t you go ahead and make yourself a Chanukah Gelt Martini and vibe to this playlist:

How to Make “Back to School” Sacred Time

In the beginning of one of my favorite books, The Sabbath, by one of my favorite Jewish thinkers Abraham Joshua Heschel, we are reminded that, “Judaism is a religion of time (emphasis in original) aiming at the sanctification of time.”  Later on, Heschel refers to Shabbat using a similar metaphor – “a palace in time”.

Among the many things Heschel is describing, is the value of celebrating and cherishing moments in time.  That time itself can be sacred and holy. For the purpose of his book, it is the Sabbath under consideration.  For the purpose of this blog post, it is the idea of how important it is to stop and appreciate the everyday miracles of time all around us.

One of those miracles, to me, each year, but this year in particular, is simply the start of school.

This has been a month of firsts.  First days of school for our junior kindergartners.  First days of a last year for our eighth graders.  First days in a new school for teachers.  First days for new families.  First echoes of laughter and rolling backpacks in hallways that were still and empty just a few weeks ago.  First lessons brought to life from planning and imagination. First hiccups of schools in dreaming bold dreams.  First successes. First failures which are really first steps towards success.

First steps to an unlimited future.

I believe in the religiosity of teaching and the teacher-student relationship.  And as I have shared in a prior post about how to best approach Parent-Teacher Conferences, to both borrow and butcher Martin Buber, I believe that when we treat others as objects, we are in an “I-It” relationship; when we treat others with recognition of the divine within them – when we acknowledge that we are all created in God’s image and treat each other as such, we are in an “I-Thou” relationship.  Taking a deeper step (according to this idea) would be to say that when we treat each other with love, we invite God’s presence into our relationships.  Not merely as a metaphor, but as an existential fact.

One way to measure school success, I would suggest, will be determined by whether or not those engaged in the sacred work of schooling see each other as “Thous” and not “Its”.   Will we do the work necessary from the start of school to develop “Thou” relationships with our students?  With their parents?

Our first opportunity to put these ideas into practice will come at Virtual Back to School Night on Tuesday, October 12th (schedule and links coming soon).  It may not seem appropriate to deem something like that as “sacred time”, but how else to describe the coming together of teachers and parents in the service of educating children?

So congratulations to the teachers, staff, lay leaders and volunteers who contributed to our successful opening of the 2021-2022 school year!  Thank you to all the parents who trust us with your children.  Thank you to the students for your smiles and eagerness.  And as we move from the excitement of first weeks into the routines of first months, let us all cherish the everyday moments too often overlooked – a new skill mastered, a new friend made, a new year begun.

Ken yehi ratzon (May it be God’s will.)

I will be taking next week off from blogging, as it is the week of my younger daughter, Matyal’s, Bat Mitzvah and we have a busy and exciting week!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leaning Into Forgiveness 5782

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

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

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

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

Wow.

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

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

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

 

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

G’mar chatimah tovah.

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