A Parent’s Perspective on a Teen Israel Experience

I think after last week’s blog post was rendered moot by outside events within hours of publication, you’ll forgive me for seeking comfort in a non-COVID and pretty much a non-OJCS conversation…and I like the idea of talking about Israel as we just commemorated Yom HaZikaron and are now celebrating Yom Ha’Atzmaut.

My oldest daughter, Eliana, pictured above in the middle, arrived this week to Jerusalem where she was supposed to be spending her spring semester of Grade 10 as part of the TRY (Tichon Ramah Yisrael) Program.  With her bags packed since January, the universe finally aligned itself this week, and teenagers from all over North America have finally found their way to Israel.  Leaving aside the impossibility that I could be old enough to have a daughter old enough to be doing this, I thought it might be a good opportunity – especially since teen Israel experiences that aren’t the March of the Living aren’t particularly well-embedded in the culture here in Ottawa – to make a pitch and a plea for teen Israel experiences.  (And, yes, I am aware that lots of Canadian Jewish day schools do have Israel trips, and yes, I would LOVE to see us eventually do that here in Grade 8.  But that’s a different post for a different time.)

Like a lot of Jews of my generation, a teen Israel experience (along with Jewish summer camp) was a crucial step on my Jewish journey.  It also was my very first job in Jewish education.

I first went to Israel in 1988 as part of our local Federation’s teen tour.  It was an extraordinary experience and I met friends that summer that I am still close with today.  I returned to Israel in 1992 as part of a NFTY in Israel summer experience.  My very first job in Jewish education was working for the Bureau of Jewish Education of Greater Los Angeles (BJE-LA) running teen programs, paramount of which was the LA Summer-in-Israel Ulpan.  I cannot provide a link to the program because, unfortunately, it no longer exists, but for many years it was a signature summer-in-Israel program combining the regular touring experiences of other trips with an actual Hebrew ulpan for which students received high school and college credit.  I spent the summers of 1997 and 1998 leading this trip and having an opportunity to provide teens with the experiences I had been blessed to have as a teen myself.  And now as a parent, I am blessed to pass it forward to my children.

The power of the teen Israel experience is real.  Here’s excellent proof (even if a bit dated):

A 2011 study conducted by Ramie Arian and sponsored by iCenter indicated the following:

  • Roughly 11,000 teens traveled to Israel in 2010 – almost the same number that participated in peer-trips to Israel in the late 1990s. One difference, however, is that over 130 agencies took teens to Israel in 2010.
  • The majority of teens traveled with youth organizations, middle schools, high schools, community trips and camps.
  • The mifgash is becoming a normative part of the teen Israel travel experience, with a few select groups extending it to the full length of their programs.

Based on two iCenter convenings of 30 teen Israel trip stakeholders, the following was underscored:

  1. An experience in Israel must be seen as an essential component of Jewish Education. Ideally, students participate in multiple Israel Experiences over time.
  2. The Israel Experience is most impactful as part of a Jewish Educational continuum (pre- and post-trip programming).
  3. Teen years are critical from a developmental perspective to help form identity and relationships.

I am so excited/thrilled/jealous that my daughter gets to have this first amazing Israel experience and I look forward to seeing over the next months and years how it impacts her and our family.  And I look forward to my next daughter’s experience when it becomes her turn.  In the meanwhile, in this week that we celebrate Israel’s birthday, let us pledge not just to celebrate her with flags and falafel, not just with social media posts and tzedakah, but with a commitment to bring as many of our teens to Israel as we can.

And for the folks here at OJCS…are we ready to start talking about a Grade 8 GRAD Trip to Israel?

The Trauma-Aware Jewish Day School

Now that I have had eighteen hours of rabbinical school under my belt, I find myself becoming a bit self-conscious whenever I make a connection between something I am learning in school and the work we do here at OJCS each and every day.  I am so barely into the first baby steps towards becoming a rabbi that it almost feels chutzpahdik to make mention of it at all.  (At my current rate of taking classes, I can definitely pencil in my ordination for the Spring of 2037.)  However, I am becoming a rabbi for a reason, and as I explained when I first shared this news, it was both likely and desirable that it lend a new perspective on my work.

One of the books for the current course I am taking is Wounds into Wisdom by Rabbi Tirzah Firestone.  It is a terrific book that deals with the phenomenon of “collective trauma” and its impact on future generations.  Without doing any of her work justice, it perhaps could be best understood in a Jewish context by recognizing that the children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors may very well suffer – consciously or subconsciously – the effects of trauma, even if they did not experience the original trauma.  In the context of my course, where all my classmates are either already or will likely be serving in a pulpit or chaplaincy, or otherwise engaged in some form of pastoral counseling, the application is a bit more obvious.  You will inevitably have congregants who suffer from trauma and, thus, let’s spend some time recognizing what trauma looks like and how one might think about managing/addressing/navigating it.

For me, the dots connected differently, but no less powerfully.

We are now into our second year of pandemic schooling.  “Collective trauma” is not an abstract idea that only applies to the victims of genocides and terror attacks, it is literally our lives.  For over a year, our students, parents, teachers and community have been – and continue to – live in and with trauma.  I think this is something we know intuitively, but if you want a little evidence, let me share with you a chart I shared with our Educational Leadership Team this week:

Classic Trauma Reactions

Engagement                       dissociation ←→ vigilance

Control                                 passive ←→ urgent 

Empowerment                  victimized ←→ hyper-resilient

Emotion                              withdrawn ←→ hyper-arousal

Patterning                          amnesia ←→ recall & repeat

Does this not sound like, I don’t know, everyone you know right now (including yourself)?

I see these responses all around me, all the time.  I see it in the normally vivacious student who is unusually withdrawn.  I see it in the normally laid back parent who has grown helicopter wings.  I see it in the normally contained teacher for whom everything is now on fire.  I see all the reverses as well.  I see different reactions from different people at different times in the face of different circumstances.  I see it in the parking lot and I see it in emails and I see it on social media.  And I most definitely see it in myself.

There are techniques and methods from the worlds of psychology, counseling and pastoral care that have proven to have some success in moving individual people through trauma.  When it comes to collective trauma there is much less to fall back on.  (When it comes to inherited collective trauma, even less than that, thus Firestone’s book.)  When it comes to COVID-based trauma…

When I think about all those way-too-long “Weekly Update” emails I sent last spring to our parents and each blog post I have written as part of “The Coronavirus Diaries” series, I can see that I keep coming back to one saving gracenote – empathy.  That’s what I mean when I say that we have to give each other space to make mistakes.  It is what I mean when I encourage and express gratitude for patience and flexibility.  Empathy.  Empathy for the collective trauma of pandemic living doesn’t necessarily change outcomes, nor does it serve as an excuse.  It doesn’t mean that we necessarily do anything differently.  But it does help.

If in a Jewish context we can employ empathy by keeping the notion of b’tzelem elohim – the idea that each and every one of us is made in the image of God, that we each share a spark of the divine – front of mind, perhaps we can find the strength to take a breath and assume the best of each other.

At least we can try…

Tips for Planning Your Pandemic Seder 2.0 Too Good to Passover

If it was weird a couple of weeks back to note that Purim was the last holiday that we celebrated before COVID, it is equally as weird (and a bit depressing) to note that Passover will be the first holiday we are preparing to celebrate a second time during COVID.  I am surely not the only one who made a gallows humor joke at the end of last year’s seders around “L’shanah ha’ba-ah…” and where I assumed I would be spending next year’s seders.  Little did I know that I would be spending it in exactly the same place…in my house, with my immediate family and a Zoom.

Each year, I issue one or two blog posts 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 last year,

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.

No pressure!  I got you.

One thing that I noticed when reviewing last year’s post is that I kinda forgot 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 combine my Passover posts into one (long) helpful guide and I am going to push it out with a little more lead time.

So if this is your year to 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.  Even if you 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 Pandemic Passover 2.0.

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.  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 – 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 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, I 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?!  (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?

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?

Jon’s “Fifth Questions” for Passover 5781

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

Pandemic Purim: It Has Never Been More Comfortable to Leave Your Comfort Zone

It is a busy Shavuat Ha’Ruach (Spirit Week) at the Ottawa Jewish Community School!  We are so glad to be back at school – both in general, and after February Break  – that there is lots of joy in the building; the added joy of Adar and Purim just makes it that much…er, joyful.

However, as is often the case in Jewish life where we weave moments of historical tragedy into even the most joyous of occasions (the breaking of glass at a wedding to remember the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem being the most well-known example), this Purim carries with it not just the echoes of past tragedy, but current tragedy as well.  Purim was, for most of us, the last holiday we celebrated before COVID and, thus, likely the last opportunity to be together in groups, in synagogues, in community, etc., that we have had.  That was certainly true here.  Last Purim in Ottawa was actually ground zero for the first potential exposure we experienced as a community and within days we had shut down and settled in for the great unknown of lockdowns and distance learning.

And so here we are one Jewish Year later…

As Zoomed out as most of us are, as hard as it has been for every organization, school, synagogue and institution to provide meaningful and engaging programming over the last year, it is equal parts depressing and inspiring to look back at what we have collectively accomplished and experienced together.  Each event, each milestone and each holiday that we have been forced to reimagine stretches from last Purim to this one in a chain of creative reinterpretations.  I mourn what was lost and celebrate what was gained, like everyone else.

How might that inform our celebration of Purim tonight and Friday?

Too often as parents we treat Judaism the same way we treat Disneyland – as something that we sacrifice for in order to give our children an “experience”.  We scrimp and we save and we sweat in line so that our children can go on Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.  We also scrimp and save and sweat over paperwork so that our children can receive a Jewish education and go to camp and have a bar/bat mitzvah.  But what about us?

Maybe this year, not in spite, but because we are home with our families, we can take our turn on Mr. Mordechai’s Wild Ride?

Purim is a holiday of reversals and opposites, of mask-wearing and mask-shedding.  You can be anyone you wish in service of being your truest self.  If you think that wearing a costume is childish, what do you have to lose this year?  You can wear a costume like nobody’s watching…because no one is!  If you are typically shy about booing Haman with all your gusto in a crowd, this is your year.  You can boo Haman like nobody’s listening…because no one is!  If you are someone who likes to indulge a bit on Purim, you can drink like no one is driving…because no one is.  You get the idea.

Virtual Purim means that it has never been more comfortable to make yourself uncomfortable.  Take advantage of the opportunity to do something silly as a family tonight and tomorrow.  Not only should you not let your children have all the fun, your silliness makes a very serious statement about what it means to be Jewish – every year, but especially this one.

From my family to yours…chag Purim sameach & a freilichen Purim!

Seeding the Jewish Future With Hebrew: A Twist on Tu B’Shevat

We recently completed a very exciting set of virtual “parlour meetings” to share the school with different cohorts of prospective parents.  It is always nice to have an opportunity to share our school with people and these form critical touchpoints on the journey from interest to admissions.  Of course, during these meetings we spend time sharing our school’s North Stars because what better way to paint a picture of #TheOJCSWay than trying to bring our North Stars to life!  One talking point we emphasize is how our ability to “learn better together” is amplified by our proximity and relationship with the Israeli Embassy.  How blessed is our school to have access to people and resources that come with being a Jewish Community School in a nation’s capital!  Today, our students got a firsthand (virtual) opportunity to see this relationship in action…

We were thrilled last spring when in the changeover in Embassy personnel, we asked to collaborate on what we started calling “A Celebration of the Hebrew Language” – a day for our community to acknowledge and celebrate the miracle of modern Hebrew, to join together in Hebrew-focused activities, to learn more about the teaching of Hebrew, etc, etc.  Our original plan was to hone in on the January birthday of the founding father of modern Hebrew, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, as an ideal date; and with us able to facilitate in-person learning from August through Winter Break, we were on schedule and on task for a special day.

And, of course…the unplanned pivot.

While still hoping for an in-person experience, we postponed this special day until Tu B’Shevat, believing that there are all sorts of natural connections between celebrating the rebirth/growth of the Hebrew language in Eretz Yisrael and celebrating the rebirth/growth of trees (and wider environmental concerns) in that same Land.  And, of course…we did not wind up back to in-person learning by the 28th.

So…without being able to predict the future and wanting to make the best of things, we went ahead today with our combined “Celebration of Hebrew” / Tu B’Shevat at OJCS in partnership with the Israeli Embassy!  It may not have all the bells and whistles that it could have – and will in the future – but it did include…

…and highly informational video put together by our own Morah Ruthie (and Josh Max), starring some of our Grade 8s (with an overgrown older guest) and special appearance by our friends at the Embassy!

…special Hebrew and Tu B’Shevat programming during Jewish Studies time!

…specially integrated information and activities prepared by Jewish Studies Faculty and integrated by General Studies/French Faculty into their blocks.

…and a few multigrade shared experiences.

[Check our social media for pictures and videos from the day!]

Whereas in the future we will be able to incorporate other aspects of our program and other partners in our community, we still feel blessed that we are able to pull off a special day.  On a day that we celebrate the physical seeding of plants and trees and connect the dots to our larger responsibility as Jews to the physical land of Israel (and our responsibility as humans to steward the physical world), it adds meaning to celebrate the miracle of modern Hebrew and to acknowledge the role it played and plays in seeding the Jewish future.  We look forward to the ongoing planting of these twin seeds in the soil of our school, to watering them through meaningful engagement, investment and partnerships and to celebrating their bloomings each season with our Israeli Embassy partners.

Chag sameach!

Why I Am Studying To Be A Rabbi (Now)

[NOTE: This blog post was written before this week’s events in the States and before our school’s transition to distance learning was extended an additional two weeks.  I may have what to say about both in the week ahead, but at the risk of appearing tone deaf, I would like to share the following.]

I guess all the signs were there.  The random Facebook posts about dog ownership (despite being allergic and never having owned a dog).  Growing my hair out (and blaming it on COVID).  Signing a second long-term contract (for the first time).  Buying a house (for the second time).  Something is clearly going on…

While it might seem reasonable that a midlife crisis – as I creep closer to 50 – is in the cards, the truth is that something truly is going on.  Seeds that were planted over twenty years ago are finally coming to flower, as I prepare to embark on a journey that will hopefully not only make me a better head of school, but a better Jew and a better person.  I am pleased to share that I have been granted acceptance to the Rabbinical School at the Academy for Jewish Religion, and with the full support of my Board here at the Ottawa Jewish Community School, I will begin my SLOW journey toward becoming a rabbi.

Why do I want to study to be a rabbi?  Why now?  Why AJR?  And, most importantly for current and prospective OJCS families, how will it impact my work as a Jewish day school head of school?

My passion for inspiring Jewish children and families to love and choose Jewish has only deepened during my years in the field, as has my desire to study.  The job of “day school head” is complex, but offers lots of opportunities for teaching, speaking, engaging, and constructing experiences – all of which I believe will be richer and more impactful when I have a more rigorous foundation in Tanakh/Talmud/Rabbinics, Theology, Philosophy and Liturgy.  I certainly have a background in those topics from my prior graduate school experiences, but not to the degree that I would prefer.  I believe that I will be a more empathetic and effective leader (and person) with pastoral training.  Additionally, I simply enjoy the process of serious text study and have yearned for additional opportunities to engage in torah lishmah (roughly “learning for learning’s sake”).

I am choosing to do this at AJR not just for practical concerns (the ability to do it part-time and at a distance), but from my research and my experience, I see AJR as a place where I can learn and grow in a community of like-minded travelers, led by clergy and professors from whom I will be honored to learn with and grow from.  I will be starting slowly, with just one course at a time, until I get my bearings and a sense of my bandwidth.  There are a lot of courses I can take outside the school day, but there will be courses in the future that I will have to take during the school day as well.  My commitment to the Board and to the School is that my work at OJCS will always come first.  I may need to work harder/differently in order to keep all the balls in the air, but I understand what and where my priorities lie.

My desire to go to rabbinical school at this stage of life is not about my career path and more about my career writ large.  The long and the short of it is that I believe that in becoming a rabbi, I will be a better and more effective Jewish educator, which is my life’s calling.  I believe that in becoming a rabbi, I will be a better person and a better Jew, which is my soul’s calling.

My first class begins in a couple of weeks and I am enjoying the butterflies it is bringing.  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.

I will certainly have lots of opportunity to share my rabbinical journey as it unfolds and since it took me 8 years to get my doctorate, we will have plenty of time for me to answer the question I have gotten most frequently in recent weeks: “Will you be Dr. Rabbi or Rabbi Dr.?”  For now, I am simply looking forward to making a good first impression on my classmates and my teacher on the first day of school.

Wish me luck!

CBB Brings the Ruach to OJCS!

December in Ottawa can be kinda dreary in a good year.  The days are short and grey and the weather makes you yearn for a warm blanket and a good book.  Add to that the interminable distance from the end of August until the end of December (Expat Alert: That is the real meaning of American Thanksgiving!  You deserve a four-day weekend in November!) and you can see why in the best of times teachers and students (and parents) can hit the wall and limp into Winter Break.  These are not the “best of times”!  These are pandemic times and so that wall is a bit higher and sturdier than normal.

What do you do when your school and your students need a COVID-friendly booster shot of ruach to lift spirits and send us into Chanukah and out to Winter Break with joy and positivity?  You turn to a partner with ruach-expertise!  This week we were blessed to bring our friends from Camp B’nai Brith of Ottawa (CBB) to facilitate special ruach-filled activities in each of our grades at OJCS.

I’ve written in the past about my experiences and thoughts about Jewish camping and the power of informal/experiential education.  I won’t revisit all that ground, but I will say that when it comes to the exponential effect of multiple Jewish experiences (day school+ camp + synagogue + youth group), that…

Most importantly we encourage our students to be their authentic Jewish selves as they carry their experiences from context to context.  To me, that’s why experiential education matters.  It brings with the promise of making real what, in some cases, can only be simulated or sampled within the walls of a classroom.  Those are often the most important experiences of all…

Why is Camp magical?  Because it is often the place where children (and adults) feel the safest to be their truest selves.  Why is Jewish camp magical?  Because it is often the place where children (and adults) feel the safest to be their “authentic Jewish selves”.  Why is the combination so powerful?  Because what you learn at Jewish day school can be lived in Jewish camp.  The education that students at OJCS receive can be powerfully brought to life at CBB (and other camps and at synagogue and at home).  And for some of our students (probably the ones who need it most), CBB makes Judaism and being Jewish cool; that may be its most important gift to Jewish continuity.

All of this to say, that this was the week we brought the magic of camp – that special brand of ruach – to our school.  It was much-needed and much-appreciated.

This was the schedule:

This is a bit of what it looked like:

You may read and see more about it on our OJCS Student Life Blog.  Great thanks to our Student Life Coordinator Deanna Bertrend for putting things together on the OJCS side of things.  Great thanks to CBB Associate Director Jill Doctor and Assistant Director Marnie Gontovnik for leading things on the CBB side of things.  We look forward to increased collaboration between our communal institutions in the future.

Don’t forget to join us for our very special OJCS (Virtual) Family Chanukah Program on Tuesday, December 15th at 7:00 PM!  Our Jewish Studies Faculty has been hard at work putting this together and we don’t only want to celebrate our students and the holiday, but we want to celebrate a rare opportunity during these challenging times to come together as a school community.  Get your chanukkiyot, your PTA donuts, and your family together and join us on the Google Live Stream!

A Very Coronavirus Chanukah

This is normally the night where I am pouring through CAT-IV test results, doing some light statistical analysis and writing my annual blog post on our school’s results.  This is also the night historically where my primary duties are to be visible and schmoozing with parents as they come and go from Parent-Teacher Conferences.  So why is this night different from those other nights?

Wrong holiday, I know.

The very 2020 answer is, of course, COVID.  But what I am thinking about tonight is not just what is missing from this silent evening of virtual conferences and untaken standardized tests.  I am thinking about the holiday of Chanukah, which begins next week and what can be learned by refracting it through the lens of pandemic.

There is something about Chanukah which is tailor-made for this season.  Chanukah is the only Jewish holiday without a sacred text of its own.  (There is a Book of Maccabees, but it is part of the Catholic Bible.) Instead of a public reading, we are commanded to bear silent witness to the miracles of the season with a public doing – the lighting of candles in a window.

There’s nothing more COVID-friendly than a ritual that you do in your bubble, but visible to the public through a window!  That image – the action of a family candle-lighting silenced behind frozen glass – not only seems apropos of today (my first association is people visiting grandparents from the backyard) but also of Chanukah itself.

Chanukah is a fascinating holiday for many reasons.  In large part, the historical story is more of a civil war within Jewish society than a rebellion against a foreign power.  The Maccabees were fighting against (at least) two different strata of Jews – the Hellenizing elite and the acquiescing pietists.  The former were all too willing to assimilate and the latter believed it was only for God to act in the world.  The Maccabees took matters – and the covenant – into their own hands.  They were not content to let the world perfect itself; they understood themselves – and humanity – to be partners in the sacred work of repairing the world.

That’s a gross oversimplification, of course, but that idea of striking a balance between not letting the world overwhelm you, and taking appropriate action to perfect it, feels right for a Coronavirus Chanukah.  Since the Spring, we have been accustomed to controlling the things we can (hand-washing, masking, social distancing, bubbling, etc.) and forgoing precious, but now risky, experiences.  Perhaps as individuals that’s as much as we can do (which is still a lot!).  But as a society we aren’t simply content to let the virus do what it’s going to do; we have marshalled resources and expertise to develop therapeutics, vaccines, supply chains and distribution plans.  Like the Maccabbees, through human ingenuity and effort, we are active agents in our own salvation.

As we hopefully come through the virus night in the months ahead and begin to enter the vaccine day, let’s hope that by next Chanukah the image of a lit chanukkiah behind a window no longers resonates as COVID-proofing, but as a simple sharing of our collective joy of the holiday.

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!

Marching With Fruits & Vegetables (The COVID 5781 Remix)

I am not going to lie.  (I mean, we just came out of Yom Kippur!)  As much as I was able to find workarounds for a joyful Rosh HaShanah, and as much as I secretly enjoyed (that’s probably not the exact right word) Yom Kippur from home, I am already devastated by what will be a very different kind of Sukkot.

If you read my annual Sukkot post (or ever read it just once), you know that 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 (or their childhood), 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.

COVID has not entirely rendered this part of the holiday moot.  We did build a sukkah and it has all those visuals, smells and tastes.  It remains an incredibly tactile holiday, which normally adds to its allure.  But this year, of course, is complicated.  Our inability to physically come together in close proximity makes it hard to invite guests into our (however porous) sukkot.  It definitely makes sharing a lulav etrog more complicated as well.  (Do they make disinfectant for produce?)  And even though I focus (in my posts) more on Sukkot than on Simchat Torah (which here in the Diaspora comes immediately afterwards), thereto, singing and dancing with the Torah will rightfully be verboten in 5781.

The calendar is also weird, right?  I cannot recall a time where we have been in school for all five days of Chol Ha’moed (the Intermediate Days of) Sukkot.  We both have the most time we have ever had to celebrate this time of great rejoicing and the least opportunity to actually do so!

We are still looking forward to celebrating this holiday at school.  [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 Morah Ruthie and all our Jewish Studies Faculty on their planning of COVID-friendly Sukkot activities that will be done in our cohorts during Jewish Studies time.  We will do our best and even if it isn’t all that we would normally do, it will be what we can do.

It is the second half of this annual post that I am less capable and comfortable writing this year.  Here is where I try to gently point out that if you had to pick just one (you don’t!) Jewish holiday for your children to experience on the Jewish Calendar, you would probably be well served choosing Sukkot (or Simchat Torah or Pesach or Shavuot) and not Yom Kippur.  Or as I ask it each year, “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?”

I know that I know what I think the answer is to that question, but part of why I ask it each year is that I don’t see that answer reflected in behavior.  Meaning, the answer – to me – is obviously Sukkot, but Yom Kippur still wins out.  (Again, you don’t have to pick just one.)  The reason why I think that is true remains a fundamental lack of adult education (does everyone know how to celebrate Sukkot?) and of partnership (will someone help me learn how to celebrate Sukkot or help facilitate a Sukkot experience?).  And my normal response to that is to offer up the school and its resources to be that partner in both education and experience.  And in a pre-COVID world maybe that is as good as it can be…

This year, of course, is that different world.  Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, for many, if not most, were virtual or blended experiences.  There were newfound frustrations in relying on technology or missed opportunities for the gathering of friends and family.  There were newfound joys in creating new traditions and gatherings or including friends and families who live far away and who in a normal year would be missed.  I know what worked well for me and my family and what didn’t, and I imagine that you do as well.  And as I said above, for me it is Sukkot and Simchat Torah that is really going to feel less-than.

In the spirit of trying to turn etrogs into etrog-ade, for those for whom Sukkot’s exotic traditions create an annual barrier for participation, let me invite you to think of this year as an opportunity to pick one new tradition and experiment with in the comfort and (likely) seclusion of your sukkah or home.  Shake a lulav and etrog.  Eat in the sukkah (or in something sukkah-adjacent).  Zoom a service.  Dance with the Torah like nobody’s watching because nobody will be watching.

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 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.