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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As the eve of a new Jewish Year approaches, it is my most sincerest hope that this is the year we’ve been waiting for.  To all the teachers, staff, parents, students, donors, supporters, and friends in this special school- thank you for your enthusiasm and your hard work.  Let’s make sure that 5781 is not only an amazing year, but a safe one at that.

From our family to yours, “Shanah tovah!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

OJCS 3D-Printed Face Shields

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Becoming a Dugma Ivrit

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

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

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

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

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

Let me define “comfortable”.

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

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

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

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

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

Some dugma ishit that guy is!

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

Why don’t I?

Because it scares me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There are important lessons to be learned from these ideas…

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

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

And that brings us to today.

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

That is why, as was true with the Siddur they received at the end of Kitah Alef, the Chumash they receive at the end of Kitah Bet is not a trophy to sit upon a shelf, but a tool to continue the Jewish journey they are just beginning.  It is our hope and our prayer that the work we have begun together as partners – parents and teachers; home and school – continue in the years ahead to provide our children with Jewish moments of meaning and Jewish experiences of consequence so that they can continue to receive and accept Torah in their own unique way, infused by a love of Judaism, informed by Jewish wisdom and aligned with Jewish values.

Thank you.

Thank you to the parents who have sacrificed in ways known and unknown to give your children the gift of Jewish day school.  Before COVID-19, we would describe teachers as in loco parentis – teachers who serve as stand-ins for parents at school.  Well, in this time of distance learning, we can aptly describe parents as in loco teacheris, and thank them for the extraordinary effort that goes in to schooling-at-home.  Thank you for entrusting us with the sacred responsibility of educating your children.  It not something that we take for granted.

Thank you to the teachers who give of their love, their time and their talent each and every day.  On a day like today, special thanks to Morah Batya who has poured herself into your children and into this day.  Our teachers play a significant role in shaping our children’s stories and we are grateful for the care they attend to that holy task.

Thank you to the students who show up each day as authentic selves, even on Google Meet!  Your passion and enthusiasm for learning and for Judaism is why we wake up each day at OJCS with a spring in our steps and a smile on our faces.  We can’t wait to see who you will become!

Mazal Tov & Chag sameach!

The Coronavirus Diaries: A Fifth Question for a Pandemic Passover

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

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

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

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

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

Jon’s “Fifth Questions” for Passover 5780

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wishing you a chag kasher v’sameach…