The Bewildering Journey of the Wilderness Class of 2022

[Please find here an adapted version of the words I shared at last night’s Ottawa Jewish Community School Graduation:]

We are currently in the middle of Sefer Ba-Midbar, the Book of Numbers, on our annual journey of Torah.  “Ba-Midbar” is usually translated as “in the desert” but is more accurately understood to be “in the wilderness”, and the narrative action describes the wilderness generation who wandered from Revelation at Sinai to the brink of Redemption on the border to Eretz Yisrael.  This is the generation who stood at Sinai and built a Golden Calf.  This is the generation who received mannah from heaven and suffered the bad report of those chosen to spy out the land of “milk and honey”.  This is the generation whose relationship to God was the most intimate, who experienced miracles both daily and regularly, but who could not maintain their faith, and ultimately, were forced to wander for forty years until the next generation was ready to continue the journey to the Promised Land.  This was a generation that saw and experienced things like no other before or since.  Their wandering was both in wilderness and bewildering.  They went through some things.

Rabbinic commentators offer various explanations for why this needed to be true.  God could simply have completed the three-or-so day journey from Sinai to Israel without putting the People through a generation of wilderness.  Divine punishment for the many sins of faithlessness and complaining is the most common response.  These focus on the negative aspects of wilderness.  But there has always been a line of thought that viewed the wandering, not as punishment, but as preparation.  That the experience of wilderness – with all its challenges – was in some ways a final time to benefit from the intimacy of a small and powerful community – a family of tribes – before, say, graduating into Eretz Yisrael and, although forever remaining a family, heading out on new adventures.  Two and a third years of COVID does not forty years in a desert make.  And we have not lived through COVID as any kind of divine punishment.  But.  It sure has been bewildering.

Parents Lead the Way

Our collective journey through the wilderness would have not reached this threshold without the perseverance of parents and all that they were asked to do without time, training or support to facilitate at-home learning during these middle school years of pandemic learning.  What I have come to realize more and more each year is how much parents and parenting matters.  And I don’t mean from a COVID-specific perspective, although that is obviously true.  And I don’t mean from a generic school-home partnership lens, although that is absolutely critical.  No, even as a parent myself, I don’t think I realized just how important parents and parenting truly are to supporting a child’s journey through adolescence towards young adulthood.

The path of small Jewish day schools is not always an easy one to tread.  Parents find their way into Jewish day schools for all kinds of highly personal reasons – personalized attention, family atmosphere, a deep commitment to Jewish Studies, legacy, or even just going where everyone else happened to be going that year.  Jewish day school comes at a high price, and that price is not just financial.  There are many in this room who have sacrificed luxuries and necessities to reach this day.  All in this room have sacrificed their most precious gift – time – in service of their children’s academic and Jewish journeys.  Years like these last three sharpen both points.  COVID-19 has not only strained families’ pocketbooks, but even with semi-self-directed Grade 8 students, the transitions to and from distance learning strained families’ living spaces, devices, time, and patience (not to mention Wi-Fi!).

Like Moshe, all we can do as parents is guide our children along the journey – sometimes as bewildered as they are from all it entails – until we reach a point where they start to move forward on their own journeys.  We believe that a night like tonight serves as a meaningful way-station along that path, that it validates parental choices and sacrifices, and proves the power of parenting.  On a personal note, let me just thank you as a fellow parent in this class.  There is nothing as bewildering as being both parent and principal and I thank you for letting me wear both hats as we co-parented this group through the wilderness.

Teachers Who Illuminate

In Parashat Be’ha’lotekhah we get the description of the seven lamps that light up the sanctuary.  One way to read the “lamps” is for them to stand in for “education”, and the way teachers light up the minds and hearts of others.  Education is not only a matter of mastering information; it’s about questioning and exploring.  Teachers make a school and we have never seen greater proof of that than during these last three years.  I believe that teaching at its highest form is about unleashing the passion and talents of students.  During these dark wilderness days of pandemic learning, when you are forced to fly the plane while you are building it, when you have to teach from home with your life on display in the background, when you have to use new skills and new platforms without having had adequate time to learn, let alone practice, when you are willing to publicly acknowledge to your students what you don’t know, when you show up as you are and not, perhaps, as you would like to be – could there be more powerful role modeling for our children than this?

This desire to create space for students to shine is what lets our teachers know our children like no other school can.  This soft glow of vulnerability is what gives permission to our students to be who they most authentically are without fear of judgement.  The ceding of the spotlight to our students is exactly why at graduation we pause for an opportunity to acknowledge not only the Grade 8 Teachers, but to celebrate all the teachers whose collaborations and contributions over time shone together to create a class.

Finding Your Voice

With all our complicated personalities and unique experiences, just showing up can sometimes be a genuine act of courage, a way of giving voice.  But when showing up has meant sometimes being at home, or sometimes being at school, or trying to create new or maintain old relationships from inside a Google Meet, dealing with unusual safety protocols and sacrificing much-anticipated experiences – what I have seen firsthand from you each – and know secondhand from all your teachers – is that you have each started to find your voices, each one unique and worthy.  You bring your voice to your individual work, your group projects and your class commitments.  You bring it to your academic challenges, and you bring it to your extracurricular opportunities

The stories from our wilderness journey are filled with examples of people finding their voice, displaying courage, and standing up for what is right.  From Caleb and Yehoshua who broke with the Ten Spies and vouched for the Land’s goodness to the Five Daughters of Zelophehad who stood up to Moshe and influenced the making of a new law by God to allow women to own land, our time in the wilderness inspired people to find their voices, show courage and stand up for what is right and what is just.  I have seen that spark of righteous justice from this class in recent years.  Perhaps it was not always channeled as constructively as it could be, but we believe that the instinct to fight for what you believe is right is to be nourished and to be celebrated.  Graduates of OJCS leave having spent years honing their presentation skills, speaking in public, and engaging in many acts of social action and tikkun olam.  We know that you will walk into your high schools of choice as nascent leaders who are prepared to advocate for yourselves and the voiceless.  We know that you will bring your voices to your varying Jewish commitments and to many expressions of community service and social justice. 

Our OJCS “North Stars” Prayer

Our prayer for you as you graduate and head out into the world is that you come to experience and embody our school’s North Stars; that you continue to point in their direction as you continue to grow and develop into high school and beyond…

  • “Have a floor, but not a ceiling” – be your best self.  Have high expectations at a minimum and unlimited aspirations at a maximum.  We hope you learned at OJCS to be comfortable in your own skin and to carry that confidence with you when you head out into the wider world.
  • “Ruach” – be joyful. School – and life – is supposed to be fun, even when it may seem hard or have difficult moments, like a global pandemic.  We hope you had many moments of joy at OJCS and that you have many more moments of joy in the years to come.
  • “We own our own learning” – learning isn’t something that happens to you, it is something you choose.  We hope you take the sense of ownership for your learning that we strive towards at OJCS into your next schools of choice and that you not merely be satisfied with gathering information, but that you take a growing sense of responsibility for what you learn and how you learn.
  • “We are each responsible one to the other” – make the world a better place. Take what you’ve learned (Torah) and do great deeds (Mitzvot); do (these) great deeds and be inspired to learn more.
  • “We learn better together” – we are stronger and more successful together than we can be alone. Judaism has always been communitarian in this way and what is old is new again as we live in a world where collaboration is not simply advantageous but required.
  • “We are on our own inspiring Jewish journey” – keep choosing Jewish. One can argue that the next years of your Jewish lives are more important than the ones you are celebrating tonight.  In your own ways – continue.  Whether that is in formal Jewish learning, youth group, summer camps, Israel, synagogue attendance, social action – you are no more fully formed Jewishly at your Grade 8 graduation than you were at Bar or Bat Mitzvah.  We pray that you build on this foundation and that you embrace the Jewish journey that continues after tonight.

In closing, know that you each are blessed more than you realize.  But do not ever be content to merely count your blessings.  Be someone who makes their blessings count.”

The Transparency Files: Self-Evaluation

With all the unpredictability of yet another pandemic year, the one thing that you can be sure of as the calendar turns to May and June, is that I will deliver you a series of “Transparency Files” blog posts!  OJCS Parents have recently received their link to our Annual Parent Survey, and so I will again begin with a self-evaluation and will continue with the sharing of results of that survey, the results from our Annual Faculty Survey (which is shared directly with them) and will conclude with a discussion of next year and an introduction of the 2022-2023 OJCS Faculty.  [If this year is more like last year, these posts will not follow week-by-week.]

We are in that “evaluation” time of year!  As Head of School, I have the responsibility of performing an evaluation of staff and faculty each year.  Fittingly, they have an opportunity to do the same of me.  Our Annual Faculty Survey presents current teachers and staff with the opportunity to provide anonymous feedback of my performance as Head of School.  Our Annual Parent Survey presents current parents with an opportunity to do the same (as part of a much larger survey of school satisfaction).  Please know that the full unedited results of both are sent onto the OJCS Board of Trustees Head Support & Evaluation Committee as part of their data collection for the execution of my annual performance review.

You are welcome to review last year’s self-evaluation post before moving onto this year’s.  Unlike in prior years, I am going to skip the cutting-and-pasting from my goal-setting document and simply present to you a few big ideas that come from my “principal’s” bucket, and not as much from my “head of school’s” bucket (i.e. fundraising, marketing, budgeting, etc.).

…one of the big highlights of the year has been the successful (re)launch of Junior Kindergarten at OJCS!  I wrote a long post in December that I encourage you check out if you want to know what makes JK at OJCS so unique and special.  A year ago we had no teacher, no students and a program on paper – we now have a master teacher, a thriving class and a program that is we know is setting up our students for success in SK.  We appreciate and respect that Jewish parents in Ottawa have choices, and our focus will be ensuring that we continue to offer a program that is unlike the others, aligned with our OJCS North Stars and best prepares students for elementary school.  Want to know more or to secure your spot for 2022-2023?  Please contact Jenn Greenberg (j.greenberg@theojca.ca) for a tour or registration materials.

…one of the biggest initiatives that we were able to “unpause” from COVID was the [soft] launch of our “Mitzvah Trips” for Middle School.  Please follow this link for the details of this initiative.  For this year, our students have collaborated on projects with Tamir and JFS and will be engaging with Hillel Lodge in the weeks to come.  More important than what I believe about this work, here is what our students believe about this work:

“It feels good to help those in need.”

“We want to continue to make others feel happy.”

“It’s nice to know that we are actually using what we learn in Jewish Studies.”

Yes, it is.  This is poised to be a game-changer for Middle School at OJCS.

…speaking of big initiatives that got “un-paused” this year?  We finally were able to move forward with the (re)launch of our OJCS Makerspace [built with a gift from the Congregation Beth Shalom Legacy Fund]. Thanks to a generous grant by the Jewish Federation of Ottawa‘s Fund for Innovative Capacity Building, OJCS worked with Future Design School over the balance of this school year on a strategic makerspace consultancy.   I shared the result of this work and its next steps in a blog post.  The relaunch of the OJCS Makerspace will help move our school that much closer to our North Stars and make learning that much more motivating and engaging for our students.  We can’t wait to see what our students invent and create!

we held our CAIS (Canadian Association of Independent Schools) Accreditation Site Visit on May 11th!  This was the first exciting step (although I guess doing all the preliminary paperwork was pretty “exciting”!) on our journey towards accreditation – both satisfying a longstanding strategic goal and, hopefully, helping parents in our community better understand how we fit into the private school landscape, as OJCS will – eventually – join Ashbury and Elmwood as the only CAIS Accredited schools in Ottawa.  The accreditation team consisted of the Head of School and CFO from Ashbury and the Head of School of the Solomon Schechter Academy of Montreal.  We held a full schedule of activities and look forward to their feedback.

What did not get done or what still needs work?

A lot!

First order of business will be carving out a new normal that prioritizes health and safety, resuming paused activities and deciding what from COVID-functioning (like continuing to make virtual options for Parent-Teacher Conferences or Generations Day available) should carry forward.  We have learned so much as a school during these last three years and we are determined to come out stronger, wiser and better on the other side.

Second order of business will be reconnecting with our families and our community.  We aspire to be more than a school, but we have had to restrict our access and our bandwidth during these years of scarcity due to COVID.  What can we do differently next year?  What should we do differently next year?  What should PTA be and look like?  What kinds of friend-raising activities could we or should we be facilitating or encouraging for OJCS parents?  What kinds of Jewish experiences could we be promoting or providing for OJCS families?

Third order of business will be moving forward on our amazing $1.5 million reimagination of classrooms at OJCS thanks to an anonymous gift we received this year!  We are pleased to share that we have now selected an architect firm –  Figurr – and look forward to the exciting work ahead.  The future of education in Ottawa really will be built right here at OJCS!

Those are just highlights.

If you have already contributed feedback through our surveys, thank you.  [Remember the deadline for your feedback to be included in reporting is May 13th.]  Your (additional and/or direct) feedback – whether shared publicly, privately through email or social media, or shared through conversation – is greatly appreciated.  As I tell our teachers, I look forward to getting better at my job each year and I am thankful for the feedback I receive that allows me to try.

Please stay tuned for a MAJOR ANNOUNCEMENT that will surely warm the hearts of those who place high value on French language and a MAJOR UPDATE on the future of Jewish Studies.  There is A LOT to be excited about as we prepare to take the next big steps forward at OJCS!

Shofar, So Good: First Days & First (Masked) Smiles

What a strange and wonderful week!  Starting school after Rosh Hashanah and being back in school in person?!!

On behalf of the teachers, staff, administration, and board of this school, I cannot tell you how wonderful it is to have actual live human beings again filling our building with their energy, their ruach, and their smiles (we’ve all become experts at seeing smiles beneath masks)!  We have rightfully put so much energy into our COVID safety protocols over the last two school years that it is easy to forget that we are not public health officials, but educators who are in the business of teaching and learning.  I have had ample opportunity to wander the hallways, to be in classrooms, and outside in playgrounds and after just two days of school, I am perfectly able to pronounce that as of now shofar so good!

Here’s just a little taste of what the first two days at OJCS have looked and felt like…

…we began our first day with two “Welcome Ceremonies”.  With Junior Kindergarten returning to OJCS this year, we conducted special “Welcome Ceremonies” for parents in both JK and SK to mark the beginning of their children’s formal Jewish day school journey at OJCS.  We gathered under (socially distanced) tallitot as each grade- level team shared a welcome poem with their students.  We joined together in shehechiyanu and then it was time for hugs, kisses, last photos and goodbyes.  We are always honoured – and never take for granted – when a family chooses OJCS to provide the sacred and holy task of education, and we hope this is just the first of many rituals and moments we share together in the years to come.

…we held our annual Welcome Back Assembly, still virtual for at least one more year, during which we introduced new teachers and celebrated our opening havdalah where we creatively appropriate the ritual of separation to mark the transition from the summer to the start of school.  We were encouraged to think about what from the summer we want to carry forward into school and, considering the season, to think about who we were last year and who we hope to be in the year to come.

…students found their way back to lockers and classrooms that have been waiting for them since last April.

…playgrounds and courtyards were filled with laughter and games and, for Middle School, food as the Outdoor Cafeteria is back and open for business.

…everyone is remembering/learning which entrances and exits and washrooms and water fountains and hallways belong to them, and how to find their way from this to that.

…there is a joyful cacophony of Hebrew, French and English that captures our trilingual nature and is a pleasure to hear throughout the building.

…the OJCS Makerspace is gearing back up for a delayed reopening and you should stay tuned for an exciting announcement about the Makerspace!

 

We have seen over the last two years how amazing our teachers have been during distance learning pivots planned and unplanned and through hyflex engagement.  And we know that our community has been paying attention as our enrollment continues to grow each and every year.  Imagine how extraordinary our school is going to be now that we have planned out each and every scenario!  If you are a current OJCS parent, of course, you don’t have to imagine – you can see it each and every day.

Please save the date for Virtual Back to School Night on Tuesday, October 12th at 7:00 PM.  In addition to all the normal things one discusses at Back to School Night, this year we will also be sharing grade-specific plans for how students who may be kept home from school for different reasons will be able to continue to learn even as we move away from hyflex learning.

Please be on the lookout for updated COVID vaccine policies now that both the Ministry of Education and Ottawa Public Health have shared new requirements and recommendations for private schools.

The Calm Before The Calm: A Brief Look at OJCS Faculty Pre-Planning Week

What a strange blip in the calendar to have Rosh HaShanah right after Labour Day Weekend!  For our parents and students, it may simply elongate summer by a couple of days.  For our teachers and staff, however, it creates this odd break between the intense week of “Faculty Pre-Planning” that we are finishing up now and the actual first day of school almost six days later.  As odd as that all may be, what is not odd is how wonderful it has been to be back in a physical building working with actual human beings (masked and distanced and vaccinated to be sure) in the service of preparing for the sacred and holy task of educating children.  We are certainly not back to normal with our COVID FAQs and assorted protocols, but we are sorta-kinda back to things that feel normal-ish – and that feels great!

Do you ever wonder how we spend this week of preparations while y’all are busy getting your last cottage days or summer trips or rays of sun in?  If so, this post is for you!

Seriously, I do think there is value in our parents (and community) having a sense for the kinds of issues and ideas we explore and work on during our planning week because it foreshadows the year to come.  So as you enjoy those last days on the lake or on the couch, let me paint a little picture of how we are preparing to make 2021-2022 the best year yet.

Here’s a curated selection from our activities…

The (Re)Building Communities Cafe

Each year (14 years, 5 at OJCS and counting!), I begin “Pre-Planning Week” with an updated version of the “World Cafe”.  It is a collaborative brainstorming activity centered on a key question.  Each year’s question is designed to encapsulate that year’s “big idea”.  This year’s big idea?  (Re)building communities!

After the last two years, we are eager to begin reconnecting and rebuilding across and between our various OJCS communities – students, teachers, parents, board, and community.  We spent the morning exploring what this might mean…for example…

Carrying Forward: Lessons from Hyflex

What can be true for students who may need to learn from home this year when we are not offering a hyflex program?  Home for a few days?  Home for a few weeks?  In order to share our plan with parents as we continue to prioritize students remaining at home for COVID-related reasons, we spent valuable time asking the following kinds of questions:

  • What from schedules, links, blogs and platforms will carry forward from hyflex learning?
  • Are there grades/subjects where virtual participation could be a value add for both student and teacher?
  • What should parents and students expect from different grades/subjects should they need to be kept home from school, but need to stay on track?

Parents can look forward to plans being shared during Virtual Back To School Night on Tuesday, October 12th.

Faculty EdCamp

One of our favorite PD activities is letting the excellence that is already on our staff be shared more widely.  For this activity, four of our teachers offered sessions to their colleagues on topics of their own choosing in a bit of a more relaxed, camp-style presentation:

  • Faye Mellenthin: “Disarming armoured leadership…”
  • Lianna Krantzberg:  Twitter Chats 101” 
  • Julie Bennett:  Global Connections and Authentic Tasks”
  • Melissa Thompson: “EdPuzzle”

Teachers got to choose two different sessions to attend and it is always great to watch teachers be inspired by the work of fellow teachers.

Book Tasting: The OJCS 2021 Summer Book Club

I think you can tell a lot by the books a school chooses to read together.  Here were the selections for this summer, which culminated in a “Book Tasting” session where lessons and wisdom were gleaned and shared:

If you want to know more about the big ideas that shape our work, feel free to read one or more of these books and tell us what you think!

Did I do one of my spiritual check-ins on the topic of the “Relationship between ‘criticism’ and ‘growth'”?  Sure did!

Did Mrs. Thompson and I do great differentiated sessions on use of classroom blogs and student blogfolios?  Yup!

Did our teachers spend meaningful time updating their Long Range Plans?  100%!

Did Mrs. Bertrend help us understand how we can (re)build community through Student Life at OJCS?  Yessiree!

Did Mrs. Reichstein lead a session on “Shifting the Spec Ed Narrative”?  You bet!

Did Ms. Gordon go over all the guidelines and protocols and procedures and rules and mandates to keep us all safe?  No doubt!

Did our teachers have lots of time to meet and prepare and collaborate and organize and do all the things needed to open up school on Thursday?  And then some!

All that and much more took place during this week of planning.  Needless to say, we are prepared to do way more than create a safe learning environment this year.  We are prepared to develop a rigorous, creative, innovative, personalized, and ruach-filled learning experience for each and every one our precious students who we cannot wait to greet in person on the first day of school!

Wishing you and yours a wonderful holiday weekend, a Shanah Tovah U’metukah and a successful launch to the 2021-2022 school year…

Showing Up: The Courage of the COVID Class of 2021

At last year’s Grade 8 Graduation, I referred to them as the “Coronavirus Class of 2020,” assuming that a year later we would return to the regularly phrased “Class of 2021”.  Like every other of my assumptions during the pandemic, that one, too, was incorrect, and here we are at the graduation for the Coronavirus Class of 2021.  This time I hope, but don’t assume, a return to normalcy next year.  But next year is next year, and tonight we focus our attention on this remarkable group of graduates and the extraordinary journey – particularly of late – they have taken to reach this milestone.

As the year, with its months-long pivot to distance learning, has been winding down, I find myself reflecting more and more on Theodore Roosevelt’s “Man in the Arena” speech, which has been re-popularized in recent years through the work of Brené Brown.  The big idea is that what really counts in life is not outcomes, but the courage to get “in the arena”.  That what matters is not whether you are successful, but that you are willing to engage, to get your hands dirty, to commit to big ideas and bigger ideals, that you get back up when you fall and – ultimately – that you strive to live a life of meaning.  The shorthand way of describing this is to say that what really matters is showing up.  And if there was ever a class who has shown up over the last year and a half of pandemic learning, it is this Class of 2021.

But let me first pivot back towards two other critical partners who have shown up and shown out…

Parenting Matters

Last year, I stood in awe at the perseverance of parents with everything that they were asked to do without time, training or support to facilitate at-home learning.  Well, not only are all of those things still true and then some a year later, but what I have come to realize even more broadly is how much parents and parenting matters.  And I don’t mean from a COVID-specific perspective, although that is obviously true.  And I don’t mean from a generic school-home partnership lens, although that is absolutely critical.  No, even as a parent myself, I don’t think I realized just how important parents and parenting truly are to supporting children’s willingness to get in the arena.

The path of small Jewish day schools is not always an easy one to tread.  Parents find their way into Jewish day schools for all kinds of highly personal reasons – personalized attention, family atmosphere, a deep commitment to Jewish Studies, or even just going where everyone else happened to be going that year.  We also know that parents find their way out of Jewish day schools for all kinds of highly personal reasons as well.  We are not here to stand in judgement of those who opted out; we are here to stand in praise of those who show up and opt in – year after year.  Jewish day school comes at a high price, and that price is not just financial.  There are many in this virtual room who have sacrificed luxuries and necessities to reach this day.  All in this room have sacrificed their most precious gift – time – in service of their children’s academic and Jewish journeys.  Years like these two sharpen both points.  COVID-19 has not only strained families’ pocketbooks, but even with extraordinarily self-directed Grade 8 students, the transition to distance learning has strained families’ living spaces, devices, time, and patience (not to mention wifi!).

We believe that a night like tonight validates those choices and those sacrifices, and proves the power of parenting.

The Vulnerability of Teachers

Teachers make a school and we never saw greater proof of that than during these last two years.  In her book Daring Greatly, Brené Brown identifies “vulnerability” as one of the superpowers that allows folk to show up.  Allowing yourself to be vulnerable in front of others is a strength, not a weakness, and I actually believe it goes a long way towards explaining what our teachers and our school has been able to accomplish.  When you are forced to fly the plane while you are building it, when you have to teach from home with your life on display in the background, when you have to use new skills and new platforms without having had adequate time to learn, let alone practice, when you are willing to publicly acknowledge to your students what you don’t know, when you show up as you are and not, perhaps, as you would like to be – could there be more powerful role modeling for our children than this?  Vulnerability is what lets our teachers know our children like no other school can.  Vulnerability is what gives permission to our students to be who they most authentically are without fear of judgement.  Vulnerability is why graduation is not only an opportunity to acknowledge the Grade 8 Teachers, but a moment to celebrate all the teachers whose collaborations and contributions over time come together to create a class.

We believe that a night like tonight rewards those relationships, lauds that learning, commemorates community and validates the value of vulnerability.

The Courage of Graduates

It takes courage to get into the arena for any of us under normal circumstances.  With all our complicated personalities and unique experiences, just showing up – getting into the arena – is a genuine act of courage.  But when showing up means sometimes being at home, or sometimes being at school, or trying to create new or maintain old relationships from inside a Google Meet, dealing with unusual safety protocols and sacrificing much-anticipated capstone experiences – what I have seen firsthand from you each – and know secondhand from all your teachers – is that you bring your courage to your individual work, your group projects and your class commitments.  You bring it to your academic challenges, and you bring it to your extracurricular opportunities.  You bring it to your varying Jewish commitments, and you bring it to your many expressions of community service and social justice.

And sure, some of that would have been true in the most normal of years.  These last two years, however, were of course far from normal.  Like so many others, this year’s Grade 8 has had to sacrifice moments and memories as planned events became unplanned experiments.  We have, of course, done our best to be creative and go virtual in order to provide with you as many experiences as we could, but we know they aren’t the same.  It is here, too, where you have shown your courage and your character.  You have stuck together, you’ve made your lemonade from lemons, and you have come through the other side with your bonds as tight as ever.

We believe that a night like tonight confirms your character and projects the promise of your potential.  You have come into the arena each and every day and there is no greater testament to your courage than that.

Our OJCS “North Stars” Prayer

Our prayer for you as you graduate and head out into the world is that you come to experience and embody our school’s North Stars; that you continue to point in their direction as you continue to grow and develop into high school and beyond…

  • “Have a floor, but not a ceiling” – be your best self.  Have high expectations at a minimum and unlimited aspirations at a maximum.  We hope you learned at OJCS to be comfortable in your own skin and to carry that confidence with you when you head out into the wider world.
  • “Ruach” – be joyful. School – and life – is supposed to be fun, even when it may seem hard or have difficult moments, like a global pandemic.  We hope you had many moments of joy at OJCS and that you have many more moments of joy in the years to come.
  • “We own our own learning” – learning isn’t something that happens to you, it is something you choose.  We hope you take the sense of ownership for your learning that we strive towards at OJCS into your next schools of choice and that you not merely be satisfied with gathering information, but that you take a growing sense of responsibility for what you learn and how you learn.
  • “We are each responsible one to the other” – make the world a better place. Take what you’ve learned (Torah) and do great deeds (Mitzvot); do (these) great deeds and be inspired to learn more.
  • “We learn better together” – we are stronger and more successful together than we can be alone. Judaism has always been communitarian in this way and what is old is new again as we live in a world where collaboration is not simply advantageous but required.
  • “We are on our own inspiring Jewish journey” – keep choosing Jewish. One can argue that the next years of your Jewish lives are more important than the ones you are celebrating tonight.  In your own ways – continue.  Whether that is in formal Jewish learning, youth group, summer camps, Israel, synagogue attendance, social action – you are no more fully formed Jewishly at your Grade 8 graduation than you were at Bar or Bat Mitzvah.  We pray that you build on this foundation and that you embrace the Jewish journey that continues after tonight.

In closing, know that you each are blessed more than you realize.  But do not ever be content to merely count your blessings.  Be someone who makes their blessings count.

The Transparency Files: Self-Evaluation

With all the unpredictability of a pandemic year, the one thing that you can be sure of as the calendar turns to May and June, is that I will deliver you a series of “Transparency Files” blog posts.  OJCS Parents have just received their link to our Annual Parent Survey, so I will again begin with a self-evaluation and will continue with the sharing of results of that survey, the results from our Annual Faculty Survey (which is shared directly with them) and will conclude with a discussion of next year and an introduction of the 2021-2022 OJCS Faculty.  [The world being what it is, these posts may not follow week-by-week.]

We are in that “evaluation” time of year!  As Head of School, I have the responsibility of performing an evaluation of staff and faculty each year.  Fittingly, they have an opportunity to do the same of me.  Our Annual Faculty Survey presents current teachers and staff with the opportunity to provide anonymous feedback of my performance as Head of School.  Our Annual Parent Survey presents current parents with an opportunity to do the same (as part of a much larger survey of school satisfaction).  Please know that the full unedited results of both are sent onto the OJCS Board of Trustees Head Support & Evaluation Committee as part of their data collection for the execution of my annual performance review.

You are welcome to review last year’s self-evaluation post before moving onto this year’s…

This year’s self-evaluation is based on goals created for this year (which was done at the beginning of the year in consultation with that same Head Support & Evaluation Committee).  You will not find a complete laundry list of my day-to-day responsibilities.  [I typically focus in this blog post on more of my “principal’s” responsibilities, and not as much on my “head of school’s” (i.e. fundraising, marketing, budgeting, etc.)]   This means that you are only going to see selected components [this represents about 50% of my annual goals; there are both more overall goals, and more goals in each area than I am highlighting here] for the 2020-2021 OJCS academic year:

Establish steady and measurable growth of the student population

  1. Reimagine recruitment and retention events in a COVID context.
    1. Develop a strategy and a calendar of virtual and/or socially distanced recruitment and retention calendar for the school year.
    2. Refine success criteria (i.e. will virtual tours yield the same rates of admissions as in-person tours?).
    3. Identify at least one new target audience (ex. Israelis) for recruitment and plan accordingly.
    4. Build upon successful marketing of hyflex learning during this year of pandemic.
  2. Introduce data-driven metrics for Admissions work in 2020-2021.
    1. Create templates for all required metrics (i.e. inquiries, tours, applications, enrollment, etc.) and back-fill three years of data.
    2. Introduce three-year rolling averages into all recruitment and retention predictions.

OJCS is a school of excellence

  1. Build capacity (in students, teachers and parents) in hyflex learning.
    1. Beginning in Pre-Planning, provide teachers with external resources (webinars, direct PD, links, etc.) to ensure teachers are capable of delivering a hyflex program.
    2. Prioritize self-directed learning skills in students at the beginning of the year.
    3. Partner with PTA to deliver parent education sessions to help parents be better (and feel better about being) partners when students have to learn from home.
  2. Prepare to launch OJCS JK for 2021-2022.
    1. Building upon work done with a consultant in 2018-2019, clarify a vision (and a curriculum) for JK at OJCS.
    2. Recruit and hire an excellent JK team, and prepare them for success.
  3. Facilitate CAIS Accreditation application
    1. Meet with CAIS leadership to better understand application requirements.
    2. Collect and create all reports needed for a successful application.

For a second consecutive year, it would neither be fair nor true to blame any unfinished business or any unaccomplished goals on COVID-19; in fact in some cases it may have actually accelerated our path.  But it is both fair and true to name that it surely was and is a complicated factor.  Nonetheless, I am pleased to say that we managed to hit many of the above goals and are on our way to hitting the rest!

Here are some things to focus in on…

again (see last year) we identified unaffiliated Israeli families as a desired target audience.  And again, other than recruiting and leveraging current Israeli families as allies and using “Israeli Facebook” our programs were paused.  But there is always next year!  When it comes to admissions, it should be noted that we have had the fastest and most successful re-enrollment in recent memory.  So whatever roadblocks COVID threw our way in terms limiting our recruitment and retention planning, something really positive is happening.  We thank Jennifer Greenberg, our Admissions Director, for her work (especially for becoming so data-driven!) and we thank all of our alumni and current parents who provide us with the most important admissions work – positive word of mouth.

…hyflex learning has been the main focus of professional growth this year at OJCS and I am very pleased with what we have been able to accomplish.  I encourage a review of relevant blog posts as evidence of this work, and I want to name the extraordinary work that our Coordinator of Teaching & Learning, Melissa Thompson, has done in this area.  The next exciting conversation is about what from hyflex learning ought to be carried forward post-COVID.

…when it comes to self-directed learning skills, we essentially treated the first few months of school as a boot camp for hyflex/distance learning (particularly in the youngest grades) to prepare for the inevitable pivots.  We even went so far in SK and Grade 1 to role play distance learning from school so that teachers could problem solve and prepare.  Feedback from parents (so far!) indicates that this was successful.  Enhanced self-directedness bodes well for future student success!

…we are so excited to be launching JK next year at OJCS!  Led by our Vice Principal, Keren Gordon, and the current SK team, we have already created a vision statement, sample schedules and curricular broad strokes to set up JK for success.  And although we cannot share with you yet, we do believe we have identified the team for next year (stay tuned!) and believe strongly that they will be well-positioned to hit the ground running.

…we are pleased to be in process for CAIS accreditation.  We will have a lot more to say about this in the months ahead as CAIS accreditation is the gold standard for private school accreditation in Canada and a very small number of Ottawa schools qualify.  We began meeting with CAIS in the Fall and the work began.  However, we were informed by CAIS that they are experiencing a serious COVID delay and, thus, we have paused our activities until next Fall where we believe we’ll be able to resume the process and start to really move towards accreditation.

Those are just highlights.

If you have already contributed feedback through our surveys, thank you.  Your (additional and/or direct) feedback – whether shared publicly, privately through email or social media, or shared through conversation – is greatly appreciated.  As I tell our teachers, I look forward to getting better at my job each year and I am thankful for the feedback I receive that allows me to try.

The Coronavirus Diaries: When Spring Brings Another Lockdown

Looking outside my office window brings a smile to my face.  The sun is shining brightly, the birds are singing and the weather is warming.  Spring is (finally) here and the feeling it most conjures up is one of things opening up.  We associate this time of year with unbundling ourselves of our winter-wear and starting to be out there, more active, returning to life, stirring the soul and (re)activating the body.

Looking outside my office door, however, tells a different story.  Because we have just begun a four-week, province-wide stay-at-home order.  Schools remain open and, although, a meaningful number of parents are opting to have their children learn from home during this surge in cases, our teachers and our staff are here – bravely navigating their anxiety and safely caring for our children.

Pivoting my view from outside my window to outside my door presents a kind of emotional whiplash.  Our every instinct is to run out into the sun and put the past year behind us.  There are so many good reasons to believe that better times are coming and, in fact, are tantalizingly close.  And yet here we are, locked down again, doing our best to keep ourselves and everyone else safe as we try to get through this next (last?) wave.

Because we know that emotions and opinions are running high, this seems like a good chance to check in.  At this moment in time, with so many questions and concerns (in all directions) about school closures, I think it is helpful to break the year into three parts – what is true during this month-long lockdown, the rest of the school year, and how we are planning to open the 2021-2022 school year.  Let’s deal in this post with the here and now.

If there is one thing I have learned over the last year it is that I am not a doctor, a public health expert, nor a politician.  If there are two things that I have learned over the last year, the other is that when the views and recommendations of doctors, public health experts and politicians are aligned it is pretty straightforward to make decisions, when they are not…things can get dicey and uncomfortable.

Please know that we view the situation right now as extremely “day-to-day”.  We look to our teachers, our parents, Ottawa Public Health, our Health Advisory Committee and to the government to provide us with the feedback and information we need to make sound decisions.  I have had opportunity this week to meet with our school’s Health Advisory Committee and to participate in a meeting of Ottawa private school heads and Ottawa Public Health.  Another critical data point comes from Dr. Vera Etches who shared the following in a letter to the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board earlier this week:

I am writing to clarify that I am not asking for schools in Ottawa to close now. The situation with COVID-19 and schools in Ottawa is currently manageable, as
–          73% of schools have no people with an active COVID-19 infection where there was an exposure in school, and
–          98% of schools are free from an outbreak.
The vast majority of COVID-19 in schools originates with community exposures. Situations identified in schools where there was a possible exposure do not usually lead to transmission in schools. Child-to-staff and child-to-child transmissions remain rare in the school setting. At this time, schools are not a major driver of transmission of COVID19 and so closing them alone will not turn this current COVID-19 resurgence around. Though variants of concern mean we need to be more careful to avoid transmission, the local situation with variants in schools hasn’t been significantly more difficult to control. When Ottawa Public Health ensured everyone in a dismissed school cohort was tested for COVID-19 after a potential exposure to a variant of concern, no higher rates of transmission were seen in the exposed cohorts. There have been outbreaks associated with variants of concern and there have been situations where the variants of concern have not spread in schools.What is most needed is to decrease the nonessential places where people are coming into close contact with others. Until fewer businesses are deemed essential and people get the message to stay at home, closing schools may inadvertently lead to additional gatherings in environments with fewer control measures in place.I ask that teachers, administrators, school staff, parents and students all continue to do their part to strictly follow the COVID-19 precautions in schools and to limit close contacts before and after school to members of their household. This is not the time to let up on our diligence to keep each other safe. Please reinforce the daily screening and ask people to consider if any symptom of COVID19 is present before they enter their school. Adults, especially, should be supported to take care to maintain distance between each other in staff rooms and during break times with their colleagues.

Needless to say, each private school is struggling with the same calculus and have the same kinds of questions that we do.  Of course, we aren’t obligated to do or not to do what other private schools choose to do, but I do believe there is value in understanding what and why and how other schools are thinking and planning.  At this moment in time, the overwhelming majority of private schools are open and plan to remain open so long as circumstances don’t deteriorate and/or we are not mandated to close.

For now, if you are an OJCS parent you should choose to do whatever you feel safest and most comfortable doing.  With the change in weather, please know that we are able to go back to enhanced ventilation practices (wide open windows) and we are using our outdoor space more liberally.  Please know that as teachers patiently wait for vaccinations to roll out, for those for whom the variants present an added risk and/or stress that we will have staff who begin to wear additional PPE, we may see use of N95 masks and extra plexiglass around teacher desks.  We are all doing our very best.

In the meanwhile, we have already reworked all our distance learning schedules based on parent, student and teacher feedback from January and have briefed our faculty.  We are completely ready for the next pivot if and when it comes.  And we will be perfectly okay if we never have to use them…

Stay tuned for a post that lays out our vision and our plans for how we will safely open the 2021-2022 school year, which we know is on people’s minds.

Speaking of the 2021-2022 school year…

…thanks to our amazing parents, for the first time in recent memory we are completely finished with re-enrollment by the first week in April and we have our highest retention rate in years!  Woo-hoo!  We are also welcoming many new families to our OJCS community next year and we know that only happens because so many of you do such a great job spreading the word.  So thank you to everyone who turned in their paperwork on time.  Thank you to everyone for being such great ambassadors for the school.  Thank you to our teachers whose work inspires your ongoing confidence.  Thank you to Jennifer Greenberg, our Admissions Director, and the whole team for crushing it during a second challenging admissions season.

Annual Parent Survey coming soon!

Choosing Ottawa Again: Writing My First Second Chapter

Not once in my career have I had the pleasure of welcoming children into school in Kindergarten, watching them grow and mature, creating lasting and meaningful relationships, and then graduating them while shepping naches at what and who they have become.

I have been in the field of Jewish day school since 2005 and the field of Jewish education since 1997.  In those 23 years of full-time work, I spent three years at the BJE-LA, three years at the Old Westbury Hebrew Congregation, two years at Sutton Place Synagogue, five years at the Solomon Schechter Day School-Las Vegas (SSDS-LV), four years at the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School (MJGDS), two years at the Schechter Day School Network, one year at Prizmah and I am in my fourth year here at OJCS.

Notice any trends?

I believe deeply in the human need to make meaning through stories and narratives and, thus, have always framed my career (and life) in terms of the chapters I have been able to co-author in the places I have been lucky enough lead.  These chapters have had differing lengths and different degrees of consequence, and those two things are not always so aligned.  I was the founding head of the SSDS-LV (z”l).  That was pretty significant for both me and the school.  My time at MJGDS was an extraordinary time of innovation and change -again both for me and the school.  I was the first – and last – director of an independent Schechter Day School Network (also z”l).  I was part of an amazing team of colleagues who helped birth Prizmah.  The work we are presently doing at OJCS in my first chapter here has been well-chronicled in this blog and thanks to an extraordinary team has exceeded all expectations.

The last time I wrote a “life transition” post, I had described my career as a series of “happy accidents” and I still stand by it, at least broadly speaking.  There is a lot of luck that goes into building a career.  There is also a lot of risk.  I have been fortunate that throughout most of my career, the choices have been mine to make and that when choices needed to be made, wonderful choices were available to choose.  That isn’t always true in this profession and timing is everything.  But to describe my career as a series of “accidents” is also a bit of a dodge.  It absolves me of the choices that I did in fact make along the way and the impact of those choices on the schools/organizations and communities that I left behind, not to mention on my wife and children.

This career didn’t just happen to me.  I largely made it happen and I am responsible for all the good, all the regret, all the accomplishments, all the unmet and unfulfilled expectations, all the extraordinary relationships, all the hurt feelings, and so on.  And that’s just the professional impact.  My children have had to move schools and start over more than once.  My wife has had to reestablish herself in school after school, and here in Ottawa to reinvent herself altogether.

Why have I never stayed long enough to write even a second chapter?

Ego, ambition and wanderlust.

There is value in having an ego and ambition.  They drive you towards achievement and success.  They require you to learn lots and to work hard.  And to be clear, I don’t begrudge anyone – including myself – for having ambition.  When success begets success and that next bigger or more complex opportunity arises, there is nothing wrong with going for it.  However, ego and ambition can also be dangerous, especially when they become ends and not means.  If you are constantly looking towards the next shiny thing, it makes it really hard to appreciate and enjoy what you presently have.  Ego also cuts both way.  It is not a sign of stable ego if you are easily seduced by every new opportunity; it is the opposite.  It is a fragile ego that needs to feel important and who reduces success to simple metrics (How big is the school?  How prominent?  How large the salary?).  It is also a sign of a fragile ego to put your professional ambition ahead of your family’s quality of life.  I have been that guy.  I have chased the ring.  I have picked up the phone.  I have asked my family to sacrifice their peace of mind on the altar of my ambition.

I am also someone who is attracted to the unique challenges of the start-up or the fixer-up, which also explains my career trajectory.  I have only really ever worked in places that were starting up or starting over.  I thrive in bringing order to chaos.  I do less well when order starts to take shape.  The simple truth is that I love to write first chapters.  That’s where a lot of the action takes place and the stories start to take shape.

But I am not the person I was five, ten and fifteen years ago.  What matters to me most and the kind of stories I want to write have (finally) evolved.  And so today, I am thrilled to share with you that after having worked with my board these last few months, that we have chosen here – the Ottawa Jewish Community School, the Ottawa Jewish Community and Ottawa itself – to finally write that second chapter.  For reasons related to my housing situation – and because round numbers are awesome – we will be tearing up the fifth and final year of my current contract and will replace it with a new contract that will keep us here at least five more years.

Why now and why here?

I can give all kinds of personal and family reasons.  My wife and children deserve some stability after 7 moves in 20 years.  My daughters deserve an opportunity to go through adolescence without the added stress of reinvention.  We believe that Ottawa (and Canada) is an ideal place to raise teenage girls in what is already a complicated and sometimes dangerous world.  We have found a neighborhood and support system that facilitates our observant Jewish lifestyle.  We think it will be wonderful for our children (and us) to eventually become dual citizens and for our children to have all the added opportunities (affordable and excellent universities!) that come with it.  We are still just beginning to get to know this city, province and country, but from what we have experienced thus far we feel comfortable and safe and happy here.  For those reasons alone, why wouldn’t we want to stay?

But please don’t think that I am simply settling.  Just because there are compelling personal reasons to stay doesn’t mean that professionally I am simply content to settle.  I may be slightly more mature, but I still carry lots of ambition.  This is not simply a personal decision; this is a business decision as well.

Professionally, I am as happy as I ever have been.  There were lots of challenges behind us and lots of challenges ahead of us (no chance of getting bored here!).  If my first chapter was about helping guide the school from a state of emergency to a state of stability, the next chapter will be about moving from stability to sustainability.  Please don’t think that my ambition about what can be true in Jewish day school has been lowered.  I still believe that Jewish day schools are/can/should be leading the educational (r)evolution and I know that OJCS is on the vanguard.  Our goal here at OJCS is to be the best school and even if we have not achieved it yet, we are definitely on our way.

I am blessed to work with a talented and growing administrative team, a gifted and dedicated teaching faculty, a strategic and nurturing board, supportive and committed donors, collaborative and creative institutional colleagues and a Jewish Federation that works hard to ensure that no one is left off the Jewish Superhighway.  Are there bigger and more prominent schools and Jewish communities?  Yes.  Are there schools with more resources?  Yes.  Does that mean that OJCS cannot become an innovative leader amongst Jewish day schools or Ottawan private schools?  Absolutely not.  The future of education is being written right here.   I am humbled to know that I will have a continuing hand in its authorship.

In the end, when faced with having to make a choice, the choice was clear.

I choose family.  I choose community.  I choose unlimited possibilities.  I choose innovation and excellence.  I choose the Jewish future.  I choose this school with these administrators and these teachers and these families and this board and these donors and these volunteers and this Jewish community.  I choose this time and this place to write a first second chapter.

I choose Ottawa.

Shofar, So Good: Reflections On A First Week Like No Other

Long time readers of this blog know that there is no pun too corny; and that I am good for a “shofar, so good” blog post each year come the Jewish High Holidays.  With our annual (reimagined for COVID) Middle School Retreat taking place next week (!) with its inevitable blog post to follow, it means that I get to use my pun even earlier, albeit a week too soon for Rosh Hashanah.

I have been a head of school for thirteen years across three schools and, like all my colleagues, I have never had a spring like last spring, a summer like last summer, or a first week of school like this one.

So after all the work and the planning and the logistics and protocols and the procedures…how are things going at the end of the first week of the 2020-2021 school year at the Ottawa Jewish Community School?

Shofar, so good!

We have lived a thousand micro-dramas these last few weeks as it is one thing to put protocols into writing and an entirely other thing to put them into practice.  I lived this experience myself as both a parent and a principal on the very first day of school!  My experience of trying to figure out what to do in the grey areas between policy and life is being played out in homes and schools throughout our community, province and country.  Teachers and parents are being called upon to exercise both caution and discretion in the face of unheard of conditions and we will be well-served to give each other space and permission to overcorrect and overcorrect again until we calibrate into our new normal.

But as I tried to express in last week’s post, our school is way more than a collection of COVID protocols and processes!  Of course, safety is our most pressing concern these days, but only a schmidge below is our sacred duty to educate.  And with regard to that holy enterprise, I am so grateful towards and proud of our teachers – especially the many new ones.  The job of being a teacher has never been more complicated and never more important.  Not only must our teachers do everything they had to do before, but they are also called upon to be distance and hybrid learning experts, healthcare workers and mental health professionals – all while taking care of themselves and their families.  And while this is generally true of all teachers, it is especially true at the highest bar for OJCS teachers.  Seeing the time and effort that goes into reaching it, is nothing short of inspirational.

We saw last spring how amazing our teachers were when we needed to make the pivot unplanned.  (And we know that our community was paying attention as our enrollment has grown – and is still growing – despite an economic downturn.)  Imagine how extraordinary our teachers are going to be when we have done nothing, but plan!  If you are a current OJCS parent, of course, you don’t have to imagine – you can see it each and every day.

Other thoughts and musings from the first week…

…you know how you sometimes don’t fully appreciate something until you can’t do it?  I always feel badly that I am not more of a presence in classrooms, but now I crave it!  I can’t wait to be back in classrooms!

…I didn’t think I would miss the Shofar Patrol this much!

…I know I mentioned it above, but it really is true that you cannot know something until you live it.  We have lots of fine-tuning ahead of us as we gain experience!  We appreciate both your feedback and your patience as we learn and our policies evolve.  Our “COVID FAQ” is live for a reason…it will change.

…I love using three entrances and exits this year, but please don’t tell any parents who hate it.

Please save the date!  By both parent and teacher request, we are bringing back a traditional “Back to School” on Wednesday, September 23rd at 7:00 PM.  The platform (virtual) may be new-school, but the program will be old-school.  Apparently, my telling you each year that all the information you need as parents (homework policies, behavior management programs, and the curriculum) is simply on the classroom blogs hasn’t satisfied parents or teachers!  So now that I have united you in your disagreement with me…welcome back “Back to School”.

The Grit to Graduate: My Charge to the Coronavirus Class of 2020

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”.  And if there was ever a class who could successfully, not only survive, but thrive in a school year complicated by COVID, it would be this (first) Coronavirus Class of 2020.

But let me first pivot back towards two other critical partners in grit and resilience…

The Perseverance of Parents

The path of small Jewish day schools is not always an easy one to tread.  Parents find their way into Jewish day schools for all kinds of highly personal reasons – personalized attention, family atmosphere, a deep commitment to Jewish Studies, or even just going where everyone else happened to be going that year.  We also know that parents find their out of Jewish day schools for all kinds of highly personal reasons as well.  We are not here to stand in judgement of those who opted out; we are here to stand in praise of those who persevered to opt in – year after year.  Jewish day school comes at a high price, and that price is not just financial.  There are many in this room who have sacrificed luxuries and necessities to reach this day.  All in this room have sacrificed their most precious gift – time – in service of their children’s academic and Jewish journey.  A year like this one sharpens both points.  COVID-19 has not only strained families’ pocketbooks, but even with extraordinarily self-directed Grade 8 students, the transition to distance learning has strained families’ living spaces, devices, time, and patience (not to mention wifi!).

We believe that a night like tonight validates those choices, those sacrifices and proves the power of perseverance.

The Passion of Teachers

Teachers make a school and we never saw greater proof of that than during this most unusual of school years.  When I think of all the reasons why our school was able to so successfully transition to distance learning for the last third of the school year, I would place their passion at the top of the list.  “Passion” marks the spot where teachers move from good to great and where teaching moves from occupation to calling.  Passion for students means that relationships become prioritized and through relationships the magic of learning is amplified.  Passion for learning means lifelong learning and through lifelong learning comes new and innovative practices, pedagogies and platforms.  Passion for community means choosing to work and stay in a school that may not have all the bells and whistles, but does have all the heart and soul, and through community we become family.  Passion is why graduation is not only an opportunity to acknowledge the Grade 8 Teachers, but a moment to celebrate all the teachers whose collaborations and contributions over time come together to create a class.

We believe that a night like tonight rewards those relationships, lauds that learning, commemorates community and proves the power of passion.

The Grit of Graduates

“A combination of passion and perseverance for a singularly important goal” really makes an apt description of the OJCS Class of 2020.  That “singularly important goal” is different for each one of you and it has changed and grown as you have changed and grown.  But what I have seen firsthand from you each – and know secondhand from all your teachers – is that you bring these unique qualities of passion and perseverance to your individual work, your group projects and your class commitments.  You bring them to your academic challenges and you bring them to your extracurricular opportunities.  You bring them to your varying Jewish commitments and you bring them to your many expressions of community service and social justice.

And all of that would have been true in the most normal of years.  This year, however, was of course far from normal.  Like so many others, this year’s Grade 8 has had to sacrifice moments and memories as planned events became unplanned experiments.  We have, of course, done our best to be creative and go virtual in order to provide with you as many of the capstone experiences as we could, but we know they aren’t the same.  But it is here, too, where you have shown your grit and your character.  You have hung together, you’ve made your lemonade from lemons, and you have come through the other side with your bonds as tight as ever.

We believe that a night like tonight confirms your character and projects the promise of your potential, and, thus proves the promise of grit.

Our OJCS “North Star” Prayer

Our prayer for you as you graduate and head out into the world is that you come to experience and embody our school’s North Stars; that you continue to point in their direction as you continue to grow and develop into high school and beyond…

“Have a floor, but not a ceiling” – be your best self.  Have high expectations at a minimum and unlimited aspirations at a maximum.  We hope you learned at OJCS to be comfortable in your own skin and to carry that confidence with you when you head out into the wider world.

“Ruach” – be joyful. School – and life – is supposed to be fun, even when it may seem hard or have difficult moments, like a global pandemic.  We hope you had many moments of joy at OJCS and that you have many more moments of joy in the years to come.

“We own our own learning” – learning isn’t something that happens to you, it is something you choose.  We hope you take the sense of ownership for your learning that we strive towards at OJCS into your next schools of choice and that you not merely be satisfied with gathering information, but that you take a growing sense of responsibility for what you learn and how you learn.

“We are each responsible one to the other” – make the world a better place. Take what you’ve learned (Torah) and do great deeds (Mitzvot); do great deeds and be inspired to learn more.

“We learn better together” – we are stronger and more successful together than we can be alone. Judaism has always been communitarian in this way and what is old is new again as we live in a world where collaboration is not simply advantageous, but required.

“We are on our own inspiring Jewish journey” – keep choosing Jewish. One can argue that the next years of your Jewish lives are more important than the ones you are celebrating tonight.  In your own ways – continue.  Whether that is in formal Jewish learning, youth group, summer camps, Israel, synagogue attendance, social action – you are no more fully formed Jewishly at your Grade 8 graduation than you were at Bar or Bat Mitzvah.  We pray that you build on this foundation and that you embrace the Jewish journey that continues after tonight.

In closing, know that you each are blessed more than you realize.  But do not ever be content to merely count your blessings.  Be someone who makes their blessings count.