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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!

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!”

2019 OJCS Middle School Retreat

Woo-hoo!

That’s pretty much all I can say.  We left exactly one week ago for our second annual three-day Middle School Retreat at Camp B’nai Brith Ottawa (CBB) and it was everything we could have hoped for in a Jewish informal educational experience.  We had learning, games, athletics, prayer, social bonding, community building, hiking, white-water rafting, and a campfire to boot!  It was like we squeezed a summer’s session of camp into just three days…and we were all tired enough to prove it!

After having spent a good chunk of time putting together a video of our experience, I will let the video do the talking.  We didn’t necessarily know what we would come out with, so I apologize to parents and students that not everyone may have made it in – it is not a reflection of anything other than happenstance.  We will more than make up for it with photos and videos throughout the year.  It is, I hope, a taste of why this retreat has become an important part of our middle school.  Our relationships are forever changed – for the good. We will be able to do things within the walls of the classrooms that we never would have without having spent time together outside of them.

Here’s a taste:

Here is a final reminder about September 25th…

In order to encourage attendance in both parts of the evening, we are (for the second year) combining our AGM (Annual General Meeting) with a hands-on parent workshop to ensure parents are able to be meaningful partners in their child(ren)’s education.

The evening will begin at 7:00 PM in the CHAPEL with an approximately 30-minute AGM.  We will begin the Hands-On Workshop at 7:30 PM, beginning in the GYM, where we will start with some hands-on learning, exploring and subscribing that will help you know exactly where to find the information about your chid(ren)’s class(es), including homework/quizzes/tests/projects that you want and need to be wonderful parents and advocates.  We will then move into a choice of topics for parents to attend featuring “Homework”, “Behavior Management” & “Extending Jewish Learning” – all facilitated by members of our Educational Leadership Team.  The evening is intended to conclude by 8:30 PM.

This evening is about ensuring that parents know how to find, access and use all the tools we have available to help keep them in the know.  We are scheduling a different day – October 24th (8:45 AM & 7:00 PM) – to engage in a more substantial conversation about the what and the why of our approach to technology and innovation.  Why is the school moving to BYOD and what does it (really) mean?  What are blogs and blogfolios and how are they used in service of learning?  What role should schools play in developing media literacy and digital citizenship?  What does the latest research tell us?  If these questions, or others, are on your mind, we hope that you are able to join us at one of these conversations.

We Left As A School and Came Back As A Community

Wow.

That’s all I can say.  We got back exactly one week ago from our three-day inaugural Middle School Retreat at Camp B’nai Brith Ottawa (CBB) and it was everything we could have hoped for in a Jewish informal educational experience.  We had learning, games, athletics, prayer, social bonding, community building, hiking, zip lines, and a campfire to boot!  It felt like we squeezed a summer’s session of camp into just three days…and we are all tired enough to prove it!

After having spent a good chunk of time, in between catching up with the rest of the school and planning through the rest of our holiday experiences, putting together a video of our experience, I will let the video to the talking. I will likely have more to say after the holidays when I’ve had a chance to properly process and reflect.

We didn’t necessarily know what we would come out with, so I apologize to parents and students that not everyone may have made it in – it is not a reflection of anything other than happenstance.  We will more than make up for it with photos and videos throughout the year.  It is, I hope, a taste of why this retreat will become an important part of our middle school.  Our relationships are forever changed – for the good.  We will be able to do things within the walls of the classrooms that we never would have without having spent time together outside of them.

Here’s a taste:

Not Another Article About Jewish Camping & Jewish Day School

This is typically the time of year when we wax philosophic about Jewish camping and lament that Jewish day schools can’t seem to capture the efficacy, niche, demand and profitability of our educational first cousins.

This is not that article.

(I did my version of that article a few years ago.)

This is not a knock on Jewish camping.

My personal story and Jewish journey are inextricably linked to Jewish camping.  But having just had occasion to visit many of our OJCS students at Camp B’nai Brith of Ottawa Summer Camp and to visit my own wife and children at Camp Ramah Darom, and being reminded of just how powerful those experiences can be, I want to name a few challenges that Jewish camping presents for families and for the Jewish day schools who enthusiastically support them.

I am convinced that one of the greatest challenges in Jewish education is identifying the vehicles of transferability from powerful experiences to meaningful Jewish choices.  And although I am partial to Jewish camping and Jewish day school as the two most likely candidates to produce said experiences, I have participated in amazing supplemental school classes, transformative youth group retreats and excellent adult education seminars.  There are opportunities abundant in Jewish education for creating connections – connections between people, connections to history and ideas, and connections to God.  However, the difficulty lies in linking those experiences to an ongoing engagement with Judaism between and after the power of those peak experiences fade.

Let’s look at a stereotypical peak Jewish camping experience.

Havdalah is a transcendent highlight for children (and teens and adults) attending Jewish summer camps.  It is amongst the most powerful events that take place at camp and for many Jewish children it takes place exclusively during the summer.  The same is true for daily/weekly prayer, Shabbat observance, kashrut (of some form or another) observance, etc.  For many Jewish children (and teens and adults) these rituals only exist during the summer months when they are not only viewed as normative, but as ultimate.   Likewise, for many day school kids, kashrut, blessings, prayer, speaking in Hebrew, study of Jewish text, etc. – these activities are imbued with meaning and purpose within the confines of the school walls, but for many they end with the closing school bell.  The power in camp and day school experiences lie in their ability to make normative [or even better “cool” – which camp particularly excels at] Jewish rituals and practices that are anything, but normative in children’s family, synagogue and Jewish communal lives.

Havdalah with your parents at home on a Saturday night while your friends are waiting for you to meet them at the movies cannot hold a candle (even a braided one) to havdalah under the twinkling stars in a redwood retreat, arm-in-arm with your newfound closest friends and a guitar strumming away.  The day school student who cannot use his/her Hebrew outside of school with friends and family will only find it so meaningful for so long.  It is difficult to replicate a magical sukkah experience at a home without one.  Etc.  The potential dissonance between what is lived in Jewish educational settings and what is lived in the family is well-known and is as difficult to breach now as it has been for the last half-century or more.

Jewish schools are on the front lines of this conversation.  Although there is a meaningful percentage of families whose primary concerns are Jewish Studies, there many families enrolled in our school because they are looking for a variety of things, a topnotch secular education being at the top of the list.  The fact that it also comes with a high-quality Jewish Studies program and is housed in a Jewish setting emphasizing Jewish values can mean anything from “also important” to “nice” depending on the family.  Even in the Jewish educational setting where families are arguably the most invested, we still struggle to find the motivation and vehicle for transference.

What can we do?

In our school, where we have explicitly named “We are always on inspiring Jewish journeys,” as one of our “North Stars” it begins with admissions and carries through to graduation.  During initial family interviews, we are candid with parents about our school’s agenda for the inculcation of Jewish ritual and practice.  It is really no different than the agenda we have for the inculcation of any other facet of our program.  We want our children to go home from school excited about everything they are learning and seeking to find meaningful ways of incorporating lessons learned into lives lived.  Unlike math or reading, however, we need to be willing to reach into families’ lives to provide encouragement and education to bring the Jewish Studies curriculum to life.  Nurturing the relationships that allow that process to occur is, perhaps, the most important, fulfilling, and sacred aspect of our work.

Finding the way to sow the seeds for Jewish journeys is the secret sauce that can connect the dots from summer’s peak Jewish experiences to the school-year’s rich and rigorous Jewish education to families’ Jewish lives, enriching and enhancing each in turn.  As we prepare in the weeks ahead to welcome our children home from camp and to welcome them back to school, let’s work together to help our children appreciate that being actively engaged Jewishly is a year-round and lifelong endeavour.