Keeping the “R”-uach in Siddu-“R”: My Words to Kitah Alef at Our Chaggigat Ha’Siddur

The following was shared with our Kitah Alef (Grade One) Families during our school’s annual Chaggigat Ha’Siddur – our celebration of early Jewish learning with the gift of a siddur:

“Before I call each student by name to ‘give’ them their siddur, I want to take just a handful of minutes to share a few words…

The Hebrew word siddur comes from the Hebrew root samech-dalet-reish which means “order”.  (You have another common example from the Passover Seder – same root, same idea.)  The siddur, in this sense, represents the commonly accepted order of prayers for each service, handed down from generation to generation, with some changes and modifications, but largely intact from the days of the Talmud through today.  Thus, one way to view an event like today’s is to celebrate our children taking up their links in the chain of Jewish history.  And it is that, for sure, but there’s another idea I’d like to name.

As our students navigate their Jewish journeys at OJCS, they are introduced to a critical concept for understanding Jewish prayer – the idea that prayer exists on a spectrum between kevah, the fixed order of thingsand kavannah, the intentionality that one who prays brings to his or her praying.  Both are critical to meaningful prayer, but we tend to focus on kevah and forget the kavannah.  It is true that without kevah you cannot have community or continuity.  The fact that Jews throughout time and across the world say these prayers at these times with these words and this choreography creates a sense of shared experience which builds community and fosters continuity between generations.  But that cannot be the whole story.  Without kavannah, prayer becomes a rote or robotic exercise lacking in the joy and meaning that makes prayer nourishing and soulful.

Have you ever gone into a Kitah Alef classroom and listened to them pray?

I have, even though it has sadly been a while, and what I can tell you is that you don’t have to worry about joy or ruach or kavannah!  You got a taste of that this morning – the younger you are, the more spiritually open, and the more easily one finds it to sing without self-consciousness.  It sadly changes for almost all of us as we get older.  I view this, however, as a challenge to be met, not a fate to bemoan.  I view the giving of our siddurim to Kitah Alef not as a gift, but a brit – a contract.  Our job as a school, and I hope your jobs as parents with us as sacred partners, is to ensure that our children don’t simply learn how to say the words, chant the prayers, and when to stand, sit and bow.  Our job is to nurture and foster the joy and the meaning.  We don’t simply want our students to be technically proficient so they can perform at their Bar or Bat Mitzvahs.  We want them to know from experience why a high schooler, university student, young adult and adults in general would choose to pray when it becomes their choice.  That’s the holy work ahead of us in the years to come.  That’s why this rite of passage marks not an end, but a beginning.

It is why a Chaggigat Ha’Siddur – why a celebration of a siddur gifted by the school, decorated by the parents, and instructed in by the teachers is so appropriate to mark this stage of our journey.

One of our school’s North Stars is that “we are all on inspiring Jewish journeys” and the Chaggigat Ha’Siddur is just the next stop on a journey that began together under the chuppah on the first day of Kindergarten.  Another of our school’s North Stars is ruach.  My prayer for this class as they go on this journey together is that we manage to hold onto the Ruach in sidduR.  That’s how we can ensure that the siddur we give them today won’t be just a trophy to be admired on a shelf, but becomes a tool to be used for discovery and meaning.  Let today’s simcha not merely serve as a moment to celebrate, but an inspiration to reach the next stop, and the stop after that, in the extraordinary and unpredictable Jewish journey of this remarkable group of children and families.

Ken y’hi ratzon.

Thank you to Morah Ada for all the love and work that goes into a day like today.  Thank you to the Kitah Alef team for their support and participation.  Thank you to the parents and grandparents for all the things you do – seen and unseen – to make a Jewish day school journey possible.  Let me now welcome Keren Gordon, our Vice Principal, along with the teachers in Kitah Alef, as we prepare to celebrate each of our students…”

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!