The Transparency Files: The 2024-2025 Faculty

Happy Friday!

Here we are on literally the last day of school – for teachers – and before we head into Canada Day Weekend and the true start of summer (for us!), it is my sincere joy and pleasure to be able to share a picture of the amazing human beings who will be teaching our children and leading our school into the 2024-2025 school year at the Ottawa Jewish Community School.

This is the first year of what will be the beginning of my eighth year at OJCS where I have exactly ZERO preambles or caveats.  (Wait, what?  You are just going to tell us what we are here to see and not force us to read an extra 500 words?  Yup!)

Get excited about this gifted and loving group of teachers and administrators, who will partner with our parents in the sacred work of educating our children.  I know I am!

The 2024-2025 OJCS Faculty & Staff

Lower School General Studies Faculty

  • Kindergarten: Andréa Black, Amy Kluke (EA) & EA (TBD) [TWO Classes]
  • Grade One: Julie Bennett [TWO Classes]
  • Grade Two: Ann-Lynn Rapoport [TWO Classes]
  • Grade Three: Caitlin Honey [TWO Classes]
  • Grade Four: Charles Watters [TWO Classes]
  • Grade Five: Melissa Thompson

Lower School Jewish Studies Faculty

  • Kitah Gan: Jaqui Gesund Kattan [TWO Classes]
  • Kitah Alef: Ada Aizenberg [TWO Classes]
  • Kitah Bet: Dana Doron [TWO Classes]
  • Kitah Gimmel: Susan Wollock [TWO Classes]
  • Kitah Dalet: Sigal Baray [TWO Classes]
  • Kitah Hay: Marina Riklin

Lower School French Faculty

  • Kindergarten: Maryse Cohen [TWO Classes]
  • Grade One: Maryse Cohen & Efi Mouchou [TWO Classes]
  • Grade Two: Efi Mouchou [TWO Classes]
  • Grade Three: Aaron Polowin [TWO Classes]
  • Grade Four Core: Aaron Polowin
  • Grade Four Extended: Dr. Sylvie Raymond
  • Grade Five Core: Dr. Sylvie Raymond
  • Grade Five Extended: Efi Mouchou

Middle School Faculty

[NOTE: There will be two Grade 6s.]

  • Science: Josh Ray
  • Mathematics: Chelsea Cleveland (Grades 6 & 7) & Josh Ray (Grade 8)
  • Language Arts: Jess Mender
  • Social Studies: Michael Washerstein
  • Extended French: Wanda Canaan
  • Core French:  Dr. Sylvie Raymond
  • Hebrew Alef: Jaqui Gesund Kattan
  • Hebrew Bet: Liat Levy
  • Jewish Studies: Mike Washerstein
  • Rabbinics: David Kogut


  • Art: Dina Medicoff
  • Music: David Kogut
  • French Language PE: Stéphane Cinanni & Aaron Polowin
  • Library: Brigitte Ruel


  • OJCS Makerspace: Josh Ray
  • Rabbi Bulka Kindness Project: Michael Washerstein
  • Student Life: Jess Mender

Department of Special Education

  • Ashley Beswick, Student Support Coordinator
  • Faye Mellenthin, Grades 5-8 Resource Teacher
  • Marina Riklin, Math Resource Teacher
  • Chelsea Cleveland, Math Resource Teacher
  • Reading Specialist, Reading Resource Teacher
  • Corinne Baray, Jewish Studies & ESL Resource Teacher
  • Wanda Canaan, French Resource Teacher


  • Josh Max – Director of Technology
  • Ellie Kamil – Executive Assistant to the Head of School
  • Yulia Elgin – Director of Development
  • Elena Ivanova – Chief Accountant
  • Jennifer Greenberg – Director of Recruitment
  • Sharon Reichstein, Director of Special Education
  • Melissa Thompson – Vice Principal
  • Keren Gordon – Principal
  • Dr. Jon Mitzmacher – Head of School

You may notice some familiar faces in new places…

…you will notice that although she is maintaining a healthy teaching portfolio, we are thrilled to announce that Melissa Thompson has been promoted from “Coordinator” to “Vice Principal” that officially marks her transition to being part of Administration.  This is not only well-deserved based on her extraordinary work over her time at OJCS, but also much-needed as we reach towards those North Stars as a still-growing school.  Along with Ms. Gordon and myself, the addition of Mrs. Thompson in this role will ensure greater accountability and that we raise the bar of excellence in our classrooms and across our programs.

…you may also notice that David Kogut will expand his portfolio next year as he adds Middle School Rabbinics to Music as a full-time JS Teacher.  Moreh David has his MA in Jewish Education from the Azrieli School of Education at Yeshiva University and brings years of teaching and administrative experience into his expanded role.  We are incredibly grateful to Morah Corinne who has built a strong foundation in Rabbinics for Moreh David to build upon and are excited that Morah Corinne will have an opportunity to further develop her ESL and Hebrew Resource programs.

…and as sad as we are that Morah Yulia will no longer be formally teaching in the Jewish Studies Department next year, we are thrilled that Ms. Elgin will be dedicating all her extraordinary energy to Development.

You may notice two familiar faces missing…

…we took time a few weeks back to commemorate and celebrate the remarkable 37-year career of Ruth Lebovich – Morah Ruthie – as she has now officially retired from OJCS.  There is not enough space here to repeat all that we shared about her as part of our “OJCS Celebrates 75 Years of Teaching Excellence” event, but suffice it to say that she leaves an unparalleled legacy and huge shoes to fill.  We feel confident that for Morah Ruthie we are simply saying l’hitraot and not shalom as we expect to be seeing her and learning from her – albeit differently – for years to come.

…we are also saying good-bye to Lianna Krantzberg – Morah Lianna – who will be moving on from OJCS to take on new challenges as she enters the next phase of her career.  Having an alumna as a teacher is a special thing, indeed, and it has been our pleasure to literally watch Morah Lianna grow up in so many ways within our doors.  We wish her an early mazal tov as her wedding draws near, and all the best in her next professional chapter.

Do you notice what you don’t see?  Any significant open positions!  What?!  Yes, other than adding one additional EA for SK and a Reading Resource Specialist to ensure we are providing as much resource as needed, we are heading into summer without any significant search processes!  Stability, anyone?  Yes, please!

Please note that I intend to take a pause from weekly blogging as we head into summer.  Of course, should the spirit move me, or an issue arises that warrants it, I will blog intermittently, until resuming my weekly routine a week or so before our teachers return for Pre-Planning Week 2024.

Happy summer!

Being “Ready” for High School Used to Mean Something Different

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

When you go from being the oldest students in school to being the youngest, it can feel – as it did to ten of the spies in this week’s parashah – a bit like being a grasshopper amongst giants.  We tend to think about the transition to high school as being about “academic readiness” or “social acceptance” or “executive functioning” – the typical things any good middle school ought to ensure be true as it sends its graduates out into high school.  And considering how close COVID remains in the rearview, all those things were more complicated for this generation of graduates.  Now we layer on the events that took up most of this class’s graduating year – the tragedy of October 7th and its aftermath – and we realize that being “ready” for high school sadly now requires the additional categories of “preparedness for possible encounters of anti-Semitism” and “Israel advocacy”.

In Parashat Sh’lach, Moshe sends twelve spies to scout the land of Kena’an. Ten of them return with reports of fear and doubt, convinced that the land is unconquerable.  Only Yehoshua and Kalev stand firm in their faith and courage, urging the people to trust in God’s promise and move forward.  As you stand at the threshold of high school, you are a bit like Bnei Yisrael standing on the brink of the Promised Land.  The future is full of unknowns, challenges, and opportunities.  The world you are stepping into has been profoundly affected by the event of this past year what with the walkouts, disinformation and anti-Semitic/anti-Israel incidents on so many of our local high school campuses.  But just as Yehoshua and Kalev demonstrated, how we choose to perceive and respond to challenges will define our journey.

Perspective shapes our reality.  The ten spies saw insurmountable obstacles in Kena’an, but Yehoshua and Kalev saw possibilities and potential. As you move into high school, you may encounter situations that may seem daunting—new subjects, social dynamics, and greater responsibilities. Instead of seeing these as insurmountable challenges, try to view them as opportunities for growth and learning.  Cultivate a growth mindset that seeks out possibilities and remains optimistic, even in the face of adversity.

Courage is essential.  Yehoshua and Kalev stood against the majority, advocating for what they believed was right.  It wasn’t easy, but their bravery paved the way for Bnei Yisrael’s eventual entry into the Land.  It seems likely now more than ever that in high school, there will be times when you will need to stand up for your values, make difficult decisions, and perhaps go against the grain.  We have seen OJCS graduates take the lead in organizing and advocating on high school campuses throughout Ottawa in response to anti-Semitic incidents and anti-Israel disinformation.  Courage is not the absence of fear, but the ability to move forward despite it.  Remember that true courage comes from within and is bolstered by your sense of purpose and integrity.

Faith provides us with strength.  Yehoshua and Kalev’s confidence stemmed from their faith in God’s promise.  For us, faith can take many forms in addition to the traditional ones.  It might be faith in your abilities, faith in the support of your family and community, or faith in the values that you have been taught here at OJCS.  This faith will be your anchor in turbulent times, giving you the resilience to face challenges and the assurance that you are not alone.

Graduates, you have shown remarkable resilience and adaptability during your time at OJCS.  You are equipped with the knowledge, skills, and values needed to make a positive impact in a world desperately in need of it.  Embrace the future with courage.  Be the positive force that sees potential in every challenge and have faith in your ability to create a better, brighter future.  And, when necessary, be brave in the face of challenges.

Ken y’hi ratzon.

The Transparency Files: Annual Parent Survey

This is it…the last…the very last…

this version of the Annual Parent Survey will be put to bed.  Faithful readers will recall that last year’s was going to be the last, but October 7th and the relocation/renovation rendered that a bit of a bridge too far.

So, yes, this is it.  This Annual Parent Survey has served me and my school(s) well these last 15 years, but the people have spoken – er, rather, I guess, the people have not spoken, or at least have not been willing/interested in completing this survey in this format and so we will finally bid it adieu

We have found ourselves in this fascinating cycle where each year the enrollment goes up and the participation rate in the Annual Parent Survey goes down.  This year, although 47 individual surveys were turned in, only 36 individual surveys provided data on the main sections.  That means this survey only represents 19% of the students in our school.   It simply defeats the purpose of gathering feedback in service of making decisions that impact students if 1/5 of students are sharing that feedback.  Whether we move to a third-party vendor, a new format for surveys, focus groups or some combination therein, we will cast a different and a wider net to ensure we truly capture the feedback we need – and your children deserve – to aim closer to our North Stars; to be the best version of ourselves we can.

But that’s the future…for now, one last time, let’s thank and lean into the parents who did participate and try to make meaning of what they are telling us.  [If you would like to see a full comparison with last year, you can reread those results, or have them open so you can toggle back and forth.  In this post, I will try to capture the highlights and identify what trends seem worth paying attention to.]

Not surprising to be clustered so low…it does make questions about “high school readiness” less helpful with such little representation from Grades 7 & 8.

Without knowing how representative this fifth of students is, this year’s data set is lighter on the “no’s”.  Of course the “no’s” are always complicated to unpack because we have no way of knowing who of the “no’s” represent graduation or relocations, as opposed to choosing to attrit prior to Grade 8.  However, what continues to be true is that the overwhelming majority of families – regardless of their feedback – stay with us year-after-year.  This continues to say a lot about them and a lot about us.

Let’s look at the BIG PICTURE:

The first chart gives you the breakdown by category; the second chart gives you the weighted average satisfaction score (out of 10).  I will remind you that for this and all categories, I look at the range between 7-9 as the healthy band, obviously wanting scores to be closer to 9 than to 7, and looking for scores to go up each year.  In terms of “overall satisfaction”, we have now gone from 7.13 to 7.20 to 8.17 to 7.91 to 8.0 to 7.44 to 7.53.  Although it is a tick up from last year, the difference is statistically insignificant.

Overall, this seems to be a good news story, but let’s dig deeper…

Almost every one of these numbers are up from last year!  And the only number that is below the “acceptable range” is trending upwards…

Again everyone one of these is higher than last year!  And, again, the only one that is below the “acceptable range” is also trending upwards…

So far, same trend.  Every number is up and the OVERALL number and the Science number are as about as high we’ve ever had.

Here we hit our first trouble spot.  The less-than-great news is that these numbers, at least for those families who filled it out, are all (still) below the acceptable range.  The not-as-bad news is that numbers are fairly flat.  “French reading” is down pretty significantly and “French PE” in its second year took a dip as well, so there continues to be meaningful work ahead.

Overall these numbers are mostly flat with a few small dips.  Again, anything in those “high sixes” are targets for improvement.  [I’m looking at you Tefillah which I take the most personally since I teach it!]

Work to be done!  Although we think the transition we made in Art and the addition we made to Music (not yet represented in the survey) has brought significant improvements to our program.  There are variables here that are not entirely within our control, but this entire section is worth our thinking more deeply about and identifying a few changes for next year.

These scores are mostly down as well.  Pairing this with comments, we know we have work to do when it comes to the transition to semesters, the way we weave in progress reports, how we approach goal-setting, etc.  We believe we have a clear path forward and fully expect to see these numbers grow next year.  The one score we want to better understand is how parents view “provides regular opportunities for parents to be involved in student learning”.  We do this, or we think we do, so part of what has to be sussed out is whether we are providing the right or preferred opportunities.

These numbers are almost all higher than the prior year.  The two that are below the acceptable range (relevant learning for parents) and (student code of conduct) are both up, if not yet where we prefer them.  Considering how much energy we put into new behavior systems this year, I would liked to see that number jump higher, but we will keep working to improve.

Last data point [Remember this question was scaled 1-5.]:

Our score remains consistent from 4.44 to 4.34 to 4.34 to 4.14 to 3.92.  This one actually doesn’t jive with the rest of the results which almost universally had higher ratings than the prior year.  Could be that this data point, which is supposed to rate Net Promoter Scoring (for those who are familiar) is not well understood.  Either way, the trend line is concerning…at least for the minority of families who are represented in this year’s results.

So there you have it for 2023-2024!

Thanks to all the parents who took the time and care to fill out surveys!  In addition to the multiple choice questions, there were opportunities for open-ended responses and a couple of experimental sections.  Your written responses added an additional layer of depth; one which is difficult to summarize for a post like this.  Please know that all comments will be shared with those they concern.  (This includes a full set of unedited and unredacted results which goes to the Head Support and Evaluation Committee of our Board of Trustees.)

As I said at the beginning, without meaningful data we don’t know how high to put the “floor” we stand upon to reach towards our North Stars.  We will change our model next year to ensure we get better data from more families.  That way, we can make sure that without a ceiling, we aim to reach higher each year…

A Time to Be Counted

Here are the words I shared with Kitah Bet this morning in celebration of their Chaggigat Ha’Torah:

There is a time to count, like one does when counting one’s blessings, and there is a time to be counted, like one does when showing up for oneself, one’s family, and one’s community.  Today is a rare opportunity to do both.

Today we celebrate the gift of Torah and in this week’s reading of it – in Parashat Bamidbar – we read about the census of the Israelites in the wilderness.  This detailed counting of each tribe and individual highlights the significance of every member within the community.  Each person’s unique role and contribution are recognized and valued. This notion resonates deeply with us today, as we witness the power of Jewish unity and collective strength in the face of recent challenges.

The tragic events of October 7th tested and continue to test our community in unimaginable ways.  Yet, amidst the darkness, we have seen an extraordinary outpouring of support, solidarity, and resilience.  There have been times when we have huddled together and counted our blessings, but also times when we have stood up and been counted as we rally and publicly #StandWithIsrael.

When we come together to celebrate our children’s first accomplishments in the study of Torah with the gift of Torah, we are not only honoring their individual achievements, but also reinforcing the bonds that tie us together as a community.  Your choice to provide your children with a Jewish day school education is a powerful statement.  It connects your children to the generations who came before, and to those yet to come.  Your choice joins your family story to the larger Jewish story, honors our past, and secures our future through the learning and experiences you have made possible for their Jewish present.  This choosing to be chosen, the unique nature of Jews who both have to and get to choose to be Jewish, feels so much more powerful this year in light of the world around us.

Our act of giving these sifrei torah to our children today is more than a ceremony; it is a reaffirmation of our commitment to Jewish continuity and resilience.  Each time we gather as a community to study, read and celebrate Torah, we engage in a public act of Judaism that is itself a living expression of Torah.  By showing up, by being present and publicly Jewish, we live our own torah and are counted within the Jewish People’s shared destiny of meaning.  We demonstrate to our children that Judaism is not just a private faith, but a public declaration of who we are and what we stand for.  Each act of Jewish learning, and each celebration we share is a thread woven into the fabric of our collective Jewish identity.

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

Ken y’hi ratzon.

Public Acts of Judaism Are a Prayer We Answer Ourselves

Here are the words I shared with Kitah Alef this morning in celebration of their Kabbalat Ha’Siddur:

One of the most profound gifts we can give our children is the sense of being part of something greater than themselves.  The Hebrew word “siddur” comes from the root samech-dalet-reish, meaning “order.” The siddur represents the structured prayers that have connected generations of Jews throughout history.  In the act of teaching our children to pray in Hebrew, we are linking them to a chain that stretches back to the beginning of the Bible and forward to future generations.  Each day we do tefillah we help make l’dor v’dor a reality…

The events of October 7th have left an indelible mark on our community and our sense of security.  In such times, the importance of community and the shared rituals that bind us become even more vital.  The Torah teaches us, “And you shall teach them diligently to your children” (Deuteronomy 6:7). This mitzvah underscores our responsibility to pass down our traditions and values.  Our act of giving these siddurim to our children today is more than a ceremony; it is a reaffirmation of our commitment to Jewish continuity and resilience.

Each time we gather as a community to celebrate our traditions, we engage in a public act of Judaism that is itself a form of prayer.  By showing up, by being present and publicly Jewish, we answer our own prayers for a shared destiny of meaning.  We demonstrate to our children that Judaism is not just a private faith, but a public declaration of who we are and what we stand for.  Each act of Jewish learning and each celebration we share is a thread woven into the fabric of our collective Jewish identity.

Each day, our children present us – their parents and their teachers – with an opportunity to secure the Jewish future through our partnership.  For parents, this is the sacred obligation we take on when deciding to have children.  For teachers and schools, this is the holy task we are entrusted with when parents take the leap of faith to provide their children with a Jewish education.  It is a responsibility that we do not take lightly or for granted.  It is why a Kabbalat Ha’Siddur – why a celebration of receiving a siddur gifted by the school, decorated by the parents, and instructed 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 Kabbalat Ha’Siddur is just the next stop on a journey that, for many, began together under the chuppah on the first day of Kindergarten.  My prayer for this class is that in the same way that the siddur we give them today is not a trophy to be admired on a shelf, but a tool to be used for discovery and meaning.  Let today’s simchah not simply be an oasis of Jewish joy in a desert of a Jewish year, but confirmation of our collective indomitable spirit and a commitment to celebrate 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.

OJCS @ 75: A Miracle Built Through Teachers

Good afternoon, fellow teachers…

As we gather today to celebrate the incredible milestone of 75 years of the Ottawa Jewish Community School, formerly known as Hillel Academy, I am overwhelmed with a deep sense of gratitude and pride.  This celebration is not just about the passage of time but about the enduring legacy of commitment, passion, and excellence that has brought us here.

I believe deeply in stories and narrative, and that both lives and organizations are best understood as such.  This school was born from founding visionaries who told a story of what could be and each generation of the board, administration and faculty has taken its place to co-author each chapter of the school’s narrative up until today.  Those of us lucky enough to currently hold the pen owe a debt to all of you in the room who held the pen before us, and owe our commitment to pass the pen forward to those who will write chapters when our time is done.  Our collective story can be read through the lives of the students and families who came through our doors, and it echoes throughout our community, both Jewish and otherwise.  You simply cannot tell the story of Jewish Ottawa without our school, and our story could not have unfolded without the collective contributions of those in this room, and all those who contributed throughout the decades.

To our school’s extraordinary teachers, your dedication and tireless efforts are the foundation of our success. For seventy-five years and counting, day in and day out, you inspired and continue to inspire our students, nurturing their minds and souls. Your passion for teaching and your unwavering commitment to each child’s growth were and are truly remarkable. Teachers are the heart of OJCS, and it is your spirit that shapes the future of our community.

To my fellow devoted administrators, your leadership and vision have been instrumental in guiding us through challenges and triumphs alike. You work behind the scenes, ensuring that our school remains a place of excellence and innovation. Your strategic thinking and dedication to our mission have paved the way for our continued growth and success.

As it says in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers), “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.” This powerful teaching reminds us that while we may not see the completion of our efforts, our responsibility is to contribute, to build upon the work of those who came before us, and to pave the way for those who will follow.

Our more recent achievements, such as the remarkable $2 million reimagination of our classrooms, seven consecutive years of enrollment growth, and the creation of the Rabbi Bulka Kindness Project, are just the most recent testament to what we can accomplish when we come together with a shared purpose. We have introduced cutting-edge technologies, embraced new teaching methodologies, and expanded our curriculum to ensure our students are well-prepared for the future. These advancements are a direct result of your hard work and commitment both past and present.

As we embark on the next chapter of our journey, we are filled with hope and excitement. I want to extend my heartfelt gratitude to each one of you. Thank you for your commitment, your passion, your talent and your dedication. Together, we have built, not just a special school, but a unique and thriving community.

Here’s to the next 75 years.

Chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek.

(From Strength to Strength May We Be Strengthened.)

From Crying To Dancing: Living Through History on Yom HaZikaron and Yom HaAtzmaut

[NOTE: This blog post comes from my daughter, Maytal Mitzmacher, near the end of her Grade 10 spring semester abroad in Tichon Ramah Yerushalayim or TRY, a program operated by Ramah Israel.]

On Yom HaZikaron we went to the Tekkes run by Masa in the evening. It was a very crowded place, and we saw a lot of people we knew. It felt a bit strange because we were excited to see people but the mood was meant to be more somber. It didn’t click for a lot of us until the Tekkes began. For some, it was our first time experiencing this in Israel. There were a lot of meaningful stories from October 7th and other incidents and it was emotional to hear the stories through song and dance and testimonials so that everyone could find a way to connect. The Masa Tekkes helped us prepare for the following day.

On Monday, we joined the Tekkes on the Chava planned by students living here. It honored those who lived here who we lost from past generations. Even though it was in Hebrew, we were still able to connect because it’s the place we’ve been living for the past four months. There was so much emotion in each speaker, that we felt intensely the pain of this year. They also prepared poems, the orchestra played and students sang. Later that day, we went to Har Herzl. Though we had been there once before, it was very different. This time, it was shoulder to shoulder and we visited the same graves, many of which had people sitting beside them mourning their losses. It was overwhelming how many people were there, and though some graves had nobody beside them, all had flowers. We also saw a huge group of people praying around a brand-new grave. It was powerful to be a part of this and experience this with the people of Israel.

Yom HaAtzmaut comes right after Yom HaZikaron. The switch happened in the evening, and we were getting excited to be able to celebrate. We had to switch our mood instantly, thinking of two things so different from one another. To go from thinking of those we’ve lost to celebrating our state is really hard. The immediate switch is hard to process and some people needed more time without feeling the rush. I feel that a day in between would be helpful so that people can be in a proper state of mind to celebrate Israel and enjoy the day. This year, everything was toned down and Yom Haaztmaut was not as celebratory as there are losses that are very recent. We still celebrated but it was hard to go from seeing pictures of hostages to singing upbeat songs. I needed more time to think and switch moods. The mood this year made celebrating more complicated. Even though we are trying to mourn properly, we still have our state and it’s still something we should want to celebrate. Even though there are still horrible things happening, we’re continuing to mourn and pray while appreciating all that we still have and move into another, better year for Israel.

Coming to Israel, knowing there’s a war with everything happening, the 14 of us still chose to come this semester. People thought we were crazy for coming, or they were super proud and impressed with us. We’ve been told countless times that we’re the best of the best for being here right now. Even though we haven’t been able to do everything, it hasn’t changed the way we feel about Israel. We’ve had an experience unlike any other, we lived through this and are able to see firsthand what real life and experiences that we can continue to tell others. We got to live through history and being here is also part of our story and our relationship with Israel. We’ve connected MORE, and our love for Israel has grown immensely. We belong here.

Celebrating 75 Years of Teaching Excellence: One Student/Parent/Board Chair’s Perspective

[NOTE: This blog post is written by former OJCS student, current OJCS Parent and Chair of our Board of Trustees, Joanne Gorenstein.]

This year, 2024, Ottawa Jewish Community School (OJCS) is celebrating its 75th Anniversary.  As the Chair of the Board of Directors, I have been intimately involved in planning for all the various events to commemorate this momentous achievement of the school and of the Ottawa Jewish community.  When we planned the celebration of 75 years of teaching excellence (June 2nd / see flyer below), I could not help but to reminisce about my own experiences with the teachers and administration from Hillel Academy and OJCS…

I started at Hillel Academy in 1979 in Nursery, which at the time, was housed at Agudath Israel (now Kehillat Beth Israel) and I danced on the Hebrew alphabet on the floor of the kindergarten room – which I still chuckle because that flooring is still there!  In Kindergarten, my teacher was Mrs. Faigel Rosenberg.  I remember that I loved Mrs. Roseberg – I adored her.  That year, I lost my first tooth and I am sure Mrs. Rosenberg realized I had swallowed it but because she did not want me to feel bad for not having an actual tooth to show for it, she made the whole class look for it.  It is not every teacher that would care enough to do that.  That same year, my sister and brother had their b’nei mitzvah and my mother said I could invite one friend to the Saturday night party.  I chose Mrs. Rosenberg and was thrilled dancing with her. She took the time out of her weekend to be my “date”! That was the start of my experience with Hillel/OJCS teachers and how they treat all their students as extensions of their own families.

In Grade 2, my class had Mrs. Avalee Prehogan.  We thought she was the coolest teacher and each of my classmates took turns to get her attention. When Mrs. Prehogan announced mid-year that she was going to be leaving as she was pregnant, I recall my entire class started crying.  That is how much we loved her.

When I was in Grade 4, the school moved over to the Jewish Community Campus to the new school and what an adventure that was!  For the remaining four years of my education, my teachers always made every student feel special, unique and noticed.  When I went through an awkward phase and I was unsure of myself, Mrs. Glube recognized this and paid extra attention to me in a subtle way – she knew exactly what I needed.

In my last couple of years of Hillel, my teachers adjusted their approach to deal with pre-teens.  Teachers such as Mrs. Sara Briener and Mr. Murray Wilson made each of us feel valued and talked to us like adults.  I was a quiet kid and, in another environment, could have felt invisible, but I never felt this way at Hillel Academy.  My teachers spent as much time and attention on me as the smartest and the loudest of the bunch!  And with the leadership of Mr. Stan Katz, I felt like I had a zaide as a principal – not that I ever was sent to the principal.

Now I walk the halls of OJCS as a parent of an upcoming graduate and nothing has changed.  Of course, the teachers are different but their dedication and love of their students is the same.  The teachers know the names of all the students – no matter what grade – and they continue to invest the time to get to know their students and their needs to support their learning journey.  I think about Mrs. Ellie Kamil and how she not only keeps the entire school running but at the time, knows every student and nurtures each one as one of her babies – it is amazing to observe!  As I look back at my son’s OJCS journey, he has been supported, challenged and loved for nine years and I am so appreciative that he has had this experience and I know it has formed the “mensch” he is today.

In the end, the fact that I graduated over 30 years ago and my memories of my teachers are so vivid demonstrates the impact they all had on my life and on all the other graduates of Hillel/OJCS.  Teaching in a Jewish community school has unique opportunities and challenges but generation after generation, there is one constant – a love of their students.  I want to say thank-you to all the past and current teachers and administrators of Hillel/OJCS on behalf of all students for the last 75 years…please know your contributions to our lives are immeasurable.

In recognition of 75 years of teaching excellence, a community-wide celebration will be held on Sunday, June 2, 2024 at 2:00PM at KBI.  Please join us for dessert and to toast our beloved current and past teachers and staff!

A Middle School Cell Phone Detox

[NOTE: This is an extended version of an email sent this week to all parents in Grades 6-8.  I share it here as it likely will be of interest to our full OJCS community and possibly some of our fellow-travelers on the journey of schools.]

These are busy times indeed and with the rush of special events and the end of year coming into focus, this may seem like an odd time to launch yet another new initiative.  However, for us, it is always the right time to do what is necessary to ensure the wellbeing of our students.  A number of us on our Educational Leadership Team (beginning with Acting Vice Principal Melissa Thompson) have been reading The Anxious Generation and following the discussion on one of its big ideas, “Wait Until 8th“.  Both deal with the negative impacts of constant and chronic use of smartphones, in particular, on young and developing minds.  For those OJCS families continuing into 2024-2025, you can almost guarantee that will be the ONE BIG IDEA for next year – a leading theme of “Back to School Night”, the subject of parent education sessions, and a series of cohorted book groups focused on Grades 2-4.
But even right now, with just weeks left in the school year, our teachers in the Middle School are reporting an uptick in cell phone usage during school hours with resulting negative behaviours and a negative impact on social interactions.  Now, in theory, this should not be a thing.  Our school’s existing policy on cell phones is clear.  No OJCS student is permitted to possess a cell phone during school hours on campus property.  Yes, for those parents who wish for their children to have cell phones to use to safely navigate before or after school activities, they are permitted to have them, but they are supposed to remain in backpacks for the entire length of the school day.
Needless to say, we have not found complete success with enforcement, and both to calm the currents, and to learn for the future, we have moved forward with a full cell phone detox for middle school students at OJCS from May 15-24th.  Here is what it means: All cell phones that find their way to campus are being collected first period, stored in the office during the day, and returned to students last period.  (Any parent who does not want the school collecting their child(ren)’s cell phone(s), are keeping them home during these days.)  For local folk who follow the conversations with the public board or the Ministry of Education, you will notice that they, too, are shifting their policies in a way that is much more closely aligned with our proposed new direction.
Additionally, we have asked parents for their support in two areas: 1) Any student who wears an AppleWatch or any other kind of Smart Watch is being asked to either leave it at home, have it collected along with the cell phones, or have its connectivity disabled while at school.  We are checking on those students to ensure appropriate use.  2) Even with this detox, students still have their laptops/tablets.  Students are not supposed to be texting, emailing, or messaging with their parents during the school day.  This is impossible to 100% oversee, so even as we ramp up our supervision, we have asked for parent partnership in reminding their child(ren) by either not answering messages that come during school hours or – if parents are truly concerned by a message – to please redirect them to their teachers who are there to help them.
We are only a day or two into this experiment and we are grateful to our parents for their partnership in helping us to better enforce our existing policies.  At OJCS, we want children to be free from distraction and distress while they should be safe at school to learn and to engage with their peers in real life.  We’ll see what happens and will report back our findings and recommendations about next steps.
Thanks to all OJCS Parents who took the time to fill out this year’s Annual Parent Survey!  Although there has been a slight uptick in reponses, we are still far shy of a plurality of students/families.  I am going to keep the survey open until May 21st hoping that the holiday weekend provides you with the additional bandwidth to contribute your feedback.  These results do matter and directly impact programmatic choices, so please take the small amount of time it requires and make your voice heard.

“We are reliving our past”: Holocaust education in the shadow of 10/7

[NOTE: This blog post is written by current OJCS Parent and member of our Board of Trustees, Howie Fremeth.]

All other nations that tried to kill us have perished. Yet we have survived. Look at you.

As the grandson of Holocaust survivors, these words from Marie Doduck to OJCS Grades 5-8 students hit me right in the kishkes

Learning about the Holocaust has always been important to me for as long as I can remember. My bubbie towards the end of her life chose me to share details that she didn’t tell anyone else – even her own children – and help her document her story so that it can be passed down to future generations. Now as a parent, I am only beginning to struggle with what I tell my kids about our family history. So when I had the opportunity to attend this week’s Yom Hashoah Assembly, I knew I had to be there to both observe and show my daughter how much it means to me.  

Born in 1935, Marie Doduck was just five years old when the Nazis conquered her hometown of Brussels and was forced into hiding until the end of the war. Her survival, in her own words, was thanks to a mixture of good luck and the goodwill of many non-Jews who took her in. In 1947, she came to Canada as part of the Jewish Canadian Congress’ Orphan War Project that helped foster Jewish children who had lost their parents in the Holocaust.

For more than an hour, the students had an opportunity to hear Marie’s story. She was particularly keen to spend most of the time answering questions.  I was amazed by how much more the students knew about the history of the Second World War and the Holocaust than I thought they would. They wanted to know everything from details about her daily life routine to her views on the Nazis. 

But it was one student’s question that folded the past into the present: What do you think about the massacre of Israelis on October 7th and the current rise of antisemitism in Canada?    

Marie didn’t hesitate in her response. She said she thinks she’s reliving what happened to her some 80 years ago. She recalled that the violence began with words, so we must call out hate speech before it turns violent. But she did say there was one crucial difference from then and now. 

Today the Jewish people have a country to call our own. She told the students that if Israel existed before the Holocaust, that’s where European Jews would have gone for sanctuary. We now have a place to go if we must leave Canada – a thought that none of us would’ve even imagined a few months ago. But she also said we won’t leave or turn the other cheek like we did when she was a girl in Belgium. We will fight back both here in Canada and in Israel. 

She reminded the students that Israel has one of the most powerful militaries in the world. Her message paralleled something I heard Israel’s Ambassador to Canada Iddo Moed often say in media interviews: we will win this war because we have to win the war. 

I walked out of the assembly thinking how precious it is that my daughter had the opportunity to hear directly from a survivor. While I’m grateful they were able to meet, my daughter was not even five when my bubbie passed away. Thankfully we have a self-published photo album recounting her family history and a translation of her diary – written in a mixture of Yiddish, Russian and Polish with a few of her own drawings throughout the pages – that offers a first-person account of her survival. Yet none of this can compete with hearing directly from a survivor who can also situate the past into the present. 

At a time when protesters distort the Holocaust, chant the genocidal “River to the Sea” slogan and call on Jews to “go back to Europe,” Marie’s story empowers the great grandchildren of Holocaust survivors. It offers meaning for why we continue our traditions – despite the trauma, the costs, and threats we face as they are reminded every day when they see police parked outside their school.  

I know there will be a time soon when we won’t have any more living survivors. Until that day comes, it is incumbent on all of us to hear their stories and ensure that young Canadians from all faiths and backgrounds share in this opportunity. 

Before I conclude, I want to thank our incredible staff and faculty – especially Michael Washerstein – who organized this special experience for our children. 

[Back to Jon:]

I look forward to sharing results from the Annual Parent Survey later this month.  If you have NOT yet contributed and you want your results included, please fill yours out by Monday, May 15th.  Please and thank you!