Leaning Into Forgiveness 5784

We are right now near the finish line of the עשרת ימי תשובה‎ – the ten days of repentance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  Each year, I look forward to the opportunity to pick a personal growth goal general enough to my work with students, teachers, parents, colleagues, community, etc.  By doing this publicly, I hope, it will inspire others to think about how they wish to grow, and provide me with a little public accountability to keep me honest.

This past Rosh Hashanah presented me with the strangest and strongest sense memory – or, perhaps, palpable wave of nostalgia that I can ever remember.  (Forgive this American for making a Thanksgiving reference, choose the memory that works for you.)  I can smell, taste and even feel that sense of “coming home” that only comes from having left home first.  For me, the strongest such memories come from returning home from university for Thanksgiving or Passover, or as I got older, coming home with a friend (girlfriend or otherwise) to spend a holiday at the home I grew up in with my parents.  At some point, what was once routine – the same house with the same people – totally transforms.  If I was to make a Jewish analogy, it takes something that was khol (weekday/mundane) into something kadosh (holy).  And I had almost forgotten how that felt until my older daughter Eliana came home from Queens University for Rosh Hashanah…

Sure, she had only been gone for two weeks and, yes, she’s been away from home for much longer stretches before.  And, yes, who knows what her future post-university holds.  But the feeling of anticipation for her arrival and the giddiness of having her home transformed what a month earlier had been the same four people in the same house from the regular to the special – its fleeting nature made our time together feel like a holiday.

Isn’t all time fleeting?  Don’t we all look back on our family journeys and wonder how it could be that we are at this stage when just a minute ago we were at that stage?  Wasn’t she just born?  Learned how to walk and talk?  Start Kindergarten?  Become a Bat Mitzvah?  Graduate High School?  How can she be that old when I’m not?

Each moment cannot be a holiday, of course, otherwise it would lose its meaning.  But that doesn’t mean we couldn’t or shouldn’t try to elevate the everyday miracles we take for granted into moments of liminality.  And so when I think about teshuvah and seeking “forgiveness” during this time of year, I’m sorry that I have not taken the time or the energy to appreciate what is right in front of me – a wife to treasure, daughters to savor, friends to enjoy, a job which brings me deep fulfillment, and more.  As someone who lost his father too young (as if there is any other way), I should already know better.  But I’m human and, thus, prone to error.

Let this be the year that I spend ten less minutes returning emails and ten more minutes in classrooms with children.  Let this be the year that I spend one less hour drowning in administrivia and one more hour building genuine relationship with a teacher.  Let this be the year that I send more proactive expressions of gratitude to parents than reactive responses to inevitable issues.  Let this be the year that I give myself permission to leave work while the sun still shines to take time to be with friends.  Let this be the year that “work-life balance” moves from cliché to creed.

In the end, let me be sorry now for all the ways in which I have failed to appreciate the opportunity to transform the everyday into moments of meaning so that my sorrow later not become a regret too late to remedy.

Additionally, during this time of introspection, let me take this opportunity to ask forgiveness for anything I have done – purposely or unknowingly – to cause offense or upset during the last year.  I am sincerely sorry and ask for your forgiveness.  As you ponder the purpose of this season for you and your family, I hope you find the time for introspection and the inspiration for the teshuvah you are seeking.  From my family to yours, wishing you a tzom kal (easy fast) and a day of meaning.

G’mar chatimah tovah.

Shofar, So Good: Save the Drama for your Llama

What if the year started and it just went great?

I took a few minutes and peeked back to my last six “Shofar, So Good” blog posts and although they all had lots of wonderful things to share about the first days of school, there was almost always a lens or a frame with which it had to be contextualized.  The last three school years prior to this one was some version of “Despite COVID protocols” or “Even with COVID” or “Coming out of COVID”.  And the years prior to that each had their own “thing” that we were navigating from, through or towards.  I had almost forgotten what it could look like if we “just” had the students, teachers and families to pour all our love and attention into.

Of course, there is always something.  Not everything went or goes according to plan.  But if you were to say, “Hey, Jon, how would you say things are going after the first two weeks of school?”.  Well…surely I would say…

Shofar, so good.

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

…we began our first day with a shared set of “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 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 also used our first day to mark a kind of havdalah – separation – between the summer and the start of school.  [Traditionally, havdalah is the ceremony that marks the end of Shabbat and the beginning of the new week.  We have “adapted” it to mark the beginning and the end of each school year.]  It was actually a pretty warm first day, so we took it to the Gym and with school as big as it has been in years and years, it was thrilling to see that we no longer are able to make one circle – we have graduated to a spiral.

…I wrote at length all about our Middle School Retreat which we’ve never done so early (or so well!).  The hope is that the goodwill and sense of community we build at the retreat follows us back to school, and it is wonderful to see that actually come true.  The vibes upstairs are at all-time highs.  Can’t wait for Middle School to hit those North Stars!

…”STEM” or “STEAM” is not just eduspeak or jargonese.  The meaningful integration of Science, Art and Math happens on a regular basis at OJCS and is frequently amplified through Jewish learning and experiences.  And it is not reserved for our oldest students or our fanciest spaces.  Want proof?  Look at the picture!  This week, JK investigated apples.  They learned about how they grow, what parts they have, what colours they can be, and finally what they taste like!

…how do we leverage our relationships with the many institutions we are blessed to have here in our nation’s capital?  This Grade 5 Social Studies class will be spent the week exploring a “History Box” from the Canadian Museum of History.  Can’t wait to see what these students learned…and what else this relationship will yield.

…thanks to a grant from the Jewish Federation of Ottawa, our Hebrew Faculty has been receiving coaching and support from Hebrew at the Center – the leading institution for promoting Hebrew fluency in Jewish day schools in North American.  We are thrilled with the results so far…we were thrilled to see them highlight work we are doing when the printed an article about us that included…

…and as the week drew to a close and Rosh HaShanah beckoned, how nice for Kitah Alef & Kitah Bet to have spent a morning with Chef (and OJCS parent) Dov Korkh!  The students made round challah, with sweet honey, to prepare for Rosh HaShanah.

Parent volunteerism?  Check!  Jewish learning and experiences?  Check! #Ruach? Check!

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.  5784 is shaping up to be a quite an amazing year!

From our family to yours, “Shanah tovah!”

We look forward to seeing you on Tuesday, September 19th for Back to School Night.  In addition to all the normal things one discusses at Back to School Night, this year we will also be sharing highlights of our new updated “Behaviour Framework” and ways for parents to be even-better partners.

The 2023 OJCS Middle School Retreat: Grit (Connecting the Dots)

It was earlier, hotter and more-strangely located than ever before, but that did not stop us from putting on a super-successful Sixth Annual OJCS Middle School Retreat!  Our theme for the The 2023 Middle School Retreat was the same as it was for our Faculty Pre-Planning Week as it will be for the whole school and the whole year: “Connecting the Dots”.  Over three days, we engaged in two 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 maintain and grow 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 inside, outside, sleepy or wide awake – that our students contributed to this part of the experience.

Here’s a snapshot (or 12) of our experience:

Day #1

Because of this year’s logistical challenges, we reordered the activity blocks, and this entire day was about one thing – whitewater rafting!  We loaded up the buses and found our way to Wilderness Tours where we spent one long, hot day paddling and working the rapids.
We came back to school exhausted and exhilarated!  Everyone went home for a good night’s sleep, and came back with all their things as moved into…


Day #2

Our day got started at school.  We placed our things in our “Cabins” [the Makerspace & the Library] and headed to the Chapel for Middle School Tefillah Orientation.  After that, we moved into our first of two peulot (activities) for the Retreat.  We used the peulot to explore “grit” and to connect it to Rabbi Hillel‘s famous quote from Pirkei Avot,”If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And being for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”.  We created dream boards, discussed passion projects and set some big goals for 2023-2024.
After the peulah, they headed out to Dulude Hill in Carlington Park where they played soccer baseball (that’s “kickball” with a soccer ball for my American friends) and enjoyed a picnic lunch before heading back to OJCS.
Next up students had an opportunity to help prep for dinner and to swim at the Soloway JCC outdoor pool!  After dinner was prepped and swimming wrapped up, students changed into their evening attire and we went into our second peulah.  This one was about “perseverance”.  Again, we studied some text, discussed in pairs, and ended with everyone’s WOOP (Wish-Outcome-Obstacle-Plan) for ensuring a successful 2023-2024.
After that?
Free time!  Dinner!  Dodgeball!  Movie Night!
Day #3
We began the day with a bagel breakfast, an all-middle-school tefillah, and
then boarded buses on our way to Meech Lake for a special activity led by Mr. C , Mr. Ray, and Mr. Washerstein before heading back to school so everyone could go home for a much-needed Shabbat rest!
Please join us for our in-person “Back to School Night” taking place on Tuesday, September 19th from 7:00 – 8:30 PM.  (Although we are not offering a hybrid experience, materials will be made available to parents who are unable to join us.)
Will I have time to squeeze out my annual pun-tastic High Holiday post before Rosh Hashanah?  Stay tuned!

OJCS Faculty Pre-Planning 2023: Connecting the Dots

We’re back! 

This has been an amazing Faculty Pre-Planning Week that has us poised for our biggest and best year yet!  Our teachers consist of one group of amazing returning teachers, and another group of talented new teachers, and the combination is magical.  A school is only as good as its teachers, so…OJCS is in good hands, with all arrows pointing up.  Enrollment is still coming in, and I can safely say that we will be a larger school than the year before for the sixth consecutive school year.

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?  

I 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 2023-2024 the best year yet.

Here’s a curated selection from our activities…

The “Connecting the Dots”  Cafe

Each year (16 years, 7 at OJCS and counting!), I begin “Pre-Planning Week” with an updated version of the “World Café”.  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?  Connecting the Dots!

With a growing school with so many departments, languages, programs, etc., in order to make sure our students, teachers and parents are able to experience OJCS as holistic human beings and to benefit from all we have to offer, we will aim this year to forge the connections, break out of the silos, simplify and streamline where appropriate, facilitate the communication and do less even better.

Here’s what connected collaboration looks like…

Conscious Leadership

Get used to hearing your children locating themselves “above” or “below the line” as we introduced some key ideas from The 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership – read this summer by the Admin – to our fuller faculty.  Every now and again we introduce new “frameworks” that provide a shorthand, a vocabulary, and culture that allows our teachers and our students to make sense of themselves and the world.  The big ideas of “Conscious Leadership” are completely anchored in our North Stars, what we believe to be true about children, the way we think and talk about “regulation”, and along with those other values and ideas, will continue to professionalize ourselves and upgrade our engagement with parents and students.  Do you want to learn along with us?  Check out the following and see if and how you might apply it to either your professional and/or parenting lives:

Next time you have to have a difficult conversation, just let us know if we are bringing you “below the line” and we can help make that positive “shift”.

Connecting the Dots: Behaviour Support @ OJCS


This will be big, the focus of attention at Back to School Night (9/19 @ 7:00 PM), and the subject of its own blog post in the weeks ahead, so please just consider this a “teaser”.  But you should also “connect the dots” between what I wrote near the end last year in my post sharing the results of the Annual Parent Survey:

The one metric that I am disappointed to see take a dip down after three straight positive years is the last one, which essentially serves as a proxy for school-wide behavior management.  Four years ago we scored a 6.69 and I stated that, “we are working on launching a new, school-wide behavior management system next year based on the “7 Habits” and anchored in our “North Stars”.  I will be surprised if this score doesn’t go up next year.”  Well, three years ago it came in at 7.65, two years it climbed up to 8.19, and it remained high at 7.85 last year.  6.73 puts at back at square one – even if it rounds into the acceptable range, and even with a small sample size.  Parents at OJCS can expect to see significant attention being paid to overall behavior management in 2023-2024.

“Significant attention” has been and is being paid.  You can see it reflected in staffing and you will see it reflected here.  For now, remember…

…and know that…

…thanks to the hard work of a lot of people, our new framework is poised to make this our best year yet.  Curious?  Want to know more?  Stay tuned!

Did I do one of my spiritual check-ins on the topic of the “Comfort & Community”?  Sure did!

Did Mrs. Reichstein and Ms. Beswick lead a session on “Bringing the IEP to Life”?

Did Mrs. Bennett, Mr. Max, Mrs. Thompson and I provide differentiated instruction on best practices for Classroom Blogs & Student Blogfolios?  Yessiree!

Did the OJCS Makerspace Team facilitate a hands-on creative session for teachers in the Makerspace now that it is becoming a hub for innovation at OJCS?  (This work is a direct result of an Innovation Capacity Grant from the Jewish Federation of Ottawa!)  Yup!

Did Ms. Gordon go over all the guidelines and protocols and procedures and rules and mandates to keep us all in the know?  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 Tuesday?  And then some!

All that and much more took place during this week of planning.  We are prepared to provide a rigorous, creative, innovative, personalized, and ruach-filled learning experience for each and every one of 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 and a successful launch to the 2023-2024 school year…

BTW – want to hear from our own teachers about who they are and how excited they are for this year?  Introducing our first podcast of the year… Meet the OJCS faculty!  Give our podcast a listen and reply below to let us know what you are most excited about this year!

The Transparency Files: The 2023-2024 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, 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 2023-2024 school year at the Ottawa Jewish Community School.

The quickest of words before I unveil the list…

…the first is to remind you to revisit my last three blog posts where I shared updates about next year’s renovation, our change from trimester to semester, and important ideas and initiatives that will anchor next year.

……the second is to share with you the overarching idea that has animated our two days of what we call “Pre-Pre-Planning” – these two PD days that essentially mark the beginning of the 2023-2024 school year because they focus our teachers on how to set themselves up for a successful summer in service of a successful start to school.  We are focusing our energy on “Connecting the Dots”  – how will we do a better job connecting teachers to each other, teachers to administrators, students to each other, students to teachers, teachers to parents, etc.  One of our North Stars is that “We Learn Better Together” and whether that constitutes academic learning, behavioural outcomes, or Jewish experiences; ensuring we have the structures, systems, processes, protocols, time, relationships and attitude to leverage the excellence, enthusiasm and expertise in our school will be a big part of making next year an amazing year for our students, teachers, families and community.

……the third is to please pay attention to the updated calendar!  We have done a much better job populating our calendar with events much earlier and with a change to semester comes new events like our “Goal-Setting” meetings or changes to the timing of when you might expect “Parent-Teacher Conferences”.  The fact that so many Jewish Holidays will fall on weekends next year allows for more flexibility and creativity including the addition of a third PD Day.  In short, please be sure you not only have the “Year-at-a-Glance” handy, but that you subscribe to the school’s Google calendar off the website.  That’s where all new and updated information will land.

…the fourth is a gentle reminder that the assignments below are tentative as they always are.  Things sometimes can and do change, although we believe this should be much less of a factor this summer, but sometimes we do have to make adjustments.  If an update is required, of course, it will be sent either directly to the impacted grades or in a blog post.

OK, I think I have given a lengthy enough preamble.  Let’s 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 2023-2024 OJCS Faculty & Staff

Lower School General Studies Faculty

  • Junior Kindergarten: Susan Wollock & (EA)
  • Kindergarten: Andréa Black, French Teacher (French) &  (EAs) [TWO Classes]
  • Grade One: Julie Bennett & Efi Mouchou (French) [TWO Classes]
  • Grade Two: Ann-Lynn Rapoport & Efi Mouchou (French) [TWO Classes]
  • Grade Three: Lianna Krantzberg / General Studies Teacher & Aaron Polowin (French) [TWO Classes]
  • Grade Four: Faye Mellenthin, Chelsea Cleveland (Math), Aaron Polowin (Core) & Dr. Sylvie Raymond (Extended)
  • Grade Five: Charles Watters, French Teacher (Core) & Dr. Sylvie Raymond (Extended) [TWO Classes]

Lower School Jewish Studies Faculty

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

Middle School Faculty

  • Science: Josh Ray
  • Mathematics: Math Teacher (Grades 6 & 7) & Josh Ray (Grade 8)
  • Language Arts: Jess Mender
  • Social Studies: Michael Washerstein
  • Extended French: Wanda Canaan
  • Core French: French Teacher (Grade 6) & Dr. Sylvie Raymond (Grades 7 & 8)
  • Hebrew: Jaqui Gesund Kattan (Hebrew Alef), Liat Levy (Hebrew Bet for Grade 6) & Ruthie Lebovich (Hebrew Bet for 7 & 8)
  • Jewish Studies: Mike Washerstein
  • Rabbinics: Corinne Baray


  • Art/Drama/Music/Dance: Andy Sued
  • French Language PE: Stéphane Cinanni & Aaron Polowin
  • Library: Brigitte Ruel


  • Makerspace: Josh Ray
  • Mitzvah Trips: Michael Washerstein
  • Student Life: Lianna Krantzberg

Department of Special Education

  • Keren Gordon, Principal
  • Sharon Reichstein, Director of Special Education
  • Ashley Beswick, Student Support Coordinator
  • Melissa Thompson, Grades 4-8 Resource Teacher / Teaching & Learning Coordinator
  • Faye Mellenthin, Grades 5-8 Resource Teacher
  • Chelsea Cleveland, Grades 1-8  Math Resource Teacher
  • Reading Teacher, Reading Resource Teacher
  • Orya Klein, Jewish Studies Resource Teacher
  • Corinne Baray, Jewish Studies Resource Teacher
  • French Teacher, French Resource Teacher
  • Efi Mouchou, French Resource Teacher


  • Josh Max – Director of Technology
  • Ellie Kamil – Executive Assistant to the Head of School
  • Staci Zemlak-Kenter – Director of Development
  • Emily Jiang – Chief Accountant
  • Jennifer Greenberg – Director of Recruitment
  • Keren Gordon – Principal
  • Dr. Jon Mitzmacher – Head of School

You will see some new names and some new categories…

…the most important thing you should notice, especially in light of recent conversations, is the simplification of teaching portfolios in the service of the expansion of resource teaching.  Not everyone housed in “Resource” is allocated to it half or full-time, but if they are listed there, it is because a meaningful allocation of time, with a specification, has been assigned to an excellent teacher.  This was the number one issue flagged by parents and by teachers and we are thrilled to have addressed it so significantly.

…we are so excited to welcome Melissa Thompson back from maternity leave!  She technically joined us this week and we can already feel her energy and her presence as we prepare for an amazing year next year.

…yes, I am aware that Staci Zemlak-Kenter is moving with her family to New Jersey, but as we continue our search process – and Staci begins her search process – the status remains quo as Staci works remotely to ensure our critical development work continues unimpeded.

Now let’s segue into the introductions…

Please welcome Jaqui Gesund Kattan to OJCS…and to Canada!  Morah Jaqui comes to us from Mexico City where she has been a Hebrew and Humanities Teacher at the Bet Hayladim Middle School.  She has a Montessori background and a wealth of experience working in Jewish Youth Movements in Mexico.  She is excited to be moving to our OJCS and Ottawa Jewish Community and she brings a ton of energy and enthusiasm to our Jewish Studies Faculty.

Andy Sued is thrilled to join our Faculty with a diverse portfolio.  She will be creating and leading our Arts/Drama/Music/Dance programs, as she comes to us by way of Ecuador, Argentina, Israel and Camp Ramah of the Berkshires.  Andy is an artist with a wealth of experience teaching art, drama, singing and Israeli folk-dancing to students of all ages and we welcome her and her family to Ottawa this summer.  Andy is ruach personified and we can’t wait to see how she infuses and integrates the arts with her rich Jewish Studies background and love for Israel.

Orya Klein is moving from Israel to Ottawa with her family after a successful teaching career in Israel where she taught both Mathematics and Jewish Studies in both Middle and High School.  Morah Orya [that’s catchy!] is beloved by her colleagues and they have assured us what a gift we are getting with her natural talents for relationship-building, kindness, creativity and collaboration.

We are thrilled to introduce Charles Watters, our new Grade 5 General Studies teacher, who began his career as a Naval Officer with the Canadian Armed Forces, and as a second career then became a teacher, who always prioritises cultivating strong relationships.  He has managed to collect all kinds of varying teaching experiences thus far, including working in a Forest School setting, as well as an alternative independent school.  We look forward to making formal introductions at the end of summer.

If you see an open position, it truly means that we have not yet signed a contract with a finalist (not that we are simply beginning to search) as we have been blessed this season with excellent candidates (as you can see above).  I will provide an updated and final faculty roster later on during the summer.

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 2023.

Happy summer!

We Each Have Our Torah to Teach: My Charge to the OJCS Graduating Class of 2023

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

I was sitting in this room a few weeks ago listening to Rabbi Kenter offer his final sermon in our community, and he shared that he had learned in rabbinical school that essentially a rabbi only shares one sermon – in lots of different ways, offered many times over, but with one essential idea that is a marriage of who that rabbi is and what he or she is called to share.  This idea – that we each have one sermon to preach, one story to tell, one contribution to make, and that we spend our lives figuring out what it is and how to do it resonates with me and will be something I continue to wrestle with.  But for tonight, the question it inspires is, “What would it mean to know that we each have our own unique torah to teach and how might time spent in Jewish day school help us to both learn our torah and learn how to teach our torah?

Of course, when I say “torah” I mean it both literally and metaphorically.  Our students have, of course, learned much actual Torah during their many years of spiral parashat ha’shavuah, deep dives into powerful narratives from Tanakh, explorations into the origins and traditions of holidays of both Biblical and rabbinic origins, and by dipping their toes into the Sea of Talmud.  And our students have taught Torah frequently as well, especially through the process of writing and delivering divrei torah while in Middle School (not to mention the parallel learning that takes place during the b’nei mitzvah process).  But more broadly, tradition encourages us to adopt a less-narrow view of “torah” to include much of what constitutes an OJCS education.  They have studied the “torah” of Math, Science, Social Studies, French, English, and all other subjects and topics of learning during their years is school and have learned to teach that torah through the many projects, blog posts, public speaking events and other creative opportunities our teachers provide for our students to share their learning.  But academics are only one facet of the “torah” our students learn and learn to teach at OJCS.  They experience the “torah” of art, music, drama and PE.  They learn the “torah” of leadership through Reading Buddies, Knesset, and Maccabiah.  They experience the “torah” of community through retreats, trips, assemblies and holiday celebrations.  And, of course, they put actual Torah into action through the many tikkun olam projects they plan and participate in through our relationships with the JCC, Hillel Lodge, Tamir, TIPES, the Kosher Food Bank, the Jewish Cemetery, our new Middle School Mitzvah Trip experiences, with more and more meaningful opportunities being developed each year.  Whether we mean “torah” in the narrowest or most expansive sense, our graduates have spent years wrestling and learning and trying and growing and teaching and sharing torah.

Graduates.  Now, as you prepare to leave OJCS and move onto new adventures, we hope that your time here has helped you consider what your one true sermon is and how you will share it with the world.  What is your torah to teach and how will you teach it?  How will you continue to learn and how will you continue to share what you learn?  How will you apply your learning to making the world around you a better place?  What will be your unique contribution to your families, your schools, your Jewish communities, your larger community, and the world?  Standing here, I say with great confidence that although I cannot know how each of the stories of your lives will be written, I do know that based on the strong foundation your parents have provided you with through the gift of Jewish day school, that you will continue to write Jewish stories of significance and we will follow those stories with pride, with wonder and with gratitude.”

Ken y’hi ratzon.

Coming Attractions

We are headed into the last two-action packed weeks of the 2022-2023 school year!  WHAT A YEAR!  The theme, coming out of COVID, was “getting our mojo back” and back our mojo has been.  A quick perusal of my weekly blog posts paint a picture of a year where pauses became unpaused, progress was made across a whole host of school systems and processes, and challenges made themselves clear.  That’s what school is all about.  Not everything is perfect, there is more work to do to be our best self, but each year we reach closer to our North Stars.  I am so proud of our teachers, our students and our families for all that we have done this year…and I am very excited for what the next year is scheduled to bring.

Speaking of…

This will likely be my third-to-last weekly blog post before moving into summer mode.  I will take next week off as it is my pleasure to accompany our Grade 8s on their GRAD Trip to NYC.  During our last week of school, I will share the content of my charge to our graduates and – as always – share what we know to be true about who our amazing 2023-2024 faculty and staff will be and what they will be doing (including any openings to be filled).  So what does that leave for this week?

This will be the third of my updates on all things next year.  Two weeks ago, I provided an important update on the building renovation.  Last week, I shared the news of our transition from trimester to semester and why.  This week, I will move into rapid-fire mode, with a bullet-pointed list of things to know or to keep an eye out towards as we head into summer.

Here’s what to know in literally no particular order…

  • We have had so much success this year with launching the internationally recognized French DELF certification process for our Grade 8 Extended French students and look forward to extending it further to our whole Grade 8 cohort next school year.  Students who pass will enter high school with a confirmed level of irrefutable functioning and gain access to the programs they have their eyes set on.
  • We will restore the Middle School schedule on Fridays so that we are better able to run Jewish Studies as per normal on the weeks we don’t have an amazing “Mitzvah Trip” planned.  This will ensure that we are only sacrificing academic time when the activity is worthy, which will make the Mitzvah Trips more meaningful and minimize and mitigate loss from other Jewish Studies coursework.
  • Speaking of “Mitzvah Trips” we have a VERY EXCITING NAMING ANNOUNCEMENT coming this fall that will – FOR SURE – warm your heart and make you proud to be part of our special community.  Stay tuned!
  • Speaking of “Jewish Studies coursework”, as part of a long-term goal to increase the rigor and the opportunity to engage with rabbinic text, we will transition our Rabbinics Course from a three-day-a-week to a five-day-a-week course and transition our Jewish Ethics & Values Course in reverse.  This will be better aligned with the content and our priorities.
  • As shared by email, we have updated our Acceptable Use Policy for Technology to account for VPNs to ensure our students are only able to access safe and appropriate websites, apps and platforms while at school.
  • We will hire an additional resource teacher next year to make meaningful progress towards relieving the stress on our system.  This is the #1 issue raised by both parents and teachers and although this move may not fully resolve the issue, it is a significant step in the right direction.  We’ll have more to share on this as the Special Education Department finishes a needs assessment based on next year’s enrollment.
  • In order to be better aligned with the “Science of Reading” and with where Canadian schools are heading, we are moving away from STAR Reading as one of our primary assessment tools and will be training our teachers on Amplify.  Parents will definitely notice the difference and not just come progress report/report card/parent-teacher conference time.  In addition to the Amplify platform, our teachers will continue to use a Structured Word Inquiry approach also supported by the Science of Reading for reading and spelling instruction. Our primary teachers (K-2) will also be trained using the UFLI Foundations program to enhance and solidify phonemic awareness skills in our youngest students.
  • We are working through an entire reorganization of the systems in our school that deal with behavior management and classroom discipline.  It will include different roles for both the Principal and the Head of School, as well as a different allocation of responsibilities within and outside the Special Education Department.  It will continue to be anchored in our North Stars and aligned with the 7 Habits, and the continued work we are doing within the framework of Collaborative Problem Solving, but redesigned to be more clear, more streamlined and, most importantly, better set up our students and our classes for success.  This is the #2 issue raised by parents and by teachers and making significant progress next year is a necessity.
  • The Jewish Studies Faculty will continue to have access to a consultant from Hebrew at the Center so that we can progress on our goal of putting in writing a full set of benchmarks and standards for Jewish Studies at OJCS.  This is a multiyear project (to do it correctly) and this will be Year Two.  We are eager to put in parents’ hands more detail about what they can expect their children to be learning in Jewish Studies and welcome the accountability that such specificity invites.

Is there more than this?  Of course, but we can’t give away all the excitement and surprises here!  (Plus I could use a few topics for blog posts during the dog days of summer.)

Feel free to follow the fun on social when OJCS Takes Manhattan next week!

2>3: Moving from Trimester to Semester (and Why It Matters)

Why is the OJCS calendar organized into trimesters?  What difference does it make?

The answer to the first question is simple.  The answer to the second question is meaningful.

Why trimesters?

Well, when I arrived at OJCS, we were technically operating on a semester model, but when one looked at how and when teachers were reporting on academic progress to parents, it kinda looked like trimesters with the distinction failing to find meaning.  Technically, parents received a “progress report” about a third of the way into the school year and then had two report cards and two rounds of parent-teacher conferences.  The “progress report” and the “report cards” were not entirely the same, but they were not different enough to warrant the difference.  So…if we were offering feedback three times a year anyway…why not simply divide the year into thirds and keep it simple?  And so we did.

Is there anything educationally more significant for a JK-8 to operate by trimester?  Does it matter how you divide up the year?  Why not operate by semesters?

Good questions!

Let’s begin with the end in mind.  Beginning in 2023-2024, OJCS will operate by semester.  Partly why we haven’t (yet) given out the full calendar is that we are working with the teachers to clarify what that will or won’t exactly mean by way of parent engagement.  But even as we work to clarify and disseminate by the end of the school year, let’s name what will and won’t be true next year.

If you think of the year with a narrative arc for parent engagement, it would look like this…

  • PTA Back to School BBQ
  • Back to School Night (September)
  • Goal-Setting Meeting (October-November)
  • First Semester Report Cards & Parent-Teacher Conferences (January-February)
  • Second Semester Report Cards (June)

On the one hand, this represents the same quantity of opportunity, even if distributed differently.  However, there are four things to pay attention to with this proposed shift:

  1. We love the idea of bringing parents (and possibly students) together in late October-early November to share the goal-setting that we have done with our students.  It is a great opportunity to strengthen and clarify the school-family partnership, to personalize the learning, to build in student accountability and to set students up for success.
  2. Moving to a semester model increases the odds of our successfully making the switch in (some) grades from traditional Parent-Teacher Conferences to Student-Led Conferences.  More time to prepare, more artifacts to collect and an easier connection to goal-setting, all lend themselves to our students better “owning their own learning” (North Star Alert!) by playing a more active role in giving and receiving feedback.
  3. We may need to build in an engagement point between late January-early February and June.  Whether that comes in the form of (true) “progress reports” or updates from “goal-setting” or something entirely new, it may be true that we cannot reasonably go that long without formal parent engagement.
  4. We have not yet clarified the timing/structure of either the “goal-setting” or the Parent-Teacher (or Student-Led) Conferences.  We are actively working with the teachers on doing so since we need to provide parents with all partial and/or full school closures with proper notice.  But with more students than ever and a greater desire for engagement, the way we have allocated time for these conversations may shift if they are going to be meaningful.

We are looking forward to using the process to clarify the quantity of parent engagement to amplify the quality of parent engagement.  We will share out soon (this June) the calendar implications.  We will share out later (August?) the additional educational implications once decisions have been made.  We look forward to strengthening our partnership with parents and setting up our students for success through better engagement.

Consider this the second brief (for me!) blog post (last week’s update on the building being the first) in a small series attempting to name and clarify important updates and changes as we begin the gentle pivot towards next year.  More to come in the weeks ahead…

A Floor AND a Ceiling (and furniture and tech and paint)

So…it is June and you are probably wondering where are all the signs of pending construction if this project is scheduled to begin the first week in July?  That is a reasonable question and one I’ll answer here.

Let’s first dip back in time to when we first made the announcement of a $1.5 million gift to transform classrooms and learning spaces at OJCS.  Ever since, we have been working hard with our friends at Figurr on design and costing.  There is no question as to which of those two has been more fun!  COVID, time and inflation have not been on our side as we only have limited windows of time for construction and costs have gone up.  Heading into 2022-2023, we believed that we were on track for this project – now split into two phases and with $2 million pledged from the extraordinary, generous and anonymous donor – with Phase I ready to begin this summer.  We finalized the base building needs, the overall design, and much of the tech and furniture; we hired a general contractor, secured permits and bid out the work.  We even figured out contingency planning for when the work (inevitably) goes long and classes need to be held in alternative locations.  We got close to being able to pull it all together to trigger construction on July 1…but not close enough.

As we were finalizing all the “this needs to be true”s for Campus, the school, teachers, families, etc., it became clear that trying to rush for a July 1 start date left too many opportunities for mistakes on a project too important not to get completely right.  And so that means what you might imagine it means.  Mostly.

Instead of launching Phase I – which is intended to include a complete transformation of the first floor, lobby and hallways, as well as classrooms, ceilings, walls, lighting, and lockers AND furniture, tech and paint across the whole school – the first week in July and planning for the first floor to relocate for this August and September, we are now planning to launch Phase I in May 2024, relocating classes for (possibly) part of May and June so that it is completely ready by the first day of school in 2024-2025.  (Phase II would look to launch the summer of 2025.)  We’ll have much more detail about this “relocation” and what it means once we get into next year.

Are we disappointed?


How will we mitigate that disappointment?

Partly by doing a much better job sharing high-quality renderings of the work around school and on our website.  Partly by investing students and teachers in the furniture and tech selection now that we have more time to work with.

Should we anticipate future delays?

We can’t completely predict the future, but certainly when it comes to “Phase I” I do not anticipate additional delays.  There is no reason to believe that we will not begin this project on the new timeline in the way I have described.

As much as it would have been nice to start our 75th Anniversary Year in partially new digs, there is also a nice symmetry to launching our renovation as a capstone to our 75th Anniversary Year and a bridge to what we hope will be our next 75 years.  We know that most important learning is what happens inside and outside the walls, not the wall themselves.  We also know that schools in disrepair are the ones who make those claims.  Our students deserve a physical learning environment on par with the excellence we provide and aspire towards in every other part of our program.  And they will have it, and have it soon.

Just not as soon as we had hoped.

We will do a better job keeping you updated on this project, including what to expect come next May when we formally launch.  In the meanwhile, you will have greater access to designs and samples and should you have any questions, concerns, feedback or suggestions, please don’t hesitate to be in touch.  I look forward to a North Star that is not just about floors with no ceilings, but floors with ceilings, hallways with appropriate lockers and learning nooks, classrooms with appropriate furniture and technology, and a school that looks as innovative as it educates.

Taking the Next Step in Your “Inspiring Jewish Journey”

[This is the brief dvar that I shared with Kitah Bet, their parents, grandparents, and special friends on Thursday, May 25th in honour of their Chagigat He’Chumah (Chumash Party).]

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

In our school, we try to capture the essence of this story through the notion of “journey”.  In a school as diverse as OJCS, we land at “journey” as the right “North Star” to aim towards because we can neither predict where a student’s – or family’s – Jewish journey begins, nor where it is headed.  What we can do – and try to in ways big and small – is to inspire movement.  On a day like today, heading into the holiday of Shavuot, a midrash connected to the day is worth exploring just for a bit because it best captures the methodology and the pedagogy we use at OJCS to inspire Jewish journeys  – and that is the idea of “na’aseh v’nishma” (Exodus 24:7).

The midrash is as follows:

When the Children of Israel were offered the Torah they enthusiastically accepted the prescriptive mitzvot (commandments) as God’s gift.  Israel collectively proclaimed the words “na’aseh v’nishma “, “we will do mitzvot and then we will understand them”.  Judaism places an emphasis on performance and understanding spirituality, values, community, and the self through deed.

Simply put, we learn best by doing.

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 a trophy to sit upon a shelf, but a tool to continue the Jewish journey they are just beginning.  It is our hope and our prayer that the work we have begun together as partners – parents and teachers; home and school – continue in the years ahead to provide our children with Jewish moments of meaning and Jewish experiences of consequence so that they can continue to receive and accept Torah in their own unique way, infused by a love of Judaism, informed by Jewish wisdom and aligned with Jewish values.

Thank you.

Thank you to the parents who have sacrificed in ways known and unknown to give your children the gift of Jewish day school.  Thank you for entrusting us with the sacred responsibility of educating your children.  It is not something that we take for granted.

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

Mazal Tov & Chag Sameach!