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.

Author: Jon Mitzmacher

Dr. Jon Mitzmacher is the Head of the Ottawa Jewish Community School. Jon is studying to be a rabbi at the Academy for Jewish Religion and is on the faculty of the Day School Leadership Training Institute (DSLTI) as a mentor. He was most recently the VP of Innovation for Prizmah: Center for Jewish Day Schools.  He is the former Executive Director of the Schechter Day School Network.  He is also the former head of the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School, a K-8 Solomon Schechter, located in Jacksonville, FL, and part of the Jacksonville Jewish Center.  He was the founding head of the Solomon Schechter Day School of Las Vegas.  Jon has worked in all aspects of Jewish Education from camping to congregations and everything in between.