How Did “Going to School” Become an Act of Courage?

I do not have any media training, but I know a good line.  And after having done more media hits than I ever would have imagined (and I imagined “zero” so it isn’t that many), the one that seems to resonate the most is the one that still seems the craziest no matter how true:

The choice to open up school should not be considered an act of bravery; the choice to send your children to school should not be considered an act of courage.

And yet that is the current state of affairs here in the Jewish Community School in our nation’s capital.  We have parents afraid to send their children to school because of the rise of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism.  We have parents from other local schools looking to move their children to our school because of the rise of anti-Semitism.  We have welcomed new Israeli families forced to leave Israel because of the events of October 7th.  We have all of that at the same time – we are scared to stand together too visibly and we are scared not to stand together so as not to feel invisible.  We are devastated by what is happening in Israel and we are depressed by what is happening around the corner.  We are defiant and we are resilient and we are confused and we are exhausted…so exhausted.

My favourite picture of the month is the one featured above – new Israeli students gazing at this thing called “snow”.  (And they don’t know the half of it.)  Our school is so grateful that it is able to make a meaningful contribution at this time by creating a space for Israeli children to be just that – children.  To gaze in wonder at the frozen water dripping from the sky at least for a small while not having to wonder about the wider world and what comes next.  We are a school, and that is supposed to be a safe place for children.  Canadian Jewish Day Schools are not supposed to be shot at overnight, or receive bomb threats, or be protested.  The eight year-olds at our Jewish school in Ottawa are not orchestrating the Israel Defense Forces in Gaza.  It would never occur to anyone in the Jewish community I know to find a local madrassa in Ottawa and terrorize their children because we are upset at Hamas.  How are we living in a world where it makes sense to attempt to terrorize Jewish children for decisions made by a government thousands of miles away?  You want to peacefully protest Israel?  Go for it.  But making parents afraid to send their children to school?

How do we explain to the children in our school what is happening without traumatizing them?  We use examples from Jewish history and from Jewish text to nourish and to inspire.  We pray and we write letters and we donate and we welcome new Israeli friends.  We teach media literacy and fact from fiction.  We lobby and we advocate.  We stand together.

How do we ensure our children get to be children?  We play and we learn Math and we learn French and we learn Science.  We have assemblies and we have field trips and we have special programs.  We laugh and we sing and we do all the normal things.  We stand together.

I don’t know how long this delicate dance will continue.  Each day we calibrate how much space this should take up at each grade-level.  Each day we muster up the strength to teach and to love our students, even when brokenhearted.  Each day we come prepared for noise, but pray for quiet.  Each week we share news about security hoping it will be the last week it is needed.

The goal of terrorism is to cause terror and I’d be lying if I said it hasn’t had an effect.  But we refuse to stand down or to stand still.  This is an inflection point and our children will be shaped by what we do now.  Am Yisrael Chai is not a hashtag, but an imperative.  Am Yisrael Chai isn’t just the rallies and the marches – however important those things are – it is living a Jewish life in full and in the open.  I’ve never been prouder to run a Jewish day school.  What we do now ensures that the next generation will stand up and stand with Israel when it inevitably becomes necessary.  What we do now helps ensure that there will be an Israel, which with the rise of anti-Semitism reveals itself to be more needed than ever.

It is true that operating a school shouldn’t be an act of courage, but if it is, colour our school courageous – from the admin to the teachers to the office to the security guards to the maintenance people.  And it is true that sending your children to school shouldn’t be an act of bravery, but if it is let Am Yisrael Chai be sending your children to a Jewish school open to receive them with loving arms.  Each day the school bell rings, the doors open, Jewish children enter with smiles, and we participate in the miracle of Am Yisrael Chai.  Today, tomorrow and forever.  Ken y’hi ratzon.

OJCS Announces “The Rabbi Bulka Kindness Project”

What a world when an event months in the making has to be postponed, especially when the confluence of Remembrance Day with what is happening in Israel created an unexpected opportunity to make meaningful connections.  For the Ottawa Jewish Community School, it took what was supposed to be a very special event and has amplified it with deeply poignant emotional resonance…

Rabbi Bulka Z”l was a towering figure in Jewish Ottawa, Jewish Canada, and Canada, and his passing left a hole too big for any one person or institution to fill and a legacy too diverse for any one person or institution to carry.  As was true for many organizations in Ottawa, Rabbi Bulka played a pivotal role in the life of OJCS (née Hillel Academy).  And OJCS, like so many of those organizations has been wrestling with the best way to honour Rabbi Bulka’s legacy – what could or should we do that aligns with Rabbi Bulka’s rabbinate?  The answer turned out to be both obvious and powerful.

Kindness.

For Rabbi Bulka, “kindness” was a calling and a way of life.  For Rabbi Bulka to promote kindness was as obvious as to not wear a coat regardless of weather – it is just what he did.  And it was what he wanted all of us to do and to promote as well.  And with that recognition, the rest of it fell into place pretty quickly.

We had already launched what we were calling “mitzvah trips” in our Middle School.  This revamping of our Jewish Studies Program in Middle School is predicated on the idea that Torah leads to deeds AND deeds lead to Torah (Kiddushin 40b).  Our plan – which is in process – is to create a fully integrated Jewish Studies / Tikkun Olam (Social Justice) program in which the texts our students learn Monday-Thursday gets put into action on Friday, each and every week.  Aligned with our school’s core values of “We own our own learning,” and “We are each responsible one to the other,” we are in the process of creating a committee of students, teachers, parents, and community leaders to develop this curriculum which integrates key Jewish values, deep textual learning and practical hands-on projects.  For example, during a week (or unit), students in Grade 6 would study on Monday-Thursday texts that describe the ethical treatment of animals and then on Friday go out into the community and volunteer in animal shelters.  Students in Grade 7 would study texts that help us understand our responsibility to feed the hungry and then on Friday go out into the community and either feed the hungry, or volunteer in both kosher and community food banks.

We will provide our students with experiences that inspire them to learn and we will help our students make personal connections between what they learn in school and the larger world around them.  We want our students (and families) to recognize that part of being human is to make the world a better place, and that doing so requires both learning and doing.  In other words, we want to nurture, foster, cultivate and celebrate “kindness”.

Months ago, we approached Rabbi Bulka’s family and after a meaningful set of conversations, we are thrilled to announce they have blessed us with permission to officially name this critical program the Rabbi Bulka Kindness Project.  We also approached Kind Canada and we are equally thrilled to announce that the Rabbi Bulka Kindness Project will be funded by Kind Canada.  What a blessing for our school and our community to be able to hold up and contribute to the perpetuation of at least one pillar of Rabbi Bulka’s legacy.

When thinking about the best time and way to share this news and to celebrate what it means, we connected yet another dot.  Military chaplaincy was a passion of Rabbi Bulka’s and he gave many a Remembrance Day address.  We reached out to Beechwood Cemetery and they immediately offered not only to host our school, but out of recognition for Rabbi Bulka’s contribution to Canada’s military, agreed to dedicate a Vimy Oak in his memory.

And that is why the Middle School of the Ottawa Jewish Community School was supposed to be at Beechwood Cemetery on Thursday.  We were supposed to spend a powerful morning commemorating Remembrance Day, dedicating a Vimy Oak, learning more about the remarkable life and legacy of Rabbi Bulka from Rabbi Scher of Congregation Machzikei Hadas, and announcing the Rabbi Bulka Kindness Project.  All of this was planned before the horrific events of October 7th, but instead of casting a shadow, we wanted to let Rabbi Bulka’s memory and words shine a light.  As part of the ceremony, students were going to read aloud from Rabbi Bulka’s last Remembrance Day addresses in 2020.  His words were powerful then; now, with all that is going on in Israel and the ripple effects here at home, they are more important than ever.

Sadly, the event itself is now delayed.  We look forward to doing it safely and proudly when the world calms down enough to allow for it.  We could have delayed this announcement as well.  But this is a really good thing.  And our school and our community can use all the good things we can get right now.  And so we share.

Thanks to the Rabbi Bulka Kindness Project @ OJCS, Rabbi Bulka and his legacy of Kindness will now be forever front and center at the Ottawa Jewish Community School.  Ken y’hi ratzon.

I Just Need Something Light & Normal: Annual Blog Cloud

As I wrote last week, I just can’t decide if to blog and about what.  I realize that it would be perfectly acceptable not to, considering all the things.  I will say that the force of habit weekly blogging for over 10 years has built up, makes it almost impossible for me not to, so it seems like the way I am navigating things is a toggling back and forth from posts that are “normal” and posts that are “current”.  This week, I just want to write something light and, thus…

…it is a perfect time for one of my favorite little blog posts…running my blog through a “word cloud” program and seeing what happens!

If you missed last year’s punny post

I genuinely do enjoy this annual exercise in “word-clouding”.  If you are unfamiliar with the idea, in a nutshell, word clouds (through an algorithm only they know) take any piece of written text and represents it graphically in a way which highlights frequently-used words.  It is a fantastic device for visually summarizing the essence of a written text.  Another great feature is that, not only can you cut-and-paste in any written document, you can type in blogs, websites, etc., and it will go back and search them for content, add it all up, and spit out a word cloud representing the sum of all its written content.

This is my seventh such annual post here at OJCS and I have done them each, as stated above, in November.  So, what does this year’s “blog cloud” look like and what does it reveal?  [If it is too small on your screen/device you can go ahead and zoom in.  Or just scroll up!]

 

I just put last and this years’ clouds side-by-side to do a little comparison.

“Jewish”, “Learning” and “Time” remain strong.  Not surprisingly “Goal” made it in.  (We are doing our goal-setting conferences as I type.)  Israel is also not surprisingly more prominent than last year at this time.

“Students” and “Parents” have also returned to prominence.  “Blog” and “Make” are highlighted which makes sense based on our programmatic priorities.

I love to see “Feel” and “Experience” and “Build” and “Plan” make this year’s list.  “Share” is pretty nice to see as well.

What words would you have expected to see?  What words are you surprised to see?

If you see something interesting in my OJCS “blog cloud” let me know in the comments!

And there you go.  A normal post written at a normal length.  It feels good for just a few minutes to act as if things are as they ought to be.  I look forward to a time when all my posts can be this simple.  (But definitely not this short – who can express a coherent thought in less than 1000 words?)

Four Better Questions Than “Are You OK?”

Each morning our students enter school to the sounds of Israeli songs of peace…

Each time we do Tefillah we add tehillim (psalms) and/or special prayers for Israel, the IDF and/or the missing and the kidnapped…

Each week we revisit our layers of security according to what is true and communicate carefully and clearly to our families…

Each day we decide how much “current events” should or shouldn’t be part of each particular grade and class…

Each week brings a new rally or vigil…including this weekend…

Each day brings new and worthy charities and causes to support…

Each week brings new Israeli families to our community and to our school…

Each child in our school, each parent in our community, each teacher in our classroom is differently touched by what is happening each and every moment of the day…

…it makes a routine like “weekly blogging” feel like nothing more than spitting into the wind.

Two weeks ago, I blogged explicitly on the pain and sadness we are experiencing as a result of the terrorist attacks on our beloved Israel.  It felt important to say those words and, maybe, it provided me with a hint of catharsis.

Last week, I blogged about the launch of our school’s new “Goal-Setting Conferences” coming in a few weeks.  It felt important to share a truly meaningful change in our school’s approach to parent and student engagement, and, maybe, it provided me with a hint of normalcy.

This week?  I feel stuck.

All the blog posts have already been written.

I could write about the coming dissonance between those who have already started to move on a bit and those who are still sitting still in the thick of it.  This is true for our students, our teachers, our parents, our community and – for sure- the wider world.  But someone smarter than I has already written it.

I could write about the challenges our alumni are experiencing in high schools and universities throughout Canada (including my own daughters) with anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism and leaders too careful (or too scared) to call it by its name.  But everyone is writing about that and ten minutes of doomscrolling on X (Twitter) is more than enough.

I could write about the impact of trauma on leaders of Jewish schools and institutions.  But I just came back from a Day School Leadership Training Institute (DSLTI) Retreat on this topic and there are books and articles you can Google that will tell you all you need to know.

Or.

I could write my first “Tour of the OJCS Blogosphere” where I highlight the amazing work that our teachers and students produce and share with the world.  But it just doesn’t feel like this is the time for that kind of post.  (Don’t worry…that post is coming one of these weeks.)

Or.

I could skip a week.  I could give myself permission not to blog.  Other than my mother, my wife, my friend Nancy and my Aunt Donna…I mean…

Of course, I’m nearly 500 words in now so I guess that’s out.

So here is what I will do.  A simple request.  If you are feeling like asking people if they are okay feels a bit trite or tone-deaf these days, but you want to show that you care…please take time this week to ask all the people you care about in your life, these four questions (yes, of course it had to be “four questions”):

  1. Are you getting enough sleep?
  2. Are you getting enough exercise or fresh air?
  3. Are you eating healthily and properly?
  4. What can I do?

If we can each do that for a few people in our lives this week, maybe, just maybe, it will be a slightly better week than the one before.

Ken y’hi ratzon.

Introducing Goal-Setting Conferences at OJCS

[General Note: It still feels awkward pivoting towards “normal” school conversations when the situation in Israel rages on and we are all still carrying varying degrees of anxiety, pain and sadness about what has happened and what still may be yet to come.  However, part of how we create psychological safety is by carrying forward with as much normalcy as feels appropriate and respectful.  And so it is in that spirit that I share framing thoughts about this year’s inaugural “Goal-Setting Conferences”.]

[OJCS Parent Note: Yes, you got a much more detailed version of this via email earlier this week.  Feel free to read this edited version for additional clarity…or…please read this edited version if you feel asleep halfway through the email.]

In June of last year, I blogged out the rationale for us shifting from “trimester” to “semester” and in that post, I shared the following:
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.
And so we shall.
One of the “7 Habits” that anchors a lot of the work in our school is “Begin with the End in Mind” and one of our North Stars is “We Own Our Learning”.  There is a lot of research about the importance of students of all ages learning how to set goals and learning how to create plans to achieve those goals.  Here is an article from this past January that I think frames it well.  One takeaway from the article is that,
Students are people too, and like all people, they benefit from having goals. Learning goals, much like life goals, can help students in a number of ways.
Here is a brief summary of those ways:
  • They help students stay focused.
  • They help students measure their progress.
  • They help make students accountable for their learning.
  • They help to motivate students.
Another article on goal-setting that I really like adds a few more critical points about the benefits of goal-setting on students of all ages:
  • Set a clear path to success.
  • Learn time management and preparedness.
  • Boost self-confidence.
  • Provide challenges.
For all these reasons and more we believe that the time we are spending teaching our children – again, I keep emphasizing at every grade-level because this can be, and is, for students of every grade – what “goals” are, how to set them and make a plan for success, how to measure progress, how to reflect on the learning journey, etc..  It is time well-invested to set our children up to not only do their best in school, but in life.  As parents will see, goals are not only limited to academics, but to all aspects of schooling (art, music, PE, etc.) and life (friendships, self-control, positive mindset, etc.).
Things are already happening and things are set to launch.  Teachers have already begun teaching in developmentally appropriate ways what “goals” are, why they work and how to use them.  Teachers have also begun meeting individually with students to set goals for this year.  Parents are receiving information from teachers with more details about how all of this is working at different children’s grade-levels, and how parents can also contribute by both discussing goals at home and by coming to “Goal-Setting Conferences” with goals that they have for their children.
This pilot is strongly encouraging that parents bring children to school for these conferences.  We’ve finessed the timing and the team nature to allow this to be comfortable and doable at each grade-level.  We will have teachers and support on-site so that parents have a supervised landing slot for siblings.  We also understand that there could be conversations that a parent would prefer to have without their child present and thereto, the supervised locations can come into service.  We additionally understand that virtual conferences were helpful for some families and will continue to offer them, although hoping they will be restricted to just those who could not otherwise participate.  (And even there we encourage student participation.)
We are very much looking forward to this parent engagement opportunity.  Now, more than ever, we feel the value of the strength of our community.  We are partners with parents on the journey of children’s lives while at OJCS and we feel the weight and the joy of that now, more than ever.

The Question That Broke My Heart

“Dr. Mitzmacher…what if Israel is destroyed?  What happens to the Jewish People?  What happens to us?”

This is a real question that a child – multiple children – asked me at a Middle School Town Hall on Tuesday morning.  In 2023.  Seventy-five years after the modern State of Israel came into existence.  And I have been gutted ever since…

I can tell you what I said, hoping and believing it to be true.  I said that he should not be trying to carry the weight of such a thing right now.  That as awful as it all is, and still may be, that he doesn’t have to worry that there won’t be an Israel.  And then I paused.  And then I said that it is also true that for thousands of years there was a Jewish People without an Israel and that the true lesson of Jewish History is that we survive, we carry forward, we rebuild, and we thrive.  No matter what.  Always and forever.  Am Yisrael Chai.  That’s what I said.  And at no point in my life did I ever believe for a nanosecond that it might not be true.  And in my heart of hearts, I don’t believe it now.  But my belief is wrapped in fear and doubt.

This is not a blog post where I share resources.

I have been overwhelmed with requests from Jewish teachers in public and private schools, from Jewish parents from the larger Ottawa Jewish Community, and from public and private schools themselves – all looking for resources, for ideas, and in some cases for direct help in teaching, in facilitating experiences, talking with kids and families, etc.  And it is my pleasure to be of service.  I’d like to think the “Community” in the Ottawa Jewish Community School is more than just an adjective describing who is in our school, but for who we serve as a school.  I will continue to do whatever I can in support of larger Jewish Ottawa.

This is not a blog post where I make you feel better.

I have a GoogleDoc whose entire purpose is keeping track of who in our OJCS Extended Family has been called into duty, kidnapped or murdered.  How is that possible?  The only thing worse than having to create the document is to have to keep editing it, and not for the better.  Because of our school’s significant number of Israeli families and faculty, there is not one child or adult at OJCS who does not personally know someone who is directly impacted by the ongoing tragedy in Israel.  Not one.  Consciously or not; known or not – these last days have been a delicate dance between the need to provide our students with a sense of normalcy and safety and joy, and the reality that many of our students – and parents and teachers – are struggling with sadness and trauma.  I don’t know that we are getting it right, but we are doing our best.

And teachers…

The hardest thing we ask our teachers to do is to come to work with broken and heavy hearts and be present for our children.  For some the distraction of work is welcome, for some the smiles of children a salve, but for most the anxiety and the fear and the pain are right below the surface.  All through the week, teachers have had to pause, to take a break so they can break down, and to put themselves back together.  Spontaneous moments of solidarity, wordless hugs and tearful nods of mutual recognition dot the day.  I have never been more proud to work in a Jewish school.  For those of us who believe education is a calling, it is to this that we have been called.  And our teachers not only answer the call, they do so with love.

This is not a blog post about security.

Those conversations are internally focused for all the right reasons.  There is nothing more important than ensuring the physical and psychological wellbeing of our students.  Our entire concentric circle of community from school outwards to country is united in this effort and it makes me proud to be a Jew and a soon-to-be Canadian.

This is going to get harder…

And I don’t just mean the war effort on the ground in Israel, but yes.  Each day that goes on we have to calibrate the correct amount of space for this to occupy in school.  Too much space can be overwhelming.  Not enough space can be disrespectful and tone-deaf.  Different grades will require a different calibration; individual children will differ in their needs and wants.  “Standing With Israel” today feels like a clear call to action.  It will likely be less clear what it means day-to-day, the longer this tragedy unfolds.  All I can tell you is that we are paying attention and we are trying to get it right.

What can we do?

The impulse when faced with such overwhelming feelings is to do something.  But what?  Social media is presenting a dizzying, and sometimes conflicting, array of donation opportunities and drives.  As we try to move forward, our school will be paying attention to the following buckets of activities:

  • Providing accurate, age-and-stage appropriate information.
  • Creating space for reflection, questions and sharing of feelings.
  • Offering direct service to students, teachers and families who are coping with trauma.
  • Praying – using contemporary prayers and blessings for Israel, the IDF, the kidnapped and the missing, etc., and traditional modes, such as the chanting of Tehillim (Psalms) as is done during times of communal distress.
  • As appropriate, raising money, writing cards, and taking other hands-on measures in direct support of the local and international Israeli community.

But for now, on this day when hate has been called down upon us, I choose otherwise.  I choose this school – safe, open, and proudly Zionistic throughout its entire history, but never more than now.  I choose this community – standing in unambiguous solidarity with its Israeli and Jewish brothers and sisters.  I choose this country – whose political leadership of all parties have offered the strongest rebuke of terrorism and support for Israel that I can remember hearing.  I choose a life filled with Judaism and suffused with Israel.  And I choose love.  Tonight after we light the Shabbat candles, my wife and I will bless our daughter as we have done each Shabbat of her life.  We do this knowing how lucky we are to be able to do it, grateful for our blessings, devastated for those families no longer with parents to bless children, or children to be blessed.  That’s all I can do.  And I pray it is enough.

Am Yisrael Chai.

Ten Years Without A Father

[NOTE: It remains true that the concentric circles for this blog’s audience centers on my local school community, and then zooms out to Jewish day school, education and the universe.  I do, like here, occasionally publish on topics that are deeply personal.  For those posts, I calibrate the web of social media leading to the blog, but the blog remains the same.]

“Yizkor?!  I don’t even know her!”

Because there can be no reminiscence of my father of blessed memory without at least one awful pun and, although timely, that is simply awful.

Although yizkor comes four times a year, for me, this one, this year – at Shemini Atzeret – feels like yizkor with a capital “Y”.  I don’t know why.  Maybe the emotions at the time of his yahrzeit (20 Av) weren’t process-able at the time, and maybe the Yizkor of Yom Kippur was too wrapped up in the High Holidays.  But now, headed into the comparatively quiet of this Yizkor, I am finally both struck and somewhat capable of wrestling with the enormity of what it means to have lived a full decade since my father, Michael Mitzmacher, passed away on July 27, 2013, weeks after having suffered a massive stroke.

Grief makes me think in fractions.

I have now spent almost 1/5 of my life without my father.  I have almost spent half my married life without my father.  Eliana has now spent 5/9 and Maytal 2/3 of their lives without my father.  The fractions explain and describe the enormity of the time taken, the experiences missed and the pain caused by a life taken too soon.  They explain and they describe.  They don’t heal and they don’t comfort and they don’t provide closure.  Time is supposed to be the author of those feelings, but in my experience time dulls and distances.  I’m not sure how the rest is achieved.

The need for my children to remember things they cannot be reasonably expected to remember is the fuel on the fire of my loss.  Pictures, videos, catchphrases and memories are all I have to tilt at the windmill of time.  As it inexorably goes by, my greatest fear is that all my children will have to remember him by is his absence.  He was the grandparent who wasn’t at the Bat Mitzvah or the Graduation.  He was the grandparent who we spoke about because he wasn’t there; not the grandparent we speak to because he is there.  But focusing my mourning on my children’s loss is as much a dodge as it is true, because focusing on what it means for them not to have a grandfather is a helpful distraction from focusing on what it means for me not to have a father.

With all the other things that it means, the one I am thinking about most this year is how remarkable nature and nurture truly are.  I see it through my own children.  There are traits and habits and personality quirks that are clearly present in my children because they are present in me.  Silly things and not-so-silly things.  Not having a father, or better said, for me, not having my father, means that the person who most saw the world the way I did is not here to share it.  There are moments, all the time, where I know exactly what my father would have thought, felt, said and done, but that knowledge is equal parts comforting (it reminds me of my Dad!) and gutting (it reminds me of my Dad’s absence).

That’s the loss.  Of course, I miss the wisdom he could have provided.  Obviously, I mourn the experiences he should have had.  But, this year, ten years into grieving, I feel the absence of being in the world with the one person who experienced it most like I did.  I feel it when I watch TV.  I feel it when I watch sports.  I feel it when we are with family.  I feel it scrolling through my phone.  And the only thing worse than feeling it, is the fear that one day I won’t feel it all.

I can pledge tzedakah in his name (and do).  I can volunteer my time in his name (and do).  I can create family rituals designed to keep his stories alive  for my children to own and to pass down (and I have).  I light candles and go to synagogue at the appropriate times.  I do all these things to make up for what I do not have.   I am both grateful for what I had and angry for what I don’t.

And somehow it means everything and accomplishes nothing at the same time because ten years ago my father died too soon.

I have sat with this blog post for a few days trying to figure out how to wrap it up.  What big lesson have I learned that I want to pass along?  What new insights have I to offer upon reaching this milestone of grief?  How do I tie this up and move forward?

I have no idea.

There are days where I think of my father and it brings me great joy.  There are days where I think of my father and it brings me great sadness.  And there are days – despite all the safeguards I have put into play – where I don’t think of my father at all.  That’s what is true.  Yizkors and yahrtzeits are valuable waystations on grief’s journey, but it is a journey that has no ending.  The work – work that I will lean into on Saturday – is to try to make the journey one of meaning and purpose.  Even when the meaning and the purpose aren’t so clear…

The 49ers play the Cowboys on Sunday.  If one takes the liberty to imagine a heavenly broadcast, one can – and I will – update the puns that animated so many childhood Sundays.  Yes, Jerry Rice and his brother Fried, remains an undisputed champion.  But what about Brock Purdy?  Deebo Samuel?  One can only imagine…

Soaking Up Sukkot

After having shofar-ed into Rosh Hashanah and leaned into Yom Kippur, it is time to hop into my favorite holiday of them all…Sukkot!

In this strangest of years with how the holidays fall, we find ourselves with five full days of Sukkot in school!  (The chagim occur on the weekends before and after; Chol Ha’Moed – the Intermediate Days – this year is the entire school week.  We may cook up something special for Hoshannah Rabbah on the Friday.  Stay tuned.)  This will give us ample opportunity to experience this joyous holiday through all the senses.

Our OJCS Sukkah is up and we’ve added a few satellite sukkot as well to give our growing school enough space to for all the eating, celebrating, shake-shake-shaking and hopping  as a school community that will make up a significant portion of next week.  Great thanks to all our teachers for the hard work that goes into holiday preparation/celebration and keeping the normal routines of school moving forward as per usual.

As I mentioned above, Sukkot is absolutely my favorite holiday of the entire year.  There is nothing else like it on the Jewish Calendar – sitting outside in a sukkah you built yourself (which is pretty much the one and only thing I actually can and do build), with handmade decorations from your children, enjoying good food with friends and family in the night air, the citrusy smell of etrog lingering and mixing with verdant lulav – this is experiential Judaism at its finest.  There is a reason why this holiday is also known as Moadim L’Simchah – the Season of Our Rejoicing.

My annual, completely non-judgy plea for this weekend is a reminder that if our children – if we – only experience the Judaism of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and not the Judaism of Sukkot, then we are not exposing them – our ourselves – to the full range of beauty and joy that our tradition has to offer.  So why, in fact, is this such a common occurrence?

lulavI’m not entirely sure, but I think it has to do with the exotic nature of the holiday.  As someone who did not grow up celebrating this holiday, upon coming to synagogue as an adult and watching a congregation march in circles waving fruits and vegetables – well this was not the Judaism I knew!  But for me, that is precisely what makes it so unique, special and not-to-be-missed!

No one likes to feel uncomfortable, and adults especially, are wary of feeling under-educated or unprepared.  I know how I felt encountering new Jewish rituals for the first time as an adult – it was scary.  The amount of “stuff” Judaism asks of us to do – building the sukkah with precise specifications, shaking the lulav and etrog in the proscribed way, chanting less-familiar prayers, coming to synagogue on unfamiliar days – can be overwhelming.

But don’t lose the sukkah through the trees…

If the idea of building a sukkah is either overwhelming or unrealistic at this time, in the spirit of trying to turn etrogs into etrog-ade, let me invite you to think of this year as an opportunity to once again pick one new tradition to experiment with.  Shake a lulav and etrog.  Eat in the sukkah (or in something sukkah-adjacent).  Attend or livestream a service.  Ask your child(ren)’s Jewish Studies Teacher(s) to send home stories, questions, or ideas.  Come use the OJCS Sukkah.  Come borrow OJCS lulav and etrogs.

How can I help?  What can I do?  These are actual questions – email me and it would be greatest pleasure.  My sukkah doors are open as well.  Literally, be my guest.  Let this Sukkot truly be the season of our great rejoicing.  I hope many students find their way to synagogue and into sukkot this Sukkot.  I hope many parents push themselves out of their comfort zones and join the fun.  But most importantly, I hope we – OJCS – are up to the task of educating, inspiring and working in partnership with our families so that those who wish to, are able to add Sukkot as a next stop on their Jewish journeys (#NorthStar).

Chag sameach!

There is a concept in Judaism called hiddur mitzvah which is the “beautification of the mitzvah” and it calls upon us to think of ways to go that little extra mile to make a mitzvah extra-special.  There is no better holiday for this concept than Sukkot!  Here are two ways you can amplify your Sukkot celebrations this year:

For the musically inclined, please enjoy this Sukkot Playlist courtesy of our friends at PJ Library:

For the fermentedly inclined, please enjoy this recipe for making homemade etrog liqueur…

…and for the inebriated-ly inclined, please enjoy this link to the many artisanal etrog cocktails you may enjoy.

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.