If Not Now: My Daughter in Israel

One of my concerns about October 7th once the security concerns began to be addressed wasn’t about the weeks in front of us, but the months.  For a good stretch of time, the focus on Israel was overwhelming in every sense of that word.  We had a fundamental imperative to both be and feel safe.  There was education to provide our students.  There were displaced Israeli children to absorb and to welcome.  There were rallies for solidarity and rallies for advocacy.  There were media requests and a need for thought-leadership.  And yet, we knew that there was inevitably going to come a time when people’s natural attention spans and bandwidth for crisis was going to yield to a shift and perhaps create a fracture.  And perhaps we are at, or nearing that time…

It isn’t to suggest that our (the school‘s) attention is waning or certainly not that our eye has moved off the ball of security even an iota.  It is, however, to suggest that people have begun to walk down different paths of engagement depending on their personal connections and experiences.  At our school, we still have teachers and families who are awaiting news of hostages and serving on the front lines of Gaza.  We still have siblings and friends experiencing anti-Semitism in their public schools, workplaces and neighborhoods.  We are still teaching “current events”, praying, raising money and engaging in acts of social justice.  But as time inches forward, I think it is fair to say that it simply isn’t top of mind for each and every person as it was…and I state that as a fact of human nature, not a judgement.

I am experiencing the way the heartstrings can be strung and restrung through my parenting.  When we made the decision as a family to stay here in Ottawa for our daughters’ high school years, in a place without a true Jewish high school, we committed to a variety of educational experiences that would build a bridge from their rigorous Jewish day school foundation to their studies in university.  One of those experiences was to spend a semester of Grade 10 studying in Israel.  And that decision got a lot more complicated since Maytal was scheduled to leave for Jerusalem in January.

Our older daughter’s experience was curtailed and compromised by COVID, but she did go.  Our girls are Ramahniks through and through, and although there are other programs, Tichon Ramah Yerushalayim (TRY), was our only choice.  Normally there are upwards of 60-80 teens with a healthy Canadian cohort.  We were looking forward to Maytal getting to have the “full TRY” and then October 7th…

After months of wondering about whether the trip would go, and then worrying about whether sending her was the right choice, we made the family decision – with Maytal as its fiercest champion – that despite the number of students barely in the teens, and without a single other Canadian participating, that now really was the time.  (It very much felt like a true, “If not now, when” moment.)  And so we found ourselves a couple of weeks ago gathering with other families at Newark Airport to send our children to a very different Israel than the one we knew months ago.

Let me pause to state something obvious.  Maytal is in a bubble of privileged North American teens in Jerusalem.  She will only travel to the safest of places under the safest of conditions.   She is not living in a city near the border and we are not comparing our concerns for her wellbeing to those who are truly living in harm’s way.  Not for a moment.  That doesn’t mean, however, that we don’t think she is brave for choosing this time to be in Israel.  (It also won’t stop my mother from worrying herself sleepless until she returns in May.)

Each ping of the WhatsApp brings news of the next adventure or a picture from the most recent one.  She has bonded with her group and has started the experience in full.  She is going to have the time of her life and being in Israel – now – will be extraordinarily impactful on her in ways we could guess and ways we cannot imagine.  We are blessed to be able to provide her with this opportunity (and grateful to the many people and institutions who helped us make it possible).

But each ping of the WhatsApp also brings anxiety.  Each news update on the state of the crisis lands differently than it did a few weeks ago.  I don’t feel like I should say this, but I don’t know how to say it differently – obviously as a member of the Jewish People, I always have skin in the game when it comes to Israel.  But now, for a short while, I also have flesh and blood.  And whether it should or not…it feels different.

I share all of this in the spirit of wanting to ensure that we continue to ask ourselves what is the right amount of space the situation in Israel should continue to occupy – for our school, for our families and for ourselves.  I know there is no “right answer” but I guess I hope that whatever newfound insight or empathy (again, I don’t think that is exactly the best word) or perspective having a child of my own living in Israel provides me, that it helps guide me to the right place.  And invite you to reflect for what the right amount of space you believe it should occupy as well.  Are we doing too much or too little as a community?  As a school?  (As a family?)

Let me know what you think.  Let’s make sure Israel remains in our thoughts and our prayers and our actions even as life inevitably encroaches.

It only gets harder and more complicated the longer it goes.

#StandWithIsrael

#AmYisraelChai

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.

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.

The Transparency Files: Self-Evaluation

With the theme of this year being “Getting Our Mojo Back,” one thing that you can be sure of as the calendar turns to May and June, is that I will deliver you a series of “Transparency Files” blog posts!  OJCS Parents will soon receive their link to our Annual Parent Survey, and so I will again begin with a self-evaluation and will continue with the sharing of results of that survey, the results from our Annual Faculty Survey (which is shared directly with them), and will conclude with a discussion of next year and an introduction of the 2023-2024 OJCS Faculty.  [These posts will not follow week-by-week.]

We are in that “evaluation” time of year!  As Head of School, I have the responsibility of performing an evaluation of staff and faculty each year.  Fittingly, they have an opportunity to do the same of me.  Our Annual Faculty Survey presents current teachers and staff with the opportunity to provide anonymous feedback of my performance as Head of School.  Our Annual Parent Survey presents current parents with an opportunity to do the same (as part of a much larger survey of school satisfaction).  Please know that the full unedited results of both are sent onto the OJCS Board of Trustees Head Support & Evaluation Committee as part of their data collection for the execution of my annual performance review.

You are welcome to review last year’s self-evaluation post before moving onto this year’s.  Like last year’s, I am going to skip the cutting-and-pasting from my goal-setting document and simply present to you a few big ideas that come from my “principal’s” bucket, and not as much from my “head of school’s” bucket (i.e. fundraising, marketing, budgeting, etc.).

…thanks to a grant from Prizmah we partnered with PJ Library on a variety of events to grow the number of Jewish families in Ottawa who are familiar with our school!  Highlights included a Library Storytime, lulav & etrog-shaking in our OJCS Sukkah, and two different “Havdalah in the Park” programs – one in Centrepointe and one in Alta Vista.  We are looking forward to building on this relationship in the years to come!

…in order to fully mark the transition from COVID to…now…we thought it was important to revisit three “Critical Conversations” that were so helpful to our growth (in every sense of the word) during our first few years together.  We, therefore, held three “Town Halls”: 1) Let’s Talk About the “J” in “OJCS”…Again: The JS Town Hall 2022; 2) Let’s Talk About French…Again. L’assemblée de Français 2022; and 3) Let’s Talk About the Future…Again: The “Sneak Peek” Town Hall 2023.    Our hope is that we have successfully put all our families on an even playing field as to how we got from where we were to where we are…and provided clarity as to how we plan to get from where we are to where we are headed.

…we began our three-year journey to full CAIS Accreditation by focusing on getting organized and beginning to think through succession planning both on the lay (board) side and on the professional side.  As we complete this journey, we seek to help parents in our community better understand how we fit into the private school landscape, as OJCS will – eventually – join Ashbury and Elmwood as the only CAIS Accredited schools in Ottawa.

…in addition to launching French-language PE this year, we tried to shine a brighter spotlight on all things French at OJCS with La célébration de la semaine de la Francophonie 2023, which culminated in a wonderful Francofête attended by parents.  We look forward to building on both as we continue to focus attention on French outcomes for OJCS graduates.

…we piloted a Middle School Information Night for Grade 5 Parents and will follow up in June with a Taste of Middle School for Grade 5 Students.  We want to do a better and better job celebrating the value proposition for Middle School at OJCS.  Beginning the conversation earlier can only help.

…with the help of a generous grant by the Jewish Federation of Ottawa‘s Fund for Innovative Capacity Building, OJCS Hebrew Faculty worked with Hebrew at the Center over the balance of this school year on a curriculum mapping consultancy.  Once complete (in another 1-2 years), we will have a deliverable for both teachers and parents that fully describe our benchmarks and standards for all Jewish Studies topics across all grades.

What did not get done or what still needs work?

A lot!

First order of business will be moving forward on our amazing $1.5 million reimagination (now $2 million) of classrooms at OJCS thanks to an anonymous gift.  We have been working with an architect firm –  Figurr – and look forward to launching this summer.  [Stay tuned for all of what that will and won’t mean for the start of school.]  The future of education in Ottawa really will be built right here at OJCS!

Second order of business will be continuing to reconnect with our families and our community.  We aspire to be more than a school, but people’s lives are so busy!  What can we do differently next year?  What should we do differently next year?  What should a PTA be and look like?  What kinds of friend-raising activities could we or should we be facilitating or encouraging for OJCS parents?  What kinds of Jewish experiences could we be promoting or providing for OJCS families?

Third order of business, somewhat related to this year’s theme, is “teachers teaching”.  After years of worthwhile complications and interruptions through task forces, consultancies and quasi-administrative portfolios, next year will be about streamlining, simplifying, quieting and calming.  We have reached a new stage of our journey as a school and what is required now is refocusing on what our most sacred tasks are – teachers teaching and students learning.

Those are just highlights.

If you have already contributed feedback through our surveys, thank you.  [Remember the deadline for your feedback to be included in reporting is May 15th.]  Your (additional and/or direct) feedback – whether shared publicly, privately through email or social media, or shared through conversation – is greatly appreciated.  As I tell our teachers, I look forward to getting better at my job each year and I am thankful for the feedback I receive that allows me to try.

Shofar, So Good: We Are Back to Doing the Things

It isn’t to suggest that COVID no longer exists or exacts a toll – any peek at a daily list of absentee students and teachers will testify to its ongoing impacts – but it is true that after two and a third years of functioning with COVID as the first, second and third priorities, this year is different.  COVID is no longer the text of our daily school lives, however present it remains as subtext.  Sitting here, about a month into the 2022-2023 school year and in the heart of the Fall Jewish Holidays, I believe we could rightfully characterize our current state of affairs as a school that is back to doing the things schools do.  And an OJCS back to doing OJCS things.

How might that be going, you ask?

[All together now:] Shofar, so good.

Space prohibits a comprehensive list of all the “things” – but in the spirit of a recent blog post, which acknowledged that we need to do a better job revisiting the critical conversations that helped create the current version of OJCS for the next generation of OJCS Families (see below for dates & times); let me try to link the return of pre-COVID school activities to our OJCS North Stars.  This way, again, I can try connect the dots for newer families between prior foundational initiatives and current school functioning.

PTA Back to School BBQ: Ruach

What a treat to be back together for an old school event!  We had lots of families, lots of smiles and lots of food!  (I’d like to do a better job attracting our older students, but that’s a task for next year.)  Ruach – joy is a halfway decent translation – is one of our North Stars because we believe that being a student, teacher, parent, etc., at OJCS is supposed to be joyous and that we have a responsibility to program so that it is.  Hopefully this is just the first of many PTA “friend-raising” events this year.

First Day of School “Havdalah”: We Are All on Inspiring Jewish Journeys

As a “Community” Jewish Day School, it is not our place to judge where a student’s – or family’s – Jewish Journey begins or ends.  But as a “school” we are deeply invested in growth and movement.  And so we find lots of opportunities to celebrate rituals and holidays, including some of our own unique OJCS ones (like our JK & SK Welcome Ceremonies).  One that we have not been able to do the last few years is joining together as a full school on the 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.]  To be all together, especially when we are as big as we have been in years and years, singing in the sunshine was a most welcome return to normalcy.

The OJCS Library: There Is a Floor Here, But No Ceiling

Although we are surely squeezed for space, we made a commitment that we would return the Library to being a…Library.  Typically when we refer to our North Star of “There is a floor here, but no ceiling”, we are thinking of the ways in which our classroom teachers facilitate personalized learning, a critical part of #TheOJCSWay.  However, this idea both lives beyond the classroom and requires partnership to live in the classroom and our Library, and awesome Librarian, Brigitte Ruel, provides both.  Students are able to find books that inspire them as well as gently pushing them to new levels of literacy (across all three languages).  The joy our students have this year in being able to visit the Library both formally (as a class) and informally (during recess) has been palpable.  We didn’t know how much we missed and needed our Library!

The OJCS Makerspace: We Own Our Own Learning

Thanks to an Innovation Capacity Grant from the Jewish Federation of Ottawa, three of our teachers spent last year honing their curriculum building skills related to our OJCS Makerspace.  During Faculty Pre-Planning, they led our full team in a wonderful session reintroducing the Makerspace and showing how every department can integrate this incredible and equipment into their classes.  We wrapped it up with a Tinkercad design challenge, with the winning team taking home trophies that were printed on our 3D printer.

Part of what makes having a makerspace so wonderful for students is that it both contributes to giving them an ownership of their own learning and it allows for meaning cross-curricular connections.  Want an example?  Grade 4 is currently in  the midst of a cross-curricular unit – using Tinkercad to design their own sukkot.  We can’t wait to see how their personalities and creativity will shine through in their creations!

The OJCS Middle School Retreat: We Learn Better Together

I have already blogged all about this retreat, but it hits multiple North Stars.  Helping our students understand that their learning is enhanced and amplified by being part of a learning community – that one’s learning is positively impacted by being in relationship with other learners – is part of our school’s commitment to global connectedness and, hopefully, just one big idea that carries forward from an experience like a retreat into the walls of the classrooms and the school.

OJCS Mitzvah Trips: Each Person is Responsible for the Other

I have also blogged about the launch of our Middle School Mitzvah Trips, a very exciting new initiative that is going to make a huge difference in our Middle School for years to come.  Here is one of our first examples:

Our Middle School helped OTT at KBI Supplementary School step into the new year on the right foot by working to beautify their space.

I cannot come on too strong when I tell you from experience (this program was a core program of my prior headship) how meaningful it is for students (and their parents!) to have an opportunity each week to go out into the world and help make it a better place.  Watch this space.

We also participated in our own Terry Fox Run after learning about the legacy of Terry Fox, and the work of The Terry Fox Foundation.

As OJCS students, our children learn to navigate the concentric circles of citizenship from their OJCS community, to the larger Jewish community, the larger Ottawa community, the larger Canadian community and the global community – guided by Jewish values and inspired by civic duty.

Go, Rams, Go! – Ruach

We’ll end where we began.  I have blogged in the past about the importance of sports in (smaller) Jewish day schools and prospective parents are frequently surprised to learn that we compete in the Ottawa Independent Schools Athletic Association (OISAA).  (They are even more surprised to learn that we frequently do quite well!)  To kick off this year in sports, and to end our review of a return to normalcy, just this week Grade 3 had a fabulous time at the OISAA Soccer Jamboree:

 

And there you have it…as we launch the New Jewish Year a month after the new school year, let it be a year we continue to do the things; to experience all that a school like OJCS has to offer and, by doing so, reaching that much closer to those North Stars.

As referred to above and a few weeks ago, we now have dates and times for our three “critical conversations”:

  • “Let’s Talk About the ‘J’ in OJCS” – what really is our Jewish mission/vision?  October 27th @ 7:00 PM.
  • L’assemblée de Français” – what is currently true about our French outcomes and what can parents expect moving forward?  November 24th @ 7:00 PM.
  • “Let’s Talk About the Future” – what are the big ideas, programs and initiatives that will help us reach that much closer to our North Stars?  February 9th @ 7:00 PM.

We are currently in the middle of the עשרת ימי תשובה‎ – the ten days of repentance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  My calendar is such that I will not have an opportunity to blog out my annual “Leaning Into Forgiveness” post prior to Yom Kippur.  However, 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.

The Bewildering Journey of the Wilderness Class of 2022

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

We are currently in the middle of Sefer Ba-Midbar, the Book of Numbers, on our annual journey of Torah.  “Ba-Midbar” is usually translated as “in the desert” but is more accurately understood to be “in the wilderness”, and the narrative action describes the wilderness generation who wandered from Revelation at Sinai to the brink of Redemption on the border to Eretz Yisrael.  This is the generation who stood at Sinai and built a Golden Calf.  This is the generation who received mannah from heaven and suffered the bad report of those chosen to spy out the land of “milk and honey”.  This is the generation whose relationship to God was the most intimate, who experienced miracles both daily and regularly, but who could not maintain their faith, and ultimately, were forced to wander for forty years until the next generation was ready to continue the journey to the Promised Land.  This was a generation that saw and experienced things like no other before or since.  Their wandering was both in wilderness and bewildering.  They went through some things.

Rabbinic commentators offer various explanations for why this needed to be true.  God could simply have completed the three-or-so day journey from Sinai to Israel without putting the People through a generation of wilderness.  Divine punishment for the many sins of faithlessness and complaining is the most common response.  These focus on the negative aspects of wilderness.  But there has always been a line of thought that viewed the wandering, not as punishment, but as preparation.  That the experience of wilderness – with all its challenges – was in some ways a final time to benefit from the intimacy of a small and powerful community – a family of tribes – before, say, graduating into Eretz Yisrael and, although forever remaining a family, heading out on new adventures.  Two and a third years of COVID does not forty years in a desert make.  And we have not lived through COVID as any kind of divine punishment.  But.  It sure has been bewildering.

Parents Lead the Way

Our collective journey through the wilderness would have not reached this threshold without the perseverance of parents and all that they were asked to do without time, training or support to facilitate at-home learning during these middle school years of pandemic learning.  What I have come to realize more and more each year is how much parents and parenting matters.  And I don’t mean from a COVID-specific perspective, although that is obviously true.  And I don’t mean from a generic school-home partnership lens, although that is absolutely critical.  No, even as a parent myself, I don’t think I realized just how important parents and parenting truly are to supporting a child’s journey through adolescence towards young adulthood.

The path of small Jewish day schools is not always an easy one to tread.  Parents find their way into Jewish day schools for all kinds of highly personal reasons – personalized attention, family atmosphere, a deep commitment to Jewish Studies, legacy, or even just going where everyone else happened to be going that year.  Jewish day school comes at a high price, and that price is not just financial.  There are many in this room who have sacrificed luxuries and necessities to reach this day.  All in this room have sacrificed their most precious gift – time – in service of their children’s academic and Jewish journeys.  Years like these last three sharpen both points.  COVID-19 has not only strained families’ pocketbooks, but even with semi-self-directed Grade 8 students, the transitions to and from distance learning strained families’ living spaces, devices, time, and patience (not to mention Wi-Fi!).

Like Moshe, all we can do as parents is guide our children along the journey – sometimes as bewildered as they are from all it entails – until we reach a point where they start to move forward on their own journeys.  We believe that a night like tonight serves as a meaningful way-station along that path, that it validates parental choices and sacrifices, and proves the power of parenting.  On a personal note, let me just thank you as a fellow parent in this class.  There is nothing as bewildering as being both parent and principal and I thank you for letting me wear both hats as we co-parented this group through the wilderness.

Teachers Who Illuminate

In Parashat Be’ha’lotekhah we get the description of the seven lamps that light up the sanctuary.  One way to read the “lamps” is for them to stand in for “education”, and the way teachers light up the minds and hearts of others.  Education is not only a matter of mastering information; it’s about questioning and exploring.  Teachers make a school and we have never seen greater proof of that than during these last three years.  I believe that teaching at its highest form is about unleashing the passion and talents of students.  During these dark wilderness days of pandemic learning, when you are forced to fly the plane while you are building it, when you have to teach from home with your life on display in the background, when you have to use new skills and new platforms without having had adequate time to learn, let alone practice, when you are willing to publicly acknowledge to your students what you don’t know, when you show up as you are and not, perhaps, as you would like to be – could there be more powerful role modeling for our children than this?

This desire to create space for students to shine is what lets our teachers know our children like no other school can.  This soft glow of vulnerability is what gives permission to our students to be who they most authentically are without fear of judgement.  The ceding of the spotlight to our students is exactly why at graduation we pause for an opportunity to acknowledge not only the Grade 8 Teachers, but to celebrate all the teachers whose collaborations and contributions over time shone together to create a class.

Finding Your Voice

With all our complicated personalities and unique experiences, just showing up can sometimes be a genuine act of courage, a way of giving voice.  But when showing up has meant sometimes being at home, or sometimes being at school, or trying to create new or maintain old relationships from inside a Google Meet, dealing with unusual safety protocols and sacrificing much-anticipated experiences – what I have seen firsthand from you each – and know secondhand from all your teachers – is that you have each started to find your voices, each one unique and worthy.  You bring your voice to your individual work, your group projects and your class commitments.  You bring it to your academic challenges, and you bring it to your extracurricular opportunities

The stories from our wilderness journey are filled with examples of people finding their voice, displaying courage, and standing up for what is right.  From Caleb and Yehoshua who broke with the Ten Spies and vouched for the Land’s goodness to the Five Daughters of Zelophehad who stood up to Moshe and influenced the making of a new law by God to allow women to own land, our time in the wilderness inspired people to find their voices, show courage and stand up for what is right and what is just.  I have seen that spark of righteous justice from this class in recent years.  Perhaps it was not always channeled as constructively as it could be, but we believe that the instinct to fight for what you believe is right is to be nourished and to be celebrated.  Graduates of OJCS leave having spent years honing their presentation skills, speaking in public, and engaging in many acts of social action and tikkun olam.  We know that you will walk into your high schools of choice as nascent leaders who are prepared to advocate for yourselves and the voiceless.  We know that you will bring your voices to your varying Jewish commitments and to many expressions of community service and social justice. 

Our OJCS “North Stars” Prayer

Our prayer for you as you graduate and head out into the world is that you come to experience and embody our school’s North Stars; that you continue to point in their direction as you continue to grow and develop into high school and beyond…

  • “Have a floor, but not a ceiling” – be your best self.  Have high expectations at a minimum and unlimited aspirations at a maximum.  We hope you learned at OJCS to be comfortable in your own skin and to carry that confidence with you when you head out into the wider world.
  • “Ruach” – be joyful. School – and life – is supposed to be fun, even when it may seem hard or have difficult moments, like a global pandemic.  We hope you had many moments of joy at OJCS and that you have many more moments of joy in the years to come.
  • “We own our own learning” – learning isn’t something that happens to you, it is something you choose.  We hope you take the sense of ownership for your learning that we strive towards at OJCS into your next schools of choice and that you not merely be satisfied with gathering information, but that you take a growing sense of responsibility for what you learn and how you learn.
  • “We are each responsible one to the other” – make the world a better place. Take what you’ve learned (Torah) and do great deeds (Mitzvot); do (these) great deeds and be inspired to learn more.
  • “We learn better together” – we are stronger and more successful together than we can be alone. Judaism has always been communitarian in this way and what is old is new again as we live in a world where collaboration is not simply advantageous but required.
  • “We are on our own inspiring Jewish journey” – keep choosing Jewish. One can argue that the next years of your Jewish lives are more important than the ones you are celebrating tonight.  In your own ways – continue.  Whether that is in formal Jewish learning, youth group, summer camps, Israel, synagogue attendance, social action – you are no more fully formed Jewishly at your Grade 8 graduation than you were at Bar or Bat Mitzvah.  We pray that you build on this foundation and that you embrace the Jewish journey that continues after tonight.

In closing, know that you each are blessed more than you realize.  But do not ever be content to merely count your blessings.  Be someone who makes their blessings count.”

The Transparency Files: Self-Evaluation

With all the unpredictability of yet another pandemic year, the one thing that you can be sure of as the calendar turns to May and June, is that I will deliver you a series of “Transparency Files” blog posts!  OJCS Parents have recently received their link to our Annual Parent Survey, and so I will again begin with a self-evaluation and will continue with the sharing of results of that survey, the results from our Annual Faculty Survey (which is shared directly with them) and will conclude with a discussion of next year and an introduction of the 2022-2023 OJCS Faculty.  [If this year is more like last year, these posts will not follow week-by-week.]

We are in that “evaluation” time of year!  As Head of School, I have the responsibility of performing an evaluation of staff and faculty each year.  Fittingly, they have an opportunity to do the same of me.  Our Annual Faculty Survey presents current teachers and staff with the opportunity to provide anonymous feedback of my performance as Head of School.  Our Annual Parent Survey presents current parents with an opportunity to do the same (as part of a much larger survey of school satisfaction).  Please know that the full unedited results of both are sent onto the OJCS Board of Trustees Head Support & Evaluation Committee as part of their data collection for the execution of my annual performance review.

You are welcome to review last year’s self-evaluation post before moving onto this year’s.  Unlike in prior years, I am going to skip the cutting-and-pasting from my goal-setting document and simply present to you a few big ideas that come from my “principal’s” bucket, and not as much from my “head of school’s” bucket (i.e. fundraising, marketing, budgeting, etc.).

…one of the big highlights of the year has been the successful (re)launch of Junior Kindergarten at OJCS!  I wrote a long post in December that I encourage you check out if you want to know what makes JK at OJCS so unique and special.  A year ago we had no teacher, no students and a program on paper – we now have a master teacher, a thriving class and a program that is we know is setting up our students for success in SK.  We appreciate and respect that Jewish parents in Ottawa have choices, and our focus will be ensuring that we continue to offer a program that is unlike the others, aligned with our OJCS North Stars and best prepares students for elementary school.  Want to know more or to secure your spot for 2022-2023?  Please contact Jenn Greenberg ([email protected]) for a tour or registration materials.

…one of the biggest initiatives that we were able to “unpause” from COVID was the [soft] launch of our “Mitzvah Trips” for Middle School.  Please follow this link for the details of this initiative.  For this year, our students have collaborated on projects with Tamir and JFS and will be engaging with Hillel Lodge in the weeks to come.  More important than what I believe about this work, here is what our students believe about this work:

“It feels good to help those in need.”

“We want to continue to make others feel happy.”

“It’s nice to know that we are actually using what we learn in Jewish Studies.”

Yes, it is.  This is poised to be a game-changer for Middle School at OJCS.

…speaking of big initiatives that got “un-paused” this year?  We finally were able to move forward with the (re)launch of our OJCS Makerspace [built with a gift from the Congregation Beth Shalom Legacy Fund]. Thanks to a generous grant by the Jewish Federation of Ottawa‘s Fund for Innovative Capacity Building, OJCS worked with Future Design School over the balance of this school year on a strategic makerspace consultancy.   I shared the result of this work and its next steps in a blog post.  The relaunch of the OJCS Makerspace will help move our school that much closer to our North Stars and make learning that much more motivating and engaging for our students.  We can’t wait to see what our students invent and create!

we held our CAIS (Canadian Association of Independent Schools) Accreditation Site Visit on May 11th!  This was the first exciting step (although I guess doing all the preliminary paperwork was pretty “exciting”!) on our journey towards accreditation – both satisfying a longstanding strategic goal and, hopefully, helping parents in our community better understand how we fit into the private school landscape, as OJCS will – eventually – join Ashbury and Elmwood as the only CAIS Accredited schools in Ottawa.  The accreditation team consisted of the Head of School and CFO from Ashbury and the Head of School of the Solomon Schechter Academy of Montreal.  We held a full schedule of activities and look forward to their feedback.

What did not get done or what still needs work?

A lot!

First order of business will be carving out a new normal that prioritizes health and safety, resuming paused activities and deciding what from COVID-functioning (like continuing to make virtual options for Parent-Teacher Conferences or Generations Day available) should carry forward.  We have learned so much as a school during these last three years and we are determined to come out stronger, wiser and better on the other side.

Second order of business will be reconnecting with our families and our community.  We aspire to be more than a school, but we have had to restrict our access and our bandwidth during these years of scarcity due to COVID.  What can we do differently next year?  What should we do differently next year?  What should PTA be and look like?  What kinds of friend-raising activities could we or should we be facilitating or encouraging for OJCS parents?  What kinds of Jewish experiences could we be promoting or providing for OJCS families?

Third order of business will be moving forward on our amazing $1.5 million reimagination of classrooms at OJCS thanks to an anonymous gift we received this year!  We are pleased to share that we have now selected an architect firm –  Figurr – and look forward to the exciting work ahead.  The future of education in Ottawa really will be built right here at OJCS!

Those are just highlights.

If you have already contributed feedback through our surveys, thank you.  [Remember the deadline for your feedback to be included in reporting is May 13th.]  Your (additional and/or direct) feedback – whether shared publicly, privately through email or social media, or shared through conversation – is greatly appreciated.  As I tell our teachers, I look forward to getting better at my job each year and I am thankful for the feedback I receive that allows me to try.

Please stay tuned for a MAJOR ANNOUNCEMENT that will surely warm the hearts of those who place high value on French language and a MAJOR UPDATE on the future of Jewish Studies.  There is A LOT to be excited about as we prepare to take the next big steps forward at OJCS!

Shofar, So Good: First Days & First (Masked) Smiles

What a strange and wonderful week!  Starting school after Rosh Hashanah and being back in school in person?!!

On behalf of the teachers, staff, administration, and board of this school, I cannot tell you how wonderful it is to have actual live human beings again filling our building with their energy, their ruach, and their smiles (we’ve all become experts at seeing smiles beneath masks)!  We have rightfully put so much energy into our COVID safety protocols over the last two school years that it is easy to forget that we are not public health officials, but educators who are in the business of teaching and learning.  I have had ample opportunity to wander the hallways, to be in classrooms, and outside in playgrounds and after just two days of school, I am perfectly able to pronounce that as of now shofar so good!

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

…we began our first day with two “Welcome Ceremonies”.  With Junior Kindergarten returning to OJCS this year, we conducted special “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 (socially distanced) 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 held our annual Welcome Back Assembly, still virtual for at least one more year, during which we introduced new teachers and celebrated our opening havdalah where we creatively appropriate the ritual of separation to mark the transition from the summer to the start of school.  We were encouraged to think about what from the summer we want to carry forward into school and, considering the season, to think about who we were last year and who we hope to be in the year to come.

…students found their way back to lockers and classrooms that have been waiting for them since last April.

…playgrounds and courtyards were filled with laughter and games and, for Middle School, food as the Outdoor Cafeteria is back and open for business.

…everyone is remembering/learning which entrances and exits and washrooms and water fountains and hallways belong to them, and how to find their way from this to that.

…there is a joyful cacophony of Hebrew, French and English that captures our trilingual nature and is a pleasure to hear throughout the building.

…the OJCS Makerspace is gearing back up for a delayed reopening and you should stay tuned for an exciting announcement about the Makerspace!

 

We have seen over the last two years how amazing our teachers have been during distance learning pivots planned and unplanned and through hyflex engagement.  And we know that our community has been paying attention as our enrollment continues to grow each and every year.  Imagine how extraordinary our school is going to be now that we have planned out each and every scenario!  If you are a current OJCS parent, of course, you don’t have to imagine – you can see it each and every day.

Please save the date for Virtual Back to School Night on Tuesday, October 12th at 7:00 PM.  In addition to all the normal things one discusses at Back to School Night, this year we will also be sharing grade-specific plans for how students who may be kept home from school for different reasons will be able to continue to learn even as we move away from hyflex learning.

Please be on the lookout for updated COVID vaccine policies now that both the Ministry of Education and Ottawa Public Health have shared new requirements and recommendations for private schools.

The Calm Before The Calm: A Brief Look at OJCS Faculty Pre-Planning Week

What a strange blip in the calendar to have Rosh HaShanah right after Labour Day Weekend!  For our parents and students, it may simply elongate summer by a couple of days.  For our teachers and staff, however, it creates this odd break between the intense week of “Faculty Pre-Planning” that we are finishing up now and the actual first day of school almost six days later.  As odd as that all may be, what is not odd is how wonderful it has been to be back in a physical building working with actual human beings (masked and distanced and vaccinated to be sure) in the service of preparing for the sacred and holy task of educating children.  We are certainly not back to normal with our COVID FAQs and assorted protocols, but we are sorta-kinda back to things that feel normal-ish – and that feels great!

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?  If so, this post is for you!

Seriously, I do 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 2021-2022 the best year yet.

Here’s a curated selection from our activities…

The (Re)Building Communities Cafe

Each year (14 years, 5 at OJCS and counting!), I begin “Pre-Planning Week” with an updated version of the “World Cafe”.  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?  (Re)building communities!

After the last two years, we are eager to begin reconnecting and rebuilding across and between our various OJCS communities – students, teachers, parents, board, and community.  We spent the morning exploring what this might mean…for example…

Carrying Forward: Lessons from Hyflex

What can be true for students who may need to learn from home this year when we are not offering a hyflex program?  Home for a few days?  Home for a few weeks?  In order to share our plan with parents as we continue to prioritize students remaining at home for COVID-related reasons, we spent valuable time asking the following kinds of questions:

  • What from schedules, links, blogs and platforms will carry forward from hyflex learning?
  • Are there grades/subjects where virtual participation could be a value add for both student and teacher?
  • What should parents and students expect from different grades/subjects should they need to be kept home from school, but need to stay on track?

Parents can look forward to plans being shared during Virtual Back To School Night on Tuesday, October 12th.

Faculty EdCamp

One of our favorite PD activities is letting the excellence that is already on our staff be shared more widely.  For this activity, four of our teachers offered sessions to their colleagues on topics of their own choosing in a bit of a more relaxed, camp-style presentation:

  • Faye Mellenthin: “Disarming armoured leadership…”
  • Lianna Krantzberg:  Twitter Chats 101” 
  • Julie Bennett:  Global Connections and Authentic Tasks”
  • Melissa Thompson: “EdPuzzle”

Teachers got to choose two different sessions to attend and it is always great to watch teachers be inspired by the work of fellow teachers.

Book Tasting: The OJCS 2021 Summer Book Club

I think you can tell a lot by the books a school chooses to read together.  Here were the selections for this summer, which culminated in a “Book Tasting” session where lessons and wisdom were gleaned and shared:

If you want to know more about the big ideas that shape our work, feel free to read one or more of these books and tell us what you think!

Did I do one of my spiritual check-ins on the topic of the “Relationship between ‘criticism’ and ‘growth'”?  Sure did!

Did Mrs. Thompson and I do great differentiated sessions on use of classroom blogs and student blogfolios?  Yup!

Did our teachers spend meaningful time updating their Long Range Plans?  100%!

Did Mrs. Bertrend help us understand how we can (re)build community through Student Life at OJCS?  Yessiree!

Did Mrs. Reichstein lead a session on “Shifting the Spec Ed Narrative”?  You bet!

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

All that and much more took place during this week of planning.  Needless to say, we are prepared to do way more than create a safe learning environment this year.  We are prepared to develop a rigorous, creative, innovative, personalized, and ruach-filled learning experience for each and every one 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, a Shanah Tovah U’metukah and a successful launch to the 2021-2022 school year…

Showing Up: The Courage of the COVID Class of 2021

At last year’s Grade 8 Graduation, I referred to them as the “Coronavirus Class of 2020,” assuming that a year later we would return to the regularly phrased “Class of 2021”.  Like every other of my assumptions during the pandemic, that one, too, was incorrect, and here we are at the graduation for the Coronavirus Class of 2021.  This time I hope, but don’t assume, a return to normalcy next year.  But next year is next year, and tonight we focus our attention on this remarkable group of graduates and the extraordinary journey – particularly of late – they have taken to reach this milestone.

As the year, with its months-long pivot to distance learning, has been winding down, I find myself reflecting more and more on Theodore Roosevelt’s “Man in the Arena” speech, which has been re-popularized in recent years through the work of Brené Brown.  The big idea is that what really counts in life is not outcomes, but the courage to get “in the arena”.  That what matters is not whether you are successful, but that you are willing to engage, to get your hands dirty, to commit to big ideas and bigger ideals, that you get back up when you fall and – ultimately – that you strive to live a life of meaning.  The shorthand way of describing this is to say that what really matters is showing up.  And if there was ever a class who has shown up over the last year and a half of pandemic learning, it is this Class of 2021.

But let me first pivot back towards two other critical partners who have shown up and shown out…

Parenting Matters

Last year, I stood in awe at the perseverance of parents with everything that they were asked to do without time, training or support to facilitate at-home learning.  Well, not only are all of those things still true and then some a year later, but what I have come to realize even more broadly is how much parents and parenting matters.  And I don’t mean from a COVID-specific perspective, although that is obviously true.  And I don’t mean from a generic school-home partnership lens, although that is absolutely critical.  No, even as a parent myself, I don’t think I realized just how important parents and parenting truly are to supporting children’s willingness to get in the arena.

The path of small Jewish day schools is not always an easy one to tread.  Parents find their way into Jewish day schools for all kinds of highly personal reasons – personalized attention, family atmosphere, a deep commitment to Jewish Studies, or even just going where everyone else happened to be going that year.  We also know that parents find their way out of Jewish day schools for all kinds of highly personal reasons as well.  We are not here to stand in judgement of those who opted out; we are here to stand in praise of those who show up and opt in – year after year.  Jewish day school comes at a high price, and that price is not just financial.  There are many in this virtual room who have sacrificed luxuries and necessities to reach this day.  All in this room have sacrificed their most precious gift – time – in service of their children’s academic and Jewish journeys.  Years like these two sharpen both points.  COVID-19 has not only strained families’ pocketbooks, but even with extraordinarily self-directed Grade 8 students, the transition to distance learning has strained families’ living spaces, devices, time, and patience (not to mention wifi!).

We believe that a night like tonight validates those choices and those sacrifices, and proves the power of parenting.

The Vulnerability of Teachers

Teachers make a school and we never saw greater proof of that than during these last two years.  In her book Daring Greatly, Brené Brown identifies “vulnerability” as one of the superpowers that allows folk to show up.  Allowing yourself to be vulnerable in front of others is a strength, not a weakness, and I actually believe it goes a long way towards explaining what our teachers and our school has been able to accomplish.  When you are forced to fly the plane while you are building it, when you have to teach from home with your life on display in the background, when you have to use new skills and new platforms without having had adequate time to learn, let alone practice, when you are willing to publicly acknowledge to your students what you don’t know, when you show up as you are and not, perhaps, as you would like to be – could there be more powerful role modeling for our children than this?  Vulnerability is what lets our teachers know our children like no other school can.  Vulnerability is what gives permission to our students to be who they most authentically are without fear of judgement.  Vulnerability is why graduation is not only an opportunity to acknowledge the Grade 8 Teachers, but a moment to celebrate all the teachers whose collaborations and contributions over time come together to create a class.

We believe that a night like tonight rewards those relationships, lauds that learning, commemorates community and validates the value of vulnerability.

The Courage of Graduates

It takes courage to get into the arena for any of us under normal circumstances.  With all our complicated personalities and unique experiences, just showing up – getting into the arena – is a genuine act of courage.  But when showing up means sometimes being at home, or sometimes being at school, or trying to create new or maintain old relationships from inside a Google Meet, dealing with unusual safety protocols and sacrificing much-anticipated capstone experiences – what I have seen firsthand from you each – and know secondhand from all your teachers – is that you bring your courage to your individual work, your group projects and your class commitments.  You bring it to your academic challenges, and you bring it to your extracurricular opportunities.  You bring it to your varying Jewish commitments, and you bring it to your many expressions of community service and social justice.

And sure, some of that would have been true in the most normal of years.  These last two years, however, were of course far from normal.  Like so many others, this year’s Grade 8 has had to sacrifice moments and memories as planned events became unplanned experiments.  We have, of course, done our best to be creative and go virtual in order to provide with you as many experiences as we could, but we know they aren’t the same.  It is here, too, where you have shown your courage and your character.  You have stuck together, you’ve made your lemonade from lemons, and you have come through the other side with your bonds as tight as ever.

We believe that a night like tonight confirms your character and projects the promise of your potential.  You have come into the arena each and every day and there is no greater testament to your courage than that.

Our OJCS “North Stars” Prayer

Our prayer for you as you graduate and head out into the world is that you come to experience and embody our school’s North Stars; that you continue to point in their direction as you continue to grow and develop into high school and beyond…

  • “Have a floor, but not a ceiling” – be your best self.  Have high expectations at a minimum and unlimited aspirations at a maximum.  We hope you learned at OJCS to be comfortable in your own skin and to carry that confidence with you when you head out into the wider world.
  • “Ruach” – be joyful. School – and life – is supposed to be fun, even when it may seem hard or have difficult moments, like a global pandemic.  We hope you had many moments of joy at OJCS and that you have many more moments of joy in the years to come.
  • “We own our own learning” – learning isn’t something that happens to you, it is something you choose.  We hope you take the sense of ownership for your learning that we strive towards at OJCS into your next schools of choice and that you not merely be satisfied with gathering information, but that you take a growing sense of responsibility for what you learn and how you learn.
  • “We are each responsible one to the other” – make the world a better place. Take what you’ve learned (Torah) and do great deeds (Mitzvot); do (these) great deeds and be inspired to learn more.
  • “We learn better together” – we are stronger and more successful together than we can be alone. Judaism has always been communitarian in this way and what is old is new again as we live in a world where collaboration is not simply advantageous but required.
  • “We are on our own inspiring Jewish journey” – keep choosing Jewish. One can argue that the next years of your Jewish lives are more important than the ones you are celebrating tonight.  In your own ways – continue.  Whether that is in formal Jewish learning, youth group, summer camps, Israel, synagogue attendance, social action – you are no more fully formed Jewishly at your Grade 8 graduation than you were at Bar or Bat Mitzvah.  We pray that you build on this foundation and that you embrace the Jewish journey that continues after tonight.

In closing, know that you each are blessed more than you realize.  But do not ever be content to merely count your blessings.  Be someone who makes their blessings count.