OJCS @ 75: A Miracle Built Through Teachers

Good afternoon, fellow teachers…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s to the next 75 years.

Chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek.

(From Strength to Strength May We Be Strengthened.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teacher Appreciation Week 2024

It feels like each year there is something from the outside world that warrants an explanation as to why this year’s Teacher Appreciation Week is worthy of your added attention.  Whether it was COVID in prior years or October 7th in this one, the job of being a teacher has only gotten more complicated…and more important.  And, of course, here at OJCS what with the relocation and the renovation underway, this year all the more so…

Teachers are not infallible.  Teachers make mistakes.  Teachers can do the wrong thing.  A hopeful return to giving teachers the benefit of the doubt won’t mean blind faith.  Giving teachers the benefit of the doubt doesn’t mean parents shouldn’t advocate for their children.  Giving teachers the benefit of the doubt doesn’t meant that sometimes parents don’t have a better solution to an issue than their teachers.  The best of schools foster healthy parent-teacher relationships explicitly because of these truths.  Both partners are required to produce the best results.  But somewhere in between my time as a student to my time as an educator, the culture changed.  Respect for teachers went from being automatic to being earned to being ignored.

How about this year, let’s assume the best of our teachers – even when they have difficult truths to share.  Let’s give them the benefit of the doubt – even when they don’t communicate as well as they could.  Let’s treat them as partners – even when they make mistakes.  Let’s not simply tell our teachers that we appreciate them; let’s actually appreciate them.

Looking for ideas?

Here is what we will be doing for our teachers as a school:

How about you?

Pump up this great “Teacher Appreciation Week” playlist, pick an item from below (aggregated from lots of blog posts) and make a teacher’s day:

  • A personalized note or email
  • A homemade craft
  • Caffeine
  • A hot meal
  • Gift cards
  • Plants
  • A personalized thank-you sign
  • Small treasures
  • Something special that reminds a teacher of his/her student(s)
  • Alcohol (but check first!)
  • Show up for school!
  • Spa treatment
  • Experiential gifts (like a remote yoga or dance class)
  • Donations to a dream project
  • Year-Round Advocacy

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

Teacher Appreciation Week 2023: When In Doubt – Trust The Teacher

“Teacher Appreciation Week” – like so much of our calendar – is a reminder of something that ought not be restricted to a week or a day.  As memories these days seem to be shorter and shorter, we shouldn’t forget the burst of appreciation for what it means to be a teacher that bubbled up during COVID – a time where parents both saw firsthand and, in some cases, experienced firsthand all that it means to teach children.  Those memories alone should be more than enough to remind us that we owe our teachers and those who care for our children much more than “appreciation”…

I have been in the field of Jewish day school since 2005 and the field of Jewish education since 1997.  Stress, fatigue, under-appreciation, burnout – these factors have (sadly) always been present (as they have been in almost all forms of education, service work and nonprofits).  The days of the 30-year teacher and/or administrator have been ending in slow motion for years and decades, but the exodus we – the field – are experiencing since COVID is unprecedented and potentially cataclysmic.

We have been both lucky and blessed at OJCS, pre-pandemic, during COVID, and post-pandemic with a significant number of veteran teachers and administrators who continue to make OJCS their address for their love of children and their passion for teaching, year after year.  But that doesn’t mean that the last few years have not taken their toll.  They have.  And it certainly doesn’t mean that we should take their commitment and dedication for granted.  We shouldn’t.  What it means – to me – is that the small things that truly demonstrate “appreciation” matter now, more than ever.  That, in fact, the small things couldn’t loom larger.

With Teacher Appreciation Week launching next week, our Admin, PTA and Board eagerly look forward to celebrating and spoiling our teachers.  How, you may ask?  Like this:

What could you do to make a huge difference to the overall wellbeing of our school?  Simply pick an item from below (aggregated from lots of blog posts) and make a teacher’s day:

  • A personalized note or email
  • A homemade craft
  • Caffeine
  • A hot meal
  • Gift cards
  • Plants
  • A personalized thank-you sign
  • Small treasures
  • Something special that reminds a teacher of his/her student(s)
  • Alcohol (but check first!)
  • Show up for school!
  • Spa treatment
  • Experiential gifts (like a remote yoga or dance class)
  • Donations to a dream project
  • Year-Round Advocacy

My personal suggestion?  Absolutely send gift cards and post creatively on social media.  Buy ads in yearbooks, post lawns signs and lead parades!  Do any and all of the above list.  Express your appreciation for all the things your child(ren)’s teacher(s) have done to learning as successful as it has been.  Please.

But if you want to go the extra mile?  Try assuming the best of our teachers – even when they have difficult truths to share.  Give them the benefit of the doubt – even when they don’t communicate as well as they could.  Treat them as partners – even when they make mistakes.  Let’s not simply tell our teachers that we appreciate them; let’s actually appreciate them.

Please be sure to fill out this year’s Annual Parent Survey no later than May 15th if you want your results included in the public reporting!

A quick thought about teachers as we head into February Break…

One of my favorite books is Teaching & Religious Imagination by Maria Harris.  It is a wonderful book and I am grateful to my doctoral comps all those years ago for allowing me to become familiar with it.  What I love about it, is how it describes secular teaching in religious language. The very act of teaching – regardless of subject or location – is a religious act.  This is not just beautiful imagery, which it is, but an important truth to acknowledge as we head into another transition – this time from hyflex, back to in-person learning.

Those of us who have been charged with the sacred task of providing a child with an education recognize and are humbled by that holy responsibility.  It matters not in a school whether we are the teacher of prayer or the teacher of math or the teacher of French or the teacher of badminton.  Education is interactional and God can be found in the quality of our relationships.  How we treat our students and each other matters.

Teachers, like families, are looking forward to a much-needed break from the challenges and burdens of having pivoted from in-person learning to Winter Break to distance learning to hyflex learning to February Break; with a final two-week phasing out of hyflex as the circle rounds back to in-person.  Please know that just as it is vitally important that we find the opportunity to share the good with parents about their children, I cannot tell you how impactful it is when a parent shares something nice about or directly to a teacher.  These acts of lovingkindness are what sustains even the most dedicated of teachers during inevitable times of stress.  Thank you to all who do take the time…your kindness matters.

We are long past the point of predictions when the truest thing is our inability to know what is to come.  We know that when we return from break that the sun will rise on each new day.  We are hopeful for better/easier days, but prepared for all possibilities.  I am as anxious and excited as anyone to see what is to come.  If the saying, “Man plans; God laughs,” is true, I guess we’ll see who is laughing in the weeks to come.

In the meanwhile, we wish all our OJCS Families a safe, restful, joyous and meaningful February Break.

#ShortestBlogEver #You’reWelcome

If You Really Want to Appreciate Teachers, Give Them the Benefit of the Doubt.

We will be celebrating “Faculty Appreciation Week” next week and with the overwhelming majority of schools making their ways through their versions of distance learning we will – rightfully – hear all the ways that having school at home (which is not homeschooling) has brought newfound appreciation for all the things that teachers do to facilitate learning, inspire growth, foster imagination, support development, catalyze innovation, nurture spirits and souls and otherwise care for and love their children.  We will prepare treats, send gift e-cards and even invite our students to capture their messages of appreciation.  And we should!  But if we genuinely want to show our appreciation for faculty, perhaps we should give them the one gift they most surely want and have most truly earned – the benefit of the doubt.

I wrote a torrent of words (even for me) last week about all the ways we should carry the lessons of distance learning forward to school; that there are important lessons and platforms and pedagogies and ideas that should carry forward into school whenever we do return.  We don’t want to go back to school, we want to go forward.  But in terms of teacher appreciation, I would argue the opposite.  The lesson we want to learn from distance learning about appreciating and valuing teachers is that we actually do want to go back – way back – to a time when we gave our teachers the benefit of the doubt.

Teachers are not infallible.  Teachers make mistakes.  Teachers can do the wrong thing.  Giving teachers the benefit of the doubt doesn’t mean blind faith.  Giving teachers the benefit of the doubt doesn’t mean parents shouldn’t advocate for their children.  Giving teachers the benefit of the doubt doesn’t meant that sometimes parents don’t have a better solution to an issue than their teachers.  The best of schools foster healthy parent-teacher relationships explicitly because of these truths.  Both partners are required to produce the best results.  But somewhere in between my time as a student to my time as an educator, the culture changed.  Respect for teachers went from being automatic to being earned to being ignored.

So this year for “Teacher Appreciation Week” absolutely send gift cards and post creatively on social media.  Buy ads in yearbooks, post lawns signs and lead parades.  Express your appreciation for all the things your child(ren)’s teacher(s) have done to make this transition to distance learning as successful as it has been.  Please.

But let’s also try assuming the best of our teachers – even when they have difficult truths to share.  Give them the benefit of the doubt – even when they don’t communicate as well as they could.  Treat them as partners – even when they make mistakes.  Let’s not simply tell our teachers that we appreciate them; let’s actually appreciate them.