We at TanenbaumCHAT are very lucky.  We have dedicated teachers, hardworking students, and supportive parents.  We also have a team of shlichim who find ways to connect our students to Israel in class, between classes, weeknights, and weekends.

Last year, Shlomi and Yaara brought to TanenbaumCHAT a program that started seven years ago in Israel called Zikaron Basalon, literally “Living Room Memories.”  It’s a more intimate way to commemorate Yom HaShoah in which survivors share their stories with a small group of people in someone’s home.  A year ago, nine families hosted a survivor, and over 120 students participated.

I had the honour of facilitating one session at Elyanna and Ami Wenner’s home.  Our speaker was Sylvia Goodman.  Mrs. Goodman taught French at TanenbaumCHAT for many years, but more importantly, she is Elyanna and Ami’s grandmother.

Mrs. Goodman was born in Brussels, the capital of Belgium.  At age two, she was separated from her parents and hidden by an elderly Gentile couple who passed her off as their granddaughter.  Mrs. Goodman’s parents were sent to the the Malin (Mechelen) transit camp in Belgium which was liberated just before they were to be sent to Auschwitz.At the end of the war, Sylvia was reunited with her parents, and in 1951 she came to Canada with her parents who sought an English speaking country (the US wasn’t accepting many immigrants at the time).

Mrs. Goodman recalled what life was like as a child. She helped us imagine how painful it was for her parents to give up their daughter and how her surrogate grandparents helped ensure that she would successfully re-integrate into her parents’ embrace.  We all admired the way she maintained a positive attitude despite these and other traumatic experiences.  To this day, she is always cheerful and upbeat. You can see the sparkle in her eyes from the photo of her with the students; it captures her smiling personality.

The hour passed quickly.  Like any good teacher, she didn’t just lecture; she asked questions along the way.  The students listened with rapt attention.  They, too, asked questions.  Often, Yom Hashoah invokes a heavy mood.  That night, we left inspired.  We were inspired by Mrs. Goodman’s courage and by her instinctive affirmation of life.

This year, Zikaron Basalon will take place on Monday evening for the TCK community and on Tuesday evening for the TCW community.  We encourage students to make the time to be part of these “Living Room Memories” and meet these inspiring heroes from our community.

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Knowing the answers will help you in SCHOOL; knowing how to question will help you in LIFE.  –Warren Berger, author    “A More Beautiful Mind”

The highlight of most seders is the Ma Nishtana.  It’s the part of the seder that is reserved for the youngest child.  As a parent, I remember rehearsing these scripted questions with our four sons so that they were prepared for their 15 “minutes” of fame.

The remarkable thing about the Ma Nishtana is that the ancient rabbis said that ideally the Mah Nishtana should be not be recited.  The rabbis preferred that that children and adults generated their own questions instead of mimicking a scripted set of questions.  They intuited what modern research has shown: that around age 5 or 6 questioning drops off a cliff unless parents and educators make it safe, fun, cool, and rewarding enough to ask questions.

The Mishna in the 10th chapter of Tractate Pesachim says:  After the second cup of wine is poured, a child is given the opportunity to ask a question.  The nature of the question is irrelevant; It could be about the pouring of a second cup of wine or anything else that stands out at the Pesach seder.

If the child doesn’t ask a question, then a parent should draw the child’s attention to all the anomalies of the evening—the unusual props, symbols, foods, and customs that will appear throughout the night. Essentially, the Ma Nishtana wasn’t originally a set of questions that the child recited but a table of contents that was meant to spark his or her curiosity.

The rabbis wanted the seder leader to stimulate as many questions as possible.  In our home we do this by giving anyone who asks a question a piece of gum or candy.  Whether or not someone can answer the question is a different story.  We want to encourage engagement.

On all nights of the year, we live by Warren Berger’s adage–knowing the answers helps you in school; knowing how to question helps you in life.  On Passover, the holiday we celebrate freedom of thought and body, we add one more reason that questions are vital.  The ability to question is a sign that we are no longer disempowered slaves but a free people, free to make meaning of our reality and our sacred traditions.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once said that the role of an educator is to “be a midwife to the birth of a question.” I would say that describes the role of the seder leader perfectly:  to create an environment and an experience where no one is intimidated and all are encouraged to ask questions.  Chag Sameach!
(For a list of sources in Hebrew and English, see https://www.sefaria.org/sheets/61965.)

Shira Aronson is a grade 10 student at TCW who just won 1st place in the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center (FSWC) sixth annual Speaker’s Idol evening, held Wednesday night at Toronto Centre for the Arts. Shira received a laptop and a plaque.  Below is her award winning speech.

 

We’re told that anyone can change the world. Simon Wiesenthal once said, “For evil to flourish, it only requires good men and women to do nothing.” Wiesenthal’s message is simple and clear. However, its application has proven to be much more complex in our reality. Wiesenthal had a view of the infallible individual “good”, whereas today’s reality of moral relativism creates multiple definitions of good. These varying definitions of good impair the ability of an individual to positively change the world. John Locke was a 17th century English philosopher who has shaped modern thinking of how society defines for itself what is good. In the Origins of Government,he writes that “men, being biased by their own interest… [require] an established, settled, and known law… to be the standard of right and wrong.” The need for a universal definition has been demonstrated by the tragedies of recent history, caused by varying definitions of good.

The 1994 Rwandan Genocide claimed the lives of 800 000 people while the world struggled to take decisive action. The Canadian Lieutenant General Roméo Dallaire commanded the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda. He writes:

[N]ations have become accustomed to acting if, and only if, international public opinion will support them – a dangerous path that leads to a moral relativism in which a country risks losing sight of the difference between good and evil.

While hundreds of thousands were being killed in Rwanda, the nations of the world decided for themselves how to respond. As they deliberated over their individual definition of good, a genocide occurred that resulted in the death of 800 000 people.

In Biafra in the late 1960s, the Nigerian civil war led to the starvation of one million people in full view of the Western World. Countries could do very little to assist, since, in spite of numerous peace conferences Nigeria, Biafra, and their allies could not come to a basic humanitarian solution. No parties could find a definition of good that would benefit all people and as a result, one million people starved to death.

Wiesenthal’s ideal had been based on a universal definition of good. In today’s reality, the relativism of people and nations demands integration of varying definitions of good in order to actually effect world change. There cannot be individual definitions of good. Simon Wiesenthal said that “for evil to flourish it only requires good men and women to do nothing,” which implies that individuals can each change the world. Wiesenthal’s insight can actually be interpreted more richly: to change the world, individuals first must strive for a universal definition of good as a standard relevant to all people.

 

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Rabbi Buckman congratulates Shira on her award.

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Shira receives a Certificate of Achievement from Jennifer Valentyne.

One of the key elements that is facilitating the merger of our two campuses is a series of programs and activities that are planned to bring our students together.  Last weekend was our Grade 11 shabbaton.  Starting a year or two ago, we already began implementing joint programming in order to reduce cross-campus duplication.  Our Jewish Student Activities leaders have paved the way for this type of collaboration.  Below is a powerful testament to collaboration and resilience written by guest bloggers Olivia Varkul and Marci Jacobs.

Over the past three years at TanenbaumCHAT,  the Shabbaton program has greatly enhanced  our connection with the school and to our Jewish identities. Shabbatonim give us, as well as many other students, the unique opportunity to observe Shabbat, think more deeply about our Jewish values, enhance our knowledge regarding Zionism and provide us with a strong feeling of community.  Although in school we study many Jewish topics, the Shabbaton is a time where we can be with our friends in an informal setting and apply our knowledge and beliefs learned in class to hands-on activities and discussions.

This past weekend, we had the opportunity to go on the grade eleven Shabbaton with students from both TCK and TCW. With the recent announcement of the merger, we feared that there would be tension and segregation between the two campuses. We were both nervous that our Shabbaton experience that we cherish and love would be negatively impacted. Nobody knew what to expect, and it is safe to say we were all extremely worried and uncertain of what was to come over the next couple of days.

When we arrived, our nervous feelings quickly subsided as we realized that the Shabbaton program, which both campuses love so much, would be something that would help to bring us together. Everyone was there with the same intentions: to have an amazing, ruach-filled weekend. The Shabbaton began with ice breakers,  debates about hot topics in Israel and a shabbaton favourite, Kumzitz (campfire songs).  Kumzitz is a program that is so dear to both campuses although each campus runs the Kumsitz in a unique way. This was one of the first times we were able to see TCK and TCW begin to truly mesh their traditions together.  TCK was able to learn new things from TCW and vice versa. Not only did this enhance the Kumzitz experience as a whole, it showed us that both campuses have truly great things to offer and we all have so much to learn from one another.

On Friday afternoon, the special Shabbat feeling began to sink in as we all got ready for Shabbat. This traditional day of rest allows for self reflection. This Shabbat especially gave us the opportunity to contemplate all that has happened and enabled us to keep open minds about the rest of the Shabbaton and about the upcoming school year. At first, it was hard to accept the two campuses, two cultures and two communities will soon be one.  However, as the Shabbaton progressed, we were able to realize the importance of keeping an open mind in the face of change. The merger is not something that will be easy and it will take time to adjust. However, this weekend proved that bringing the best of both campuses together is what is going to make this transition as easy, effective and positive as possible. We are excited about the opportunities ahead and look forward to embarking on this journey together.

Shabbat shalom!

Marci Jacobs (Grade 11, TCK) and Olivia Varkul (Grade 11, TCW)

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It’s often difficult to reduce to a sound bite complex issues.  It is especially true in a heated Town Hall meeting.  However, certain questions deserve a thoughtful response.  In today’s blog I explain the principles behind teacher retention.

April 1st is the deadline by which TanenbaumCHAT must issue layoff notices.    Since 2008 when enrollment began to decline, teachers wait anxiously through March to hear whether or not they or their colleagues will be laid off.

The collective bargaining agreements govern teacher layoffs in terms of who and when.  As a general rule, the most recently hired teachers, regardless of which campus they are from, are the first to be laid off when the number of students decline in the overall system. That is, a teacher may be laid off from a campus that is not experiencing a declining student population if he or she is the most recently hired.

This coming year, as enrollment in the combined TanenbaumCHAT system is expected to drop by over 100 students, teachers on both campuses wait with nervous uncertainty to hear if they have a job next year.  We know this is very difficult for teachers and we empathize with them.

Understanding this reality, the administration works creatively to retain as many teachers as possible.  For those whom we simply cannot retain, we help teachers network and find new employment.  We write letters of recommendation and speak to other school administrators.

It is a sad reality that as enrollment declines, we must say goodbye to friends and colleagues.  Our hope is that the number is as few as possible and that every one of us remembers to say thank you for playing a role in shaping the next generation of strong, passionate and proud Jews.

 

It’s often difficult to reduce to a sound bite complex issues.  It is especially true in a heated Town Hall meeting.  However, certain questions deserve a thoughtful response, and I am utilizing my blog to launch a series of responses that address the questions on everyone’s mind.  The first addresses student recruitment, the far-reaching efforts to maximize enrollment. Consider it also as one more invitation to get involved.

What drives any school’s viability is enrollment.  One of the great paradoxes is that even though the Jewish population north of Steeles has grown rapidly and significantly over the past ten years, the vast majority of these families are not enrolling in day schools.  We know this from the fact that enrollment is down considerably at Leo Baeck North and the Kamin branch of Associated Hebrew Schools on Atkinson just as it is at TCK.

Three years ago, we hired a consulting firm that helped us develop a strategic plan to slow the downturn in enrollment.  If it had not been for the plan (described in the next paragraphs), it is likely that the need to close TCK would have occurred sooner.  The plan called for several changes which included the following:  We shifted our focus from admissions to recruitment, from “management” to “sales.”  We increased the number of full-time staff in the admissions office by redeploying a senior staff member to manage this vital area. The director reported to me weekly but also provided reports to the board and UJA.

We established a committee of 40 parents with representation from both campuses as well as the Board. These parents were subdivided by feeder school in order to intensify recruitment in their former school whether a Jewish day school or public or secular private school.  We formed a student hosts committee at TCW and worked together with the highly successful TCK student ambassador program.  They worked at every open house and recruitment event and also made phone calls to prospective applicants (see the January, 2106 blog post “Bring people onto the dance floor” at http://thebuckstopshere.tanenbaumchat.org/?author=3&paged=5.  They also attended “parlor” meetings in homes where we met with groups of families from a particular neighbourhood.

We created the Scholars Circle to provide not only additional tuition relief to new families and Judaic content to discuss as a family, but also exposure to our Jewish Studies teachers in an intensive way so that parents will become even stronger ambassadors of the school.  To help ease the burden of tuition for even more families, we offered the UJA’s Extended Payment Program.

We developed novel ways to reach New Stream students by going to Jewish summer camps to make recruitment pitches and showcase some of our unique offerings like robotics.  We follow up with families who receive One Happy Camper grants, a program that targets a population that can feed our New Stream program.  We built relationships with supplementary Jewish schools (particularly JRoots, Neshama, Ahavat Israel, Beit Rayim, Kachol Lavan) and brought TanenbaumCHAT into the classroom so that these students can learn what opportunities can be theirs.  Rabbis have been provided material to promote TanenbaumCHAT from the pulpit.  Synagogues have created TanenbaumCHAT shabbatot where our students participate as a group in the main sanctuary Shabbat morning service.

We worked with a marketing firm to help strengthen our brand and have a stronger presence in social media. That firm encouraged me to start a blog to publicize all the wonderful things our teachers and students do in the school, make the case for TanenbaumCHAT, and alert families to the challenges that lie before us (http://thebuckstopshere.tanenbaumchat.org/?author=3).

We ramped up advertising to prospective students in specific ways via:

  • Postal drops (3 rounds of 10,000-11,000 postcards advertising Open House) (35% of the people who attended Open House heard about it through the postcard they received)
  • Feeder school calendar
  • Feeder school newsletters
  • The CHATTER magazine to incoming and feeder school families
  • Facebook ads
  • Russian language advertisements and articles
  • Flyers for open house posted around the city: Starbucks, grocery stores, etc.

We developed deeper partnerships with our Jewish day school feeders via:

  • Alumni success packages showcasing how well grads of feeder schools do at our school
  • The Student Leadership Conference for feeder school student councils
  • The Robotics outreach program for middle school students held at TanenbaumCHAT
  • Student hosts/ambassadors calling prospective students to answer questions
  • Feeder school students come for half a day to experience the arts program
  • Personal phone calls to any Grade 8 day school child who did NOT enroll

That enrollment has declined is not due to a lack of effort on the part of teachers, staff, students, parents, and community members. Yes, we can always benefit from more ideas and more TanenbaumCHAT evangelists.  The need to do so is no more evident than now.  To get involved, contact Laurie Wasser at lwasser@tanenbaumchat.org.  The long-term health of our school depends on you.

 

The Book of Genesis is a book that is filled with sibling rivalries and jealousies.  It is framed by Cain killing Abel at the start of the book and Joseph’s brothers throwing him into a pit at the end of the book. In truth, however, Genesis begins with fratricide, but ends in fraternity. Joseph and his brothers reconcile.  Thus, although the Book of Genesis begins with conflict and continues with contention (Isaac and Ishmael, Yakov and Esau), it ends with conciliation.

The Book of Exodus also presents a sibling pair, Moshe and Aaron, except that these brothers from the start seem to appreciate their different strengths.  Moshe is a man of truth.  Aaron is a man of peace.  Moshe becomes the leader of the people.  Aaron becomes the speaker on behalf of the people.  Moshe becomes the law giver.  Aaron becomes the high priest.

I can imagine that inside they may have felt envy; the text, however, gives us no indication that this was the case.  They do not seem to covet or resent the other’s position or honour.  Instead each rejoices in the other’s contribution and accomplishments.

As a result of their combined effort, they succeed in liberating an entire nation of ex-slaves and raise them to the level of a royal people ennobled by the charge to become “a kingdom of priests and holy nation.” Together, Moshe and Aaron lead them safely to the Promised Land.  It was because they stood together, led together, functioned as a team, pooled their talents, strengths, and aspirations that they accomplished one of the most grand missions in human history.  We are who we are today because of their partnership.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks puts it this way in his d’var torah on this week’s Torah portion:

“The story of Aaron and Moses is where, finally, fraternity reaches the heights. And that surely is the meaning of Psalm 133, with its explicit reference to Aaron and his sacred garments: “‘How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity!  It is like precious oil poured on the head…running down on Aaron’s beard, down upon the collar of his robes.’”

My hope is that Aaron and Moses’ example of brotherhood is one that guides the lives of all members of our magnificent TanenbaumCHAT family especially when our loyalty to each other is tested.

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This week, I visited Mr. Steinfeld’s Grade 10 New Stream Tanach class at TCK. The course is on the Book of Samuel and specifically the themes of love, loyalty, and leadership. The day of my visit, the students were asked to characterize different relationships in the book, e.g., Saul and David, David and Jonathan, Michal and David.

Three years ago, we implemented a new way of teaching and thinking about Tanach called Standards and Benchmarks where our Tanach curriculum was re-shaped.  It was a project spearheaded by Rabbi Michael Rootman, the head of the department at TCK, and Judith Shapero, TCK’s Vice Principal.  The teachers in the Tanach department have been revising the curriculum and organizing it around what’s called in the field of education, Big Ideas and Essential Questions.

Big Ideas refer to core concepts, principles, and theories in a field of study.  Essential Questions are questions that are open-ended, don’t have a single correct answer; they’re thought-provoking and demand higher order thinking. These Essential Questions point to the hard-won big ideas that we want students to understand.  They spark the curiosity of the students to explore the Big Ideas, the key issues and problems that are discussed in the subject.  The idea is to focus not on minutia but on large organizing principles and universal themes that then help the student gain insight into their own experiences.

In Mr. Steinfeld’s Tanach class some of the Essential Questions include:

  • When should we relinquish our personal perspective and desire for the sake of our purpose or role?
  • When should we listen to others and when should we just do what’s right?
  • How can we make sure that leaders do what’s right and not just what’s popular?
  • How do we deal with biblical texts that have a troubling message?

Some of the Big Ideas include:

  • All people, even prophets, have their personal bias and perspective.
  • Relationships with others (with God, community, other people) require that we look beyond our own personal needs and perspective.
  • The Divine perspective is not always the same as the human perspective.

The Standards and Benchmarks process has been transformative. The Tanach faculty at TCK is invested in ongoing learning and improvement, and our students are gaining a deep understanding of the important themes and questions raised in our Tanach.   The training for Standards and Benchmarks is currently underway in the Rabbinics department at both campuses as well.  We thank the faculty who have dedicated their passion, expertise and time, and we thank the generous donors for their support of these enhancements of faculty and student learning at TanenbaumCHAT.

The next time you ask a student “What’s the Big Idea?,” don’t be surprised if he or she gives you a serious answer.

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Everyday, a team of 200 adults sets out to spark the curiosity of nearly 1000 TanenbaumCHAT students, help them build a strong sense of character,  inspire them to connect to their Jewish roots and the Jewish community globally and in Israel, and challenge them to become productive citizens who use their talents and skills to make a contribution to others.

The profound impact that a TanenbaumCHAT education has on our children is as varied as the number of students in the school.  A few weeks ago, I bumped into Keren (Shilling) Green, Class of ’04, at a shiva house.  She could not help but share with me the way her TanenbaumCHAT experience continues to shape her life.  She said:

“My time at CHAT transformed me, not only as a young professional leader in the Jewish community, but in all aspects of my life. My closest friends are my high school girls; I keep in touch with my teachers via social media; and I love looking through the ‘mazel tov’ section of the CHATter to keep up to date with my high-achieving classmates. But most importantly, as I now work at Buffalo Jewish Federation organizing events and working with various families in the community, I realize that my job is no different than my role as chairperson of Religious Affairs Committee or director of the CHAT school play. CHAT taught me leadership, to believe in myself, and to be proud of my Jewish upbringing by inspiring me to put my children through day school and hopefully give them a fraction of the incredible opportunities I received in my four years of high school.”

Each time a current or former student expresses appreciation for a lesson taught, an experience provided, or a relationship created at TanenbaumCHAT, I realize how priceless it is what we offer.  Much of what we do we are able to do because of tuition revenue.  However, a good portion of the extras come from generous parents who not only fulfill their tuition obligation but who also feel an expanded sense of responsibility beyond their own child.

I can list many of those “extras,” but one of them is our experiential shlichim program.  The impact that Shlomi and Ya’ara have had on our children is captured well by this comment by one of our student leaders who said:

..this program has played a very important role in strengthening my connection to Israel….  Ya’ara has challenged me to think deeply about the reasons that Israel is important in my life…in order to help other TanenbaumCHAT students feel connected to Israel. I am very grateful to Ya’ara for her guidance and her thoughtful approach to Israel engagement.

On an annual basis, we turn to our parents, grandparents, and community members to raise the funds necessary to continue to make this transformative education a birthright for as many Jewish children possible.  Our goal is $850,000 this year.  We are already halfway there.

I ask you to participate at whatever level you can, and I thank you in advance for strengthening TanenbaumCHAT and the future of our Jewish community.

This past Friday, a small group of TCK students, Shlomi Edelshtein, and I went to express our condolences to the members of the Ahmadiyya community, located nearby in Maple, ON, who were mourning the loss of the six murdered victims in the Quebec City massacre.

One of the students who attended, Daniel Minden, wrote a reaction to the tragic events and published it on Times of Israel.  “Whatever our differences,” he writes, “we must always remember the imperative of standing together against religious hatred. Judaism teaches compassion, respect, and understanding. Needless to say, Jews have seen and endured too much not to stand with others in their time of need.”

I bring to your attention the entirety of his moving post: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/standing-together-in-face-of-hatred/

As well, I share with you a copy of the letter that I sent in advance of our visit to the members of the Ahmadiyya mosque this past Friday.

Dear Asif,

I want to express our condolences to you on the tragic deaths of members of the Islamic community in Quebec City.  This past Monday, in the school that I lead, we stood for a moment of silence and in solidarity with the victims of this horrific crime.  We recognized that this act of terror was a desecration of human life, an attack on religious freedom, and a violation of sacred space.

Our tradition teaches that all people are created in the image of God with infinite value.  Our Torah begins not with the first Jew, Abraham, but with the first human being, Adam.  Regardless of religious background, political party, or skin colour, a life is a life.  In both Islamic and Jewish tradition, we believe that to destroy one life is to destroy a whole world.  This past week, the worlds of each one of the victims was irreparably shattered.

We are saddened by these events and extend our sympathies to the family members and friends of those who perished.  We wish a “refuah sheleimah,” a speedy recovery to those who were “only” injured.  Our thoughts are with you and your community.

As Jews and Canadians, we will continue to remember, cherish, affirm, and preserve what is right and true and worth fighting for:  the sanctity of human life, human dignity, freedom, religious expression, and equality. We will continue to pray that we will see a day when all people can live together in peace and harmony.

Sincerely,

Rabbi Lee Buckman

 

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