The last remaining founder of the State of Israel passed away this week.  Former Israeli President Shimon Peres was 93 years old when he died on September 28. For nearly 60 years, he loyally served the citizens of Israel in many roles including as Prime Minister, President, Defense Minister, and Minister of Foreign Affairs.  In 1994 he and Yitschak Rabin won a Nobel Prize for their efforts to secure peace in the region.

I had the privilege of meeting Mr. Peres, but the circumstances were unfortunate.  During the summer of 2014, my wife Rachel and I paid a shiva visit to the family of the Ethiopian soldier, Moshe Malko, who had been killed in the war in Gaza.  Coincidentally, we had been renting an apartment one floor above Mr. Peres’s apartment in Talbea (Jerusalem).  We had heard that the Molkos had few visitors and decided to pay a shiva visit in their community in Neve Ya’acov about twenty minutes north.

The large immigrant family was sitting shiva in the social hall of their neighbourhood synagogue; their house was too small to accommodate even a modest group of comforters. Those who came to comfort the boy’s parents and siblings stood in line to share a wordless expression of sorrow.  We sat down on folder chairs across from them in silence.  What does one say to a family who sacrificed their son so that we can live in safety and security?

Towards the end of our shiva visit, President Shimon Peres and Mayor Jerusalem Nir Barkat entered the room. Here was a humble Ethiopian family who prior to all of this wasn’t known by diplomats, dignitaries, or politicians.  Now, some of the most important people in Israel made the time to express their sympathies.  Peres extended his hands to embrace the deceased soldier’s mother.  I could feel the warmth and empathy he was expressing (see photo).

That summer, Mr. Peres announced his retirement (read his most moving farewell address  At 91 he was the oldest living head of state in the world.  He was a noble soldier and a pursuer of peace.  He was a visionary and inspiring speaker.  He also had a disarmingly self-deprecating sense of humor.  If you haven’t seen the four-minute parody that he made about his search for employment after leaving the Presidency, take the time and watch it.

He was also a great optimist.  Aviva Klompas, a former speechwriter for UN Ambassador Ron Prosor and current Israel strategist for the UJA of Boston and daughter of our recently retired TCW Guidance Department Head Margaret Klompas, captured Peres’s uniqueness in her blog post two weeks ago.

She wrote:

In addition to being a father of the Jewish state, Shimon Peres was a father of possibilities. At a time when nobody thought that peace was possible between Israel and its Arab neighbors, he helped negotiate peace with Egypt and with Jordan.

This champion for peace was also a realist who said, “I don’t say that peace is perfect, but we prefer an imperfect peace to a perfect victory or a perfect war.” (

Shimon Peres dealt in hope.  He was a man of dreams.  In a TED talk, Mr. Peres shared some wisdom that is appropriate for the High Holiday season. He said: “In the evening, I make a list of the mistakes I made during the day and the people I insulted, and I look for ways to correct it.  In the morning, I make a list of the dreams I have and try to realize them.”

In a strange way, I feel like an orphan.  Mr. Peres was the last living connection we had to the generation of courageous leaders who launched the rebirth of the modern State of Israel and the historic ingathering of the Jewish people.  May his ever-flowing optimism inspire all of us to dream dreams that will help build a more secure future for our homeland and our people.

May Shimon Ben Yizchak V’Sarah rest in peace.


I’m often asked how TanenbaumCHAT prepares students for university and beyond.  I, myself, can think of many answers to that question, and in a future blog post, I’ll share my observations.  In the meantime, I asked a few TanenbaumCHAT graduates who are now enjoying the fruits of their labour on a university campus to share their reflections.  Here is what they said.

Maxwell Charlat, class of 2015 and a student at Yeshiva University, zeroed in on time management as one of the key ways in which TanenbaumCHAT prepared him for university.  “TanenbaumCHAT teaches students that time is valuable. TanenbaumCHAT offers so many amazing extracurricular activities while expecting high academic performance from each student. With a jam-packed schedule and limited time, TanenbaumCHAT teaches students to be productive and maximize the limited time they have.”

Mark Freeman, class of 2011, independently echoed Maxwell’s thoughts and added  leadership development as a valuable benefit of a TanenbaumCHAT education.  He put it this way:  “TanenbaumCHAT’s dual curriculum challenged me as a student to improve my work ethic and time management, while giving me exposure to a wide variety of subjects and inspiring me to develop broad academic interests. As a fairly small school, it’s also one in which opportunities to take on leadership roles are plentiful, with all the opportunities for personal growth that these things entail. When I got to university, where learning, leadership, and diligence are so crucial, I found myself ready to grapple with the challenges I faced there that required a strong command of these skills. Of course, these skills are so broadly applicable in life that I haven’t exactly outgrown them since graduation!”

Kevin Jacobs, Class of 2012 who is currently doing a Master’s of Information at the University of Toronto, said that what he gained most from TanenbaumCHAT was the confidence to succeed. “Confidence is certainly important for success in undergraduate studies. That confidence allows alumni to feel like they belong where they are and to avoid the ‘imposter syndrome’ so common amongst students at a higher level of education. As I begin my Master’s degree, I feel like I can do it because I was able to maneuver through the challenging and exciting double curriculum at TanenbaumCHAT.”

When I think about how best to prepare our students for life beyond school, I ask myself what pieces of my education am I using now as an adult.  Are they not precisely the values our graduates articulated: time management, a strong work ethic, and the confidence to succeed?  The next time someone asks you “Why TanenbaumCHAT?,” share with them at least these three ways our school prepares students not just for the next level of education but for life.

Kevin Jacobs





Maxwell Charlat


Hello class of 2020 and welcome to your grade nine orientation. My name is David Romi-Babany… and I am your student council president….I was born in South Africa, I am a Netivot graduate, I play on the basketball team and soccer team, and I’m also a madrich. So in other words, I’m going to be seeing you guys a lot this year….

2020 seems like it’s a long ways away, but trust me when I say this, these next few years will truly fly by….and the way to reach your full potential at TanenbaumCHAT is to get involved in the amazing opportunities that we offer and encourage you to do. From the little things like accepting the free chocolate on chocolate day, or putting your Raptors jersey on to rep the 6ix for jersey day. To the big things like running a campaign to be your grades student rep, or going full out and dressing up with your YOM AHAVA dates. Getting involved and putting yourself out there is something that is stressed so much here because it is the fundamental ingredient for turning a normal high school into the unforgettable experience that this school truly is.

Take a moment to look to the people on both sides of you. Look at the teachers over there, look at the student council over here, and look at me…. This is your family. We will be with you guys through the highs of the shabbatons, and the lows of the hell weeks. We will be there to show you where main street it, tell you which office to go to, what food to buy at the caf, what sports teams to join and which clubs are best suited for you. Because that’s what families do. And in high school, it’s always helpful to have someone leading the way for you like an older sibling. Someone that you can look up to, someone that you can count on to be there for you, someone that genuinely cares for you and wants you to succeed in every aspect of life.

When I was in grade nine, I was very fortunate to have an older brother who went to TanenbaumCHAT. He was able to give me so many tips on how to make high school an amazing time. The greatest piece of advice that he ever gave me, one that I will cherish forever, was to get involved and do something that people will remember you by. I live by those words, and my job this year, as your older brother, is to pass that same lesson on to you guys….

As you go through the next four years, this school will help shape you into a more passionate, hard-working, and dedicated person. You have been given the amazing opportunity to live by my brother’s words… and if you just put yourself out there, you will see that over the next four years, while this school is shaping you, you too will be able to shape this school.

Get ready for the best four years of your lives.


Click here to see a short video; “What you think TCK is like vs. What’s it’s actually like.”

david2 david3



When I think of innovation, I think of high-tech companies or some small start up.  I didn’t expect to find an innovation hub on a kibbutz that was founded in the 1920’s.

This summer, I spent a day with a trim, well-tanned 72 year old artist, educator, and Six-Day War hero named Avital Geva.  You might have heard of Avital Geva from Yossi Klein Halevy’s book “Like Dreamers.”  He is one of the seven members of the 55th Paratroopers Reserve Brigade that fought to liberate Jerusalem in June, 1967.  Halevy describes the evolution of Geva’s political views in the aftermath of the Six-Day War.



In 1977 Avital Geva built a greenhouse the size of a large warehouse on his Hashomer Hatzair Kibbutz Ein Shemer, near Haifa.  It is filled with fish ponds and lily pads, plant nurseries and scientific equipment, a massive rain machine and hundreds of bubbling pop bottles filled with algae.  This greenhouse was the first place in Israel that figured out how to grow vegetables on recycled water (the first hydroponic system in Israel) and the first to grow vegetables in planters filled with lava culled from extinct volcanoes in the Golan Heights.

Geva built the greenhouse originally to stimulate high school students to experiment on ecological projects because “Israel’s future depends on raising young people able to deal creatively with earth, wind, water.”  As he says, “I take a little agriculture, a little ecology, a little education and mix it with coffee; students learn by doing.”


For the past four plus decades he has been bringing Muslims and Jews, Ethiopian kids who are challenged with the regular framework of school and  American students from High Tech High in San Diego and from the Far East to learn, discover, invent, innovate, and experiment.  As well, researchers from the Weizmann Institute of Science and the Technion, teachers from local schools and those abroad come to teach or conduct their own scientific research.  The magic happens when these naturally curious kids are paired with these high-tech entrepreneurs and scientists.

I saw a new aeroponics unit built by an MIT student.

I heard about the work of a group of high school students who had worked with a big leafy plant from South America where they are proposing that the water-repellent leaves might be the idea for roofing material for people in rural settings.


Avital Geva tells me that he tries to give students “meaningful moments of education.” I saw how he does this.  He created the Start-up Greenhouse in the Start-up Nation.

This week, I shared my experiences from my visit to Ein Shemer with our faculty.  We hold a similar aspiration with Avital Geva:   to stimulate students to develop their curiosity, creativity, and ability to think differently and create “meaningful moments of education.”

That’s our charge at TanenbaumCHAT for this year and every year.  We hope every day is filled with meaningful moments of education.

(For those who’d like to see a short video, narrated in Hebrew, about the Greenhouse, go to


Before we say l’hitraot, I want you to look around at your classmates’ faces.  If you look at each other, you see a microcosm of the Jewish people in its diversity.

Some of you are dark skinned.  Others are light skinned.  Some of you look Sephardi.  Others look Ashkenazi.  Some of you are Israeli born.  Some of you have Russian speaking parents.  Some of you have South African parents; and some of you have parents that come from my country, the one brings us Donald Trump, the USA!  Some of you belong to Orthodox schuls; others belong to Conservative synagogues and some Reform temples.

TanenbaumCHAT is a place where the silos come down and the labels vanish.  It’s a place where students encounter classmates who are unlike them and yet everyone studies together, celebrates together, laughs together and lives together.

Unfortunately, the reality of the rest of the Jewish world is that it is divided–between hawks and doves in Israeli politics, between Ashkenazim and Sephardim, between Orthodox and non-Orthodox, between those in favour of women rabbis and those against.

Recently, the Kotel in Jerusalem became a battleground again between groups of Jews. A group that had gotten permission to hold an egalitarian minyan was jostled and harassed by a group of Jews who oppose egalitarianism.  It was ugly.

But it’s not just Israel.  Here in North America, we live in a world where the typical Jew in a Reform temple never meets an Orthodox Jew, and the typical Jew in an Orthodox synagogue never meets a Reform or Conservative Jew.  We live in a world where it’s more likely that a non-Jew will be asked to speak from the synagogue pulpit than a rabbi from another denomination.

When you have no first-hand experience of another person’s viewpoint, when you never have a conversation with people who define their Jewish identity differently, you only know each other by stereotypes.

Not so at TanenbaumCHAT.

Under one roof at TanenbaumCHAT, you can meet an observant Jew, a questioning Jew, a liberal Jew who dreams of a day when Jews and Arabs will live together in peace, and a right wing Jew who believes that Israel must be strong and on guard against the Arabs every moment of the day–and that’s just one student!

At TanenbaumCHAT, you have met fellow classmates who observe shabbat differently and eat differently and pray differently.  And sometimes this may have made you feel uncomfortable.

But I hope it also taught you to see the world through the eyes of someone else.  I hope it helped you understand your own convictions better and that despite our differences, we are part of one faith and one family with one fate.

Let me tell you a brief story about the benefits of first hand experience with people who hold different ideological or political views.  There’s a rivalry that’s heating up now in Israeli politics between Prime Minister Netanyahu and a former Prime Minister Ehud Barak.  Netanyahu is from Likkud and Barak from Labor.  Netanyahu’s politics are right of center, and Ehud Barak’s are left of center.

The last time Ehud Barak challenged Benjamin Netanyahu’s candidacy, it was 1999.  Netanyahu was the incumbent, and Ehud Barak beat him.  Journalists and political commentators had expected it to be one of the dirtiest campaigns for PM.  But it wasn’t. It was one of the most civil.

And I’ll tell you why.

In 1972, there was a Sabena Airlines jetliner that was hijacked to Israel by some Palestinian terrorists who threatened to blow up the plane with all the passengers on board.  A brave group of Israeli commandos from Sayeret Matkal, the Israeli equivalent of the American Delta Force, dressed up in overalls and pretended to be airplane mechanics.

They charged the plane, rescued the passengers, and neutralized the terrorists.  The commander was a 30 year old man named Ehud Barak, and one of the members of that elite unit was a 22 year old young man named Bibi Netanyahu.

When two people risk their lives on a joint mission, they’re not the same again.  It’s hard to demonize and malign and mock another person after an experience like that.  They don’t see each other as Likudniks and Labor, hawks and doves.  They see each other as much more than any label can describe:  they see each other as human beings–complex, conflicted, committed.

That’s the beauty and uniqueness of the TanenbaumCHAT experience.  Whether in classes or during extracurricular activities, you have met and have made friends with classmates whose Jewish lives are very different from your own.  You’ve made friends with classmates who aren’t necessarily any less passionate or committed.

Imagine a Jewish world where Jews who interpret our tradition in diverse ways, would listen to, learn from, and honour each other.  Imagine a Jewish world where those who affiliate with a movement realized that the biggest danger that faces the Jewish community isn’t the encounter with people they disagree with but the fact that there are so many Jews who don’t want to participate in the conversation at all.

Imagine a Jewish world that mirrored the large tent of TanenbaumCHAT.  You’ve experienced and appreciated that kind of world at TanenbaumCHAT. Now, go out and help shape the Jewish community of tomorrow to appreciate and mirror it too.

It’s final exam season at TanenbaumCHAT.  Students are busy studying for and writing exams.  Teachers are marking FST’s, papers, and exams.  Everyone is busy. Yet, if school were in session, I’d ask that we either assemble students, speak to them in class, or prepare some words to be read over the loudspeaker about the tragic events this past weekend in Orlando.  Forty-nine innocent people were murdered; nearly an equal number suffered injuries.  I’ll have to suffice with a blog post even if it’s not clear whether or not it will be read.

As much as we are members of a sacred family, the Jewish people, we are also members of the family of humanity.  Ours is a tradition that believes that all people are created in the image of God.  Our Torah begins not with the first Jew, Avraham, but with the first human being, Adam.  Our tradition teaches that to destroy one life is to destroy a whole world.  Regardless of sexual orientation, religious background, political party, or skin colour, a life is a life.  Ours is a tradition that teaches that every human being is endowed with three inalienable qualities:  infinite worth, equality, and uniqueness.

Ours is a tradition that urges us is to make it known to all people that denigrating human dignity of any person is unacceptable and intolerable.  Our task is to assert with every fiber in our body that all people are made in the image of God and to desecrate that image is one of the greatest of all sins.  Our message is to proclaim that the image of God is reflected in heterosexuals and homosexuals, Gentiles, and Jews, black people and white people, We all come from the same Source.

The NY Times columnist Frank Bruni makes a related point in his June 12, 2016 column:

This was no more an attack just on L.G.B.T. people than the bloodshed at the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris was an attack solely on satirists.

Both were attacks on freedom itself. Both took aim at societies that, at their best, integrate and celebrate diverse points of view, diverse systems of belief, diverse ways to love. And to speak of either massacre more narrowly than that is to miss the greater message, the more pervasive danger and the truest stakes.

To be a good American or Canadian, not just a good Jew, one must remember, cherish, affirm, and preserve what is right and true and worth fighting for:  human dignity, freedom, and equality.

As Canadians, we might feel that what happens in Orlando, Florida, in the United States is not so relevant.  But, as Jews, we are taught that the commandment “love your neighbour as yourself” is not just a geographic obligation but a moral one.  Nevertheless, I want to bring this message as close to home as possible.  In our great institution, there are students who are homosexual. Some are public about their orientation; others are not.  I imagine that many of these students feel vulnerable, and especially so in light of what took place at the Pulse nightclub.  As members of the TanenbaumCHAT community, we need to think carefully about the language we use and the actions we take so that all our students feel safe and valued.  We, who learn and teach the sacred messages of our tradition, must be sure to that we are building a school community where every member is regarded as being created in the image of God with infinite worth, equality, and uniqueness.

I read the essays of each entering Grade 9 applicant to the TCW Anita and Danny Chai Engineering Academy.  We accepted a cohort of 14 students who have enrolled in a special four-year engineering track and receive a special diploma upon graduation.

Their passions are math and science. They generally enjoy learning how to take apart, put back together, or design machines, gadgets, and devices.  One major project that they are undertaking is that they are helping us build one of the finest high school engineering programs in Toronto.

These 14 engineering students are true pioneers.  Who are they?

They are students who enjoy hands-on learning, problem-solving, and coding.  They are intrigued by how things work.  Some have experience with app development or robotics at home.  Others were involved in competitions and contests in school.  Some have extensive libraries with books like Cool Stuff and How it Works, Groovy Gadgets, and Why Pi as well as subscriptions to aviation magazines.  Others have developed relationships with medical and bio-engineers who have introduced them to possible career opportunities.  Others expressed a fascination with modern engineering innovations and an eagerness to address authentic, real life problems.

We are excited to welcome these 14 talented students.  We look forward to launching an academic program that revolves around hands-on problem-based learning in the classroom and opportunities outside of school to meet engineers in the field.  These students and our educational team are pioneers and innovators in the field of STEM education and will set a path for the opening of a similar program the following year at TCK.
We have many reasons to be excited about the year ahead. This is just one more way in which TanenbaumCHAT distinguishes itself among other fine high schools in the Toronto region.

One of the highlights of Yom Ha’atzmaut in Israel is the Chidon HaTanach, the international Bible contest for high school students.  Israelis crowd around their television sets to watch the intellectual jousting just as Americans do in front of their screens on Super Bowl Sunday.

The Chidon traces its history to David Ben Gurion who was famous for peppering his speeches with Biblical allusions in order to demonstrate how the modern State is a continuation of the ancient historical narrative of the Jewish people.  As much as the early Zionists rejected the Talmud, they embraced the Tanach because they viewed it as the perfect model for Jewish national rebirth in its homeland.

Six decades later, TanenbaumCHAT Tanach aficionados are writing the next chapter in that Zionist story; our students continue to participate and place among the highest finishers in the Chidon.

Ryan Ripsman TCK Class of 2017, who placed 4th worldwide in the 2015 competition, competed in Chidon every year for the past five years.  Now as a TanenbaumCHAT Chidon coach, he says: “it was an awesome experience. It was very special for me to be able to share all of the knowledge I had gathered over the past years with others who were just as passionate about Chidon as I. On top of my experience as a coach, I also helped judge this year’s contest. It was a fascinating experience to see how the contest I had competed in worked from behind the scenes.”

One of the forces behind the TCW’s participation has been Sofia Freudenstein who is graduating this year.  Sofia placed 6th in the competition in Israel two years ago.  She describes the impact the Chidon had on her:  “The first thing I was required to do was to read about 80 chapters, which exposed to some texts that I had never even heard of before.  I was lucky enough to place in the top 3 in the National Chidon Contest here in Canada, and this meant getting to compete on the international level in Israel the next Yom Ha’atzmaut.  It also meant having to study a total of 426 chapters.  The thing I gained most from the Chidon was an appreciation of my Judaism on a whole new level.  Although the competition is on hard facts, lots of questions (theological, halakhic, ontological) arise when you study over half of the Tanakh.  Reading Tanakh cultivated my love for Judaism and enhanced my overall curiosity in both Written and Oral Torah.  I believe that my future aspirations to pursue a rabbinic role can be traced to my learning for the Chidon HaTanakh.”

Sofia was a coach at TCW, and she encouraged David Polisuk (Class of 2017)  to participate.  For David, “Chidon taught me how to study and I finally found something harder than taking eleven courses at TanenbaumCHAT. I guess all my work paid off since I won the day by finishing in the top 12 this year! Since I am in the Intermediate stream, Hebrew is harder for me and therefore I studied Chidon in English. That in itself was a challenge since the person running Chidon said that the official language is Hebrew, not English. In one of the questions on the test this year, the contest writer translated the Hebrew word for fish into peppers making a question have no possible answer in the English. Although they corrected this mistake, I found learning in English exceptionally hard. Since I am in grade 11 and did not progress to the Israel level, I cannot compete in Chidon next year. The next stage for me is ensuring that Chidon continues next year.”

At TCK, Ben Shore (Class of 2017 and the fastest Torah reader north of Rutherford Rd.) made a splash this year:  “I have always had a passion for Tanach. I love the stories and the thought- provoking questions it raises. The preparation that helped me the most in this contest was laining. Once I lained a torah portion, it was memorized, which was a huge bonus for this contest. For the non-Torah sections we were required to learn, I looked over stories and memorized details, important quotes, and prophecies. What surprised me the most was some question styles which I did not prepare for or expect (such as defining phrases). The best part of Chidon for me was seeing my hard work pay off. I studied for dozens of hours, and it felt amazing when I looked at a question and knew exactly what the answer was. I placed second in Canada this year so for me, the next stage is preparing for the competition in Israel next year. I am preparing for this by memorizing as much as I can and by paying attention to the small details, such as obscure places, people and prophecies.”

As head of school, I can only imagine what it must be like for 70-80 participants to come from 30-40 different countries to compete in the final round of the competition.  Amidst the multitude of languages, dress, and religious backgrounds, they all shared one thing in common:  their love of Tanach in the true spirit of Ben Gurion, the founder of the modern State of Israel.

blog1 blog2 blog3

You may have heard that starting September 2017, we’ll be offering Grade 12 students electives in Jewish Studies.  Our four-year core curriculum will be reduced to three, and in Grade 12 students will no longer be required to take Hebrew, Tanach, Rabbinics, and Jewish History. Rather, they will be permitted to choose any combination of four Jewish Studies courses.

Some stakeholders who have heard this new policy say that we’re diluting the Jewish Studies program.  I look at it differently.

My vision for a vibrant Jewish school community is one that is filled with students who possess deeper subject knowledge in one area or another of Jewish literacy or life.  Students have different affinities, strengths, and aspirations. Some students love Ivrit and strive to speak and read and write like native Israelis.  Others love Talmud and view it as the core text that guides their lives.  Some seek a home in the lessons of the Tanach; others find their Jewish identity strengthened through Jewish History.

My vision for a vibrant school community mirrors my vision for a vibrant Jewish community.  Some Jews excel at chesed, service to the needy, or outreach to Jews on the periphery of the community.   Others stand out in their commitment to Torah study or in building a shabbat observant community.  Some are courageous spokespeople on behalf of Israel.  Others are active in synagogue life and connect to Judaism through prayer.  No single person can perform all 613 mitzvot in the Torah; we fulfill them as a community.

One of the beautiful things about TanenbaumCHAT is that students come from different backgrounds and with different commitments, and yet we manage to study under the roof of one giant beit midrash.  I celebrate that diversity and want to encourage it.

TanenbaumCHAT’s strength is that we’re an incubator of a vision where the typical silos that divide the Jewish community come down.  Students at our school encounter Jews who are not like them and where we embrace and celebrate the discomfort of those differences.  Imagine a Jewish world that mirrored the large tent of TanenbaumCHAT.

My vision is to foster a pluralism of substance where students learn that the Jewish world is enriched by all types of Jews.  I want them to see that each movement contributed and contributes something important to Jewish life.  If it weren’t for the Orthodox Movement, for example, there would be no day schools; without the Reform Movement, no youth groups; without the Conservative Movement, no Jewish camps; without the Reconstructionist Movement, no notion of the synagogue as a beit kenesset, not just a beit tefilla.

I want students to understand that the State of Israel might not have been established had it not been for secular Jews and it might not have been a Jewish State had it not been for religious Jews.

I want students to realize that the more ports of entry we create, the greater the likelihood that Jews will find a home in Judaism.  I want them to find their unique voice and contribution to the Jewish community.

It is this vision that is driving the changes we are making in Jewish Studies.  That is why we are giving students the opportunity to delve deeply into a subject area about which they are passionate.  Let them take two or three Ivrit classes or two or three Jewish history classes.  Let them find their voice and home in Jewish civilization and in our sacred family.

In an age where we are trying to nurture critical and innovative thinking, we need to offer a wider breadth and depth of courses to enable students to deepen their roots in their Jewish heritage and in the Jewish community.  The elective policy doesn’t signal the advent of a diluted Judaism, but the aspiration towards a more vibrant one.

I have to admit that Israel as an abstract concept does not mean very much to me. The idea of a land is something we are told so much about in school, but it is the part that is hardest to connect to. Israel for me has always been the place where my maternal grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins live. That is the Israel I visited for my grandfather’s 70th birthday and the place where he is buried. I was inspired to join Project Israel for the chance to win tickets to visit this land and my family who I almost never see without a screen between us.

Last year I entered with the same hope and came in fourth place. This year, armed with experience I was determined to try again. I must admit that after fourteen years of Jewish education, getting through the first few question stages only took a brief review of the information booklets.

The first big challenge for me was the creative stage—an art piece to represent Israel. But what did Israel really mean to me? And I realized that Israel didn’t mean just one thing. It couldn’t mean just one thing. Israel means something different to every person. There are a multitude of “Israels,” each contained within individual heads and hearts; but while I could conceptualize this idea I had no idea how to express it. It seemed, to borrow a word from philosophy class, ineffable.

And it is here where I fell back to the abstract, with new eyes. I took the symbol of a Magen David—the most generic symbol for Israel—and I recreated it with mixed medium. Using blue paint, pipe cleaner, ribbon, and even a bingo dabber, I tried to express how something that seems so simple and clear cut can only seem that way from a distance: an abstract Israel, an abstract Magen David. But once you look closely you are forced to see all the different materials, all the diverse people that combine into the big picture. This is what Israel has and will always be.

It was when the reality of competing in front of the whole school finally hit me that I began to really study, memorizing what felt like a thousand pages. This is when I learned that Israel is, quite literally a place where history lies around on the ground. Take, for example, Jerusalem and the City of David, where the walls were built and rebuilt by Jews throughout the ages, dating back to the biblical King Chizkiyahu.

It is by living alongside the ancient that we prevent the distance that is so common in academic study. As a country filled with both the modern and the antiquated, the Jewish state is perhaps the most poignant metaphor for Judaism itself. We take a tradition that dates back thousands of years and keep the fundamentals, the values and the holy book. Then we apply it to our own lives in big ways and in small ways. With every high holiday and every penny given to tzedakah, we are asserting a connection to something far greater than ourselves.

And at the end of the day this is why I entered Project Israel–for the chance to discover my very own Land of Israel.