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.


This year, the grade 9 and 10 New stream students were given the opportunity to explore and learn from the Florence Melton School of Adult Jewish Learning from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in their Rabbinics classes. This new curriculum was introduced to meet the needs of the New stream cohort who arrived at TanenbaumCHAT with less Hebrew text knowledge, but with a curiosity to learn about Judaism and living a Jewish life. The Melton School’s Rhythms of Jewish Living textbook was developed as an adult learning course, but we have adapted it for teenage learners. The curriculum focuses on the Jewish calendar, Jewish living, and rites of passage. Each chapter offers a wealth of Jewish texts, ranging from biblical and medieval sources to contemporary essays. This allows for students to explore different interpretations of a topic, and encourages discussion around values and Jewish identity.

Four teachers participated in this curriculum project; Eliezer Robbins and Keren Romm from TCK along with Lyla Abells and Lori Cohen from TCW. The grade 9 curriculum focuses more on the Jewish calendar, including Shabbat and the chaggim, while the grade 10 curriculum focuses more on the Jewish rites of passage.  In parallel with the text study we have built in experiential components. For example, while studying Sukkot the students had the opportunity to learn in the Sukkah, to write midrashim about the lulav and etrog, and to participate in the rituals.  We have also devoted classes to have both Tu B’Shvat and Pesach Seders.

As teachers, we have benefitted from the clear text and methodology that the Melton School has developed. We’ve had a Melton advisor, Rabbi Morey Schwartz, with whom we have met, both in person and over Skype from Jerusalem. He has encouraged us to share and adapt the curriculum for our students’ needs. We have also been in touch with other Jewish Day Schools in the United States to see how they have successfully used the Melton curriculum.

Students say…

Megan Werger:  “This curriculum exposed us to a perspective and interpretations which make sense, relate, and are useful to us.  This new curriculum caters perfectly to the questions we had entering TanenbaumCHAT.”

Josh Slan:  “The new Rabbinics program has allowed us to think outside the box. Learning different aspects of Judaism and grappling with different concepts, allow us to discuss the question: why?”

Jaime Turk:  “I enjoyed Rabbinics this year.  I enjoyed the discussion we had as a class and how we questioned various Jewish texts.”

Erin Zahavi:  “This year the Rabbinics curriculum was so much more meaningful than last year’s.  Instead of just memorizing facts about Judaism we were able to explore current Jewish issues and ideas, such as the sanctification of time, the conversion process and death and mourning.”

Harrison Berman:  “This new curriculum made me appreciate the smaller moments in life and gave me a larger appreciation for Judaism.”

Hannah Greenspan:  “This year’s curriculum encouraged us to reflect on our own beliefs, traditions and what is important to us.  We explored controversial topics in Judaism and learned new relevant and modern information helping us shape our Jewish identity stemming from our newfound knowledge.”

Simon Grammer:  “The new Rabbinics program enables us to have a new, beneficial way of learning Rabbinics that is easier to understand and is much more relatable to grade 10 students.”

We look forward to continuing to develop this curriculum and to expand it to the upper grades with a focus on philosophical and theological issues using the second half of the Melton program, Purposes of Jewish Living.

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This article was written and published in the November 21, 2015, issue of the CJN.


A pilot project that will give parents a discount on their tuition in exchange for taking Jewish studies classes will be launched at the Anne and Max Tanenbaum Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto next school year.

The program, which will only be open to families who are new to the school, offers a $5,000 discount on tuition for parents who commit to a 24-week course of Jewish studies, taught by TanenbaumCHAT’s own faculty.

The initiative, called Scholars’ Circle, will be open to parents, regardless of income, but will certainly assist those who find tuition steep, said head of school Rabbi Lee Buckman. Tuition for 2015-16 is $26,500.

Scholars’ Circle is also intended to give parents a greater understanding of what actually happens during the school day. Parents generally only spend a few minutes a year meeting their children’s teachers.

“If parents have a deep connection with our teachers and the quality of our teaching, they’ll be stronger ambassadors of the program,” Rabbi Buckman said.

The program will demonstrate the importance parents place on Jewish studies and give parents and children a common background to discuss what is being taught in school.

“My hope is that it will create conversations among parents and kids that will enrich the Jewish experiences of the child,” he said.

A version of the program was first initiated by the Kohelet Foundation in Philadelphia, a private foundation that explores how to improve day school education. Rabbi Buckman implemented a variation of it at Atlanta’s Greenfield Hebrew Academy, where he was head of school before coming to TanenbaumCHAT two years ago.

In Atlanta, about 60 parents participated, but both the time demands and the tuition subsidy were smaller.

Donors Dov and Nancy Friedberg, who are underwriting the program here, wanted the bar to be higher in terms of the Jewish studies requirement.

“The donor was clear that [instead of] just giving away money, we could leverage that money and get something back that was more valuable and enriching to a child’s education,” Rabbi Buckman said.

Funding has been provided for 16 families to participate in the 2016 academic year. Parents will be required to participate in 24 weeks of 90-minute-long classes on Jewish history, Tanach (Bible) and Jewish ethics taught by faculty from both the north and south campuses. Twice a year, before Chanukah and Passover, parents and students will study together.

The tuition discount for families who complete the program will be applied the following year.

The Scholars’ Circle initiative fits into the school’s strategic plan aimed at increasing enrolment, enhancing education, tightening expenses and intensifying fundraising.

After a few years of declining enrolment, the school has shifted to actively recruiting new students, rather than simply managing applications, Rabbi Buckman said.

Enrolment at both campuses is 1,035 students. This year’s Grade 9 class was slightly larger than the previous year’s, he said.

As well, a group of 35 parent ambassadors has been formed to promote the school. It’s anticipated that participants in the Scholars’ Circle program will also bolster efforts to promote the school.

TanenbaumCHAT has also stepped up its fundraising efforts. In addition to the funding for the Scholars’ Choice program, a $1.5-million donation from Anita and Daniel Chai was recently announced for a new robotics and engineering program.

The theme for this year’s commemoration is framed by a question:  “How do we connect to Yom Hashoah when we are so far removed?

For myself, I try to read a book every year at this time about the Shoah. This year, I re-read “Man’s Search for Meaning.”  It’s a short book that I first read in high school and I recommend you read too.  It’s written by a psychiatrist named Viktor Frankl who survived four concentration camps.  Dr. Frankl wrote a memoir about the psychological impact of the barbaric treatment he and his fellow inmates endured.

He writes:

Even though conditions such as lack of sleep, insufficient food, and various mental stresses may suggest that inmates were bound to react in certain ways, in the final analysis it becomes clear that the sort of person the prisoner became was the result of an inner decision, and not the result of camp influences alone.    Fundamentally, therefore, any person can, even under such circumstances, decide what shall become of him…He may retain his human dignity even in a concentration camp.

Quoting the Russian novelist and philosopher Fyodor Dostoevski, he says:  “There is only one thing that I dread: not to be worthy of my sufferings.”

Frankl explains:  the way we respond to our trials is a freedom no one can rob us of.  In the bitter fight for self-preservation we may forget our dignity and become no more than an animal.  Or, we may bravely retain our dignity and perform some act of courage, generosity, or encouragement that only we can perform even in the worst conditions conceivable.

How can we connect to Yom Hashoah when we are so far removed?

This year, I connect through by grappling with the powerful words of Dr. Viktor Frankl.

To paraphrase him:  How do we live our lives so that we are worthy of the life we are given?

Thankfully, we live in a world and a time when we are not fighting for self-preservation.  Yet, it is also a  world where most people are preoccupied with satisfying their own needs and wants.

In such a world, it takes courage to grapple with the question: What can we give to others? What can we do for others?

In a world where most people believe that life owes them something, it takes courage to ask ourselves:  What does life want from us?

We each possess unique gifts and talents and skills and abilities.  There is a task in this world that only we can do.  What is it?

If we live with these questions, our lives will be imbued with greater significance.  We will  live life with purpose.  Our lives will gain greater meaning.

And we will have found a response to the challenge:   “How do we connect to Yom Hashoah when we are so far removed?

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