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