I often receive copies of letters that our alumni send to our teachers thanking them for preparing them for life after TanenbaumCHAT.

One student, for example, wrote to one of her English teachers this week remarking:

I can honestly say I would not be the type of student and writer I am today if it weren’t for you…Your constant encouragement and emphasis on the importance of writing an essay has been a great help in university. As essays are assigned, I look across the room and see the worry in people’s eyes as they read “7 page essay, proper apa format, citing, with a correct thesis and enough supporting evidence for each point.” When asked why I am not intimidated by it, I simply reply that it’s because of you….You never let me give up and always gave me the opportunity to better myself. Thank you for always believing in my abilities to do better.

What I liked about this graduates’ spontaneous testimonial, written around 11:30 pm one evening, is that she recognized that her teachers weren’t just teaching skills, but developing students’ resilience, grit, and persistence.  These are habits of mind that cut across disciplines and are important well beyond school.

The impact of our teachers happens because our teachers remember that they are teaching, first and foremost, people–teenagers–and not subject matter. One of our alumni, who recently graduated McGill University and worked as a madricha in Israel on the Native College Leadership Program under the auspices of the Conservative movement, wrote that she is in Israel today because one of her TanenbaumCHAT teachers inspired her love for Israel:

She made the classroom a place of shared experiences, a place of openness and a place of true learning. She constantly welcomed her students to her home to join in on a loving and delicious Shabbat…Her warm and wonderful personality has guided me to Israel and guides me on a daily basis.

I could go on (and in another blog, I likely will continue).  However, I’d like to conclude with one more reflection.  It, too, is an excerpt from words of tribute about another one of our English teachers.  This graduate of Queen’s University’s Commerce program this past spring thanked his teacher for helping him see beyond himself and use his talents in the service of others.  He thought back on his Grade 10 English class his teacher introduced him to Arthur Miller’s play, “All My Sons”:

One of the key themes in the play was the importance of social responsibility, and through your teaching style and assigned coursework, I came to see the importance of this value, and always sought to instill it in the work I did and organizations I aligned myself to. Studying commerce in university, I served as a business ethics teaching assistant working to teach fellow business students the importance of social responsibility. Professionally, I have been privileged enough to work at a healthcare company that holds social responsibility as one of its core values, and I specifically sought an opportunity at this organization because of its explicit commitment to society as a whole.

When I think about our mission–to challenge, support, and prepare our students to live lives of high moral character, intellectual curiosity, Jewish commitment, and civic duty–I think about our teachers who help actualize this mission.  Our teachers–whether in English or Science, Jewish History or Ivrit–select issues, essays, and books that examine the human condition, expand our students’ understanding of their own humanity and that of others.  Students learn to see the world from another’s perspective, think about larger universal issues, and bring about change in the world.

None of this happens by accident.  Our teachers are the ones driving our school towards excellence and our students to living lives of significance.  That’s the TanenbaumCHAT difference.

One of the beautiful aspects of our school is the fact that students come from a range of denominational affiliations, levels of observance, and Jewish text backgrounds; yet they all manage to get along and study together despite their differences.

Some of our students belong to Reform synagogues; others Conservative or Orthodox.  A few don’t belong to any synagogue, and some float between synagogues and even denominations. Some of our boys wear a kippa all the time.  Others struggle to keep it on their head during school. A few girls wear kippot.

Some of our students come from homes where shabbat dinner is what connects them most regularly to Jewish tradition; for them, Friday night dinner is non-negotiable. Others come from families where Jewish communal leadership and involvement define their identity most vividly.  For others, Israel is at the centre of their Jewish consciousness.

I often wonder whether exposure to diverse expressions of Judaism is confusing to students who are trying to find their own path or possibly threatening to those who are rooted in a tradition.

Instead of just wondering, I sent an email to some TanenbaumCHAT graduates and asked them to respond to this question:   “Was the encounter with peers who were different threatening to you, your Jewish identity, or your family’s Jewish convictions; or did it contribute positively to your Jewish identity?”

Dan Poliwoda (TCK, 2013), who is currently studying at Western, wrote:

The diversity in my peers was beneficial for the development of my own Jewish identity. At TanenbaumCHAT I was exposed to Jews from all different backgrounds and religious practices. These helped me grasp the complexities of the Jewish people and help chart out a course for myself.

Laura Goldfarb (TCW, 2016), who is currently studying at Laurier, added this:

Every student and teacher I encountered was open-minded to my beliefs and respectful in sharing their own. As I learned about other Jewish ideals, I improved my ability to examine my own convictions and deepen my beliefs. I feel more assuredas a Jewish person after being enlightened to so many Jewish perspectives throughout my time at TanenbaumCHAT.

Judah Hoffman (TCW, 2016), who is now studying at Yeshivat Birkat Moshe in Maaleh Adumim, Israel, and is heading to List College at Columbia University in New York in the fall of 2017 wrote:

Going to high school at TanenbaumCHAT with students from all denominations of Jewish Toronto, changed my life significantly. I learned critical thinking and open mindedness. In an atmosphere where all ideas are respected, I have become confident in formulating and articulating my own concept of right and wrong. I now love interacting and exchanging ideas in classrooms and in hallways, with people who think very differently from me. By giving me the ability to debate and defend my opinions, TanenbaumCHAT was an effective catalyst in strengthening my own sense of Jewish identity.

Danzi Ekstein (TCK, 2015), who is currently studying at Ryerson, shared this reflection:

I have never felt so accepted and inspired by the diverse community of TanenbaumCHAT. I truly believe that there is immense importance in surrounding oneself with people of different observance levels. Personally, I am a modern Orthodox Jew, and I was definitely nervous about coming into an environment where my practices would be questioned and challenged. However, the different outlooks on Judaism really enhanced my appreciation of Judaism. Everyone is eager to learn and explore these differences, and being able to contribute to that was life changing….TanenbaumCHAT taught me how to accept others, communicate with others, and find meaning within our differences as a people. I am very proud to be a Jew and I will never stop wanting to be educated, and educate others on the diversity of our beautiful religion.

High school is a time when students define and re-define their Jewish identity.  They do this in the context of their family’s commitments and in the encounter with texts and teachers and with students who come from different religious backgrounds.  In so doing, they widen their understanding of different expressions of Judaism so that as they can grab onto one that serves as a source of meaning.  Far from being a threat to Jewish identity, the diverse population at TanenbaumCHAT serves, in Judah Hoffman’s words, as an effective catalyst in strengthening students’ own Jewish identity.

Congratulations to all of you on the hard work you’ve invested in your studies. Your effort has paid off.  I am proud of you.

As you know, I’m a runner. I like to listen to podcasts on long runs.  Recently, I heard an interview of a man named Paul Tough.  He’s a Canadian author who wrote a book called How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character.  

In his book, he asked a fairly simple set of questions:

  • What’s the best predictor of high school students’ success in college or university?
  • Is it high school marks? IQ? Scores on some achievement test?

For many years, people assumed the answer was yes.  How “smart” you are predicted how well you’d do in college or university. Therefore, to increase students’ chances of success, educators must increase students’ brainpower.

But then a whole series of studies came out starting in the 1970’s and going through the present time by psychologists like Angela Duckworth and Carol Dweck and others.  These studies demonstrated that it’s not brainpower but something else. Depending on the researcher, they call that “something else” grit, curiosity, self-control, conscientiousness.

Let me take you back to the 1970’s to Stanford University’s marshmallow experiment.

In these studies, children were led into a room, where a researcher placed a treat in front of them.  It was an Oreo cookie or famously a white, fluffy, irresistible marshmallow.

The children were told they could eat the treat, but if they waited for fifteen minutes without giving in to the temptation, they would be rewarded with a second treat.

It’s funny to hear what some children did.  Some would cover their eyes with their hands or turn around so that they can’t see the tray.  Others started kicking the desk, or tugging on their hair.  Some started stroking the marshmallow as if it were a tiny stuffed animal.  Others couldn’t hold back and they simply ate the marshmallow as soon as the researchers left.

Over 600 children participated in the original set of experiments.  This is what the researchers found:  A minority ate the marshmallow immediately. Of those who attempted to delay, 1/3 deferred gratification long enough to get the second marshmallow.

But here’s the interesting thing.  Years later, the researchers tracked down the children who participated in the original experiment.

They found found that children who were able to wait longer for the preferred rewards tended to have higher SAT scores, higher educational attainment, healthier body mass index (BMI), more successful marriages, higher employment, and greater overall happiness.

In fact, the results of the marshmallow experiment were better predictors of success than IQ or any other test of cognitive ability.

A child’s ability to delay gratification, tough it out, exercise self-discipline predicted future success and happiness.

If you want to see how you’d do at this experiment, you can do it without marshmallows. You can take the grit test.  It’s ten questions.  It’s at angeladuckworth.com.

Tough’s podcast summarizes several decades of research.  He says that students who succeed in college and university are relentlessly dedicated to what they do. It’s true about high achievers in general, he found.  They have a kind of endurance in their effort.  When they face a challenge or a setback, they get back up again, and they are tirelessly working to get better.

Our mission at TanenbaumCHAT is to challenge, support, and prepare you to live lives of high moral character, intellectual curiosity, Jewish commitment, and civic duty.   I  am proud of the fact that our mission statement includes curiosity and character because the qualities that matter most in life have to do with character–skills like perseverance, curiosity, conscientiousness, optimism, and self-control.  And that’s what we hope you will develop at TanenbaumCHAT.  If you do, I’m certain we will have many more times in the future to celebrate your accomplishments.

Mazal tov