This is my fourth AGM at TanenbaumCHAT.  Since last year’s AGM, we have much to be proud of.  Let me share a few of those highlights.

At the beginning of this academic year, we launched the Chai Engineering Academy at TCW, thanks to a nearly $1.5 M gift from Danny and Anita Chai.  This is both an academic and a hands-on program.  On any given day, you might see the students taking apart an old computer and putting it back together, studying the design of pop cans to determine why a cylindrical shape with sturdy metal lip was chosen, or building and learning to program robots to perform elemental tasks.  Under the enthusiastic teaching of Mark Rottmann, they tinker and build and design.

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Since the 2015 AGM, we also have launched the Scholars Circle, a parent education program that gives a $5,000 discount on G10 tuition to G9 parents who enroll in a yearlong course that introduces them to our Jewish Studies program.  This year, there are 24 families in the program who attend class eagerly every week and learn parts of our Tanach, Jewish history, and ethics curriculum.  You can’t imagine the energy in the room each week. Here’s what one of our parents, Wendy Kauffman, said about the program:  “The more I learn, the more I want her to learn. Scholars Circle will not replace 4 years of daily education, but it opens my mind to how much more there is to know and how much is still missing from my child’s education that I would be remiss not to provide.”

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Since our last AGM, a year ago, we have seen the many fruits of the new model of shlichim.  Our shlichim, Shlomi and Yaara, are experiential educators, not classroom teachers.  In fact, in all of North America, these are the only two shlichim who are working in a school as informal or experiential educators.  They do what they do–between classes at school, in their kitchen at home where they invite kids to cook with them, they do it on shabbat on shabbatonim or in their home, through song and film and food.  One of our students shared this:  “Whether it’s dishing out hummus at 8:30 in the morning, teaching Israel advocacy at lunch, or hosting an Israeli movie night, Shlomi and Yaara  ignite a love for Israel in our students by building meaningful personal relationships.” Another student put it this way:  “Shlomi revived the Israel ruach and really brought a piece of Israel to the TCK day-to-day life. He is full of incredible ideas and tries to engage every student in his activities. Whether it be school wide events or just one-on-one conversations, I feel like Shlomi and Yaara have helped many students find their connection to Israel.”

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On a recent Friday evening, for example, Yaara and Shlomi hosted TCK students for a “tish” in the party room of their apartment complex.  It was 5 below that shabbat evening, and 150 kids came!  They have mobilized teachers–General Studies and Jewish Studies alike–to see themselves as part of the Israel engagement team.  Frances reminded me that 3-4 years ago when we asked for a photo of students doing something Israel related, we found one from 1999.  Now, Israel photos can be found almost weekly documenting the fine work Yaara and Shlomi are doing in the school.

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All of these programs as well as many others–the AP Program in Chemistry and Calculus, the curriculum-based Israel trips, the pithy articulation of our Five Core Values (curiosity, character, connection, community, and contribution), our very successful summer school program, the nearly $1M surplus that accrued due to cost cutting which will offset the lost revenue due to an expected decline in enrolment, a greater financial commitment on the part of subsidy families, a new culture of philanthropy, and the rental agreement with Leo Baeck at TCK which advances two of our five elements of our strategic plan—all of these, we would not have been able to implement or accomplish successfully without the leadership and dedication of the board and administration and the work of our outstanding teachers.  Leading a high quality school is a team effort, and we are where we are today because of the combined talents of our staff and lay leaders.

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If you were to ask most people to describe what a classroom looks like, they’d likely say that it’s a room filled with students sitting in desks facing forward to see the teacher who stands at the front of the room.  That image is generally true although my weekly classroom observations this week revealed something quite different.

In Mr. Paul’s English class, students were organized into book groups.  In Ms. Kadoch’s class, students were working independently or getting one-on-one attention.  In Ms. Socken’s class, students were working in small groups.  In Mr. Sotto’s class, students were debating in teams.  In Mr. Komlos’ class, the students were engrossed in a roundtable discussion.

A teacher colleague of mine used to say, “the one who’s doing the work is doing the learning.”  In the classrooms that I observed, the students were definitely doing the work and doing the learning.  However, what also impressed me was the masterful skill our teachers possess to structure a debate that works, formulate a question that sparks fruitful and sustained discussion, cultivate the skills in students to work on their own, teach students how to collaborate, and empower students to lead discussions.  Below is a window into the artful teaching and productive learning that are taking place at TanenbuamCHAT.

Mr. Paul’s Grade 11 Book Clubs: Students are reading Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel.  The novel is about the lead-up to and 20 years after a flu wipes out 99% of the world’s population.  The novel takes place in Toronto. The students were asked to read a Canadian novel and take thorough reading notes focusing on character development, theme, mood and symbols.  They were also asked to look at writing style, the human condition and their own personal biases about situations in the novel.  The group members then discuss their findings.  The assignment shows students that they are capable of doing close readings of text and have student centred lessons.

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Mrs. Kadoch’s non-credit Learning Strategies class meets three times a week. Students use this structured spare very wisely to catch up on work and study for upcoming assessments. This week, most students are immersed in preparation for upcoming essay submissions. Students are actively using the POWER strategy to Plan, Outline, Write, Edit and Review their papers.

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Ms. Socken’s Grade 11 Drama students are finishing their Improv unit by creating satirical sketches, in the style of Second City or Saturday Night Live. They began by brainstorming contemporary topics worthy of being lampooned, such as the self-absorption of reality TV stars, the proliferation of fake news on the Internet, and what it’s like to visit a restaurant these days, when everyone has a different dietary restriction! Over the next few classes, students will develop and polish their sketches for their final performance, which is designed to make the audience laugh a lot, cringe a little and hopefully emerge with some greater insight about society and ourselves.

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Mr. Sotto’s Grade 10 Rabbinics engage in a debate in their unit on Tzedaka.  Students studied the problems of evil in Judaism as well as its various theodicies and approaches to human advocacy in the world. They watched “Pay it Forward” and discussed the ideals and  realities of tikkun olam. Lastly, students read an article on tzedakah as a form of social welfare by Byron Sherwin and weighed in on the positives and negatives of the Jewish approach to social welfare in the context of evil and the film analyzed. They had to argue one side of the debate, evaluate the Jewish duty of Tzedakah, and weigh in on its imperfections as well as its strengths and beauties.

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Mr. Komlos’ Grade 12 Canadian & International Politics class read an article by Matt Lebovic from Times of Israel entitled “Pro-Trump Jewish students grapple with social ‘death sentence’ in post-election isolation.”  The article describe the experience of pro-Trump university students who are hesitant to admit that they voted for the president-elect out of fear of facing allegations of bigotry, misogyny, and homophobia.  The students discussed the merits of the response to the pro-Trump supporters.  “Are there opinions that others can hold that would lead you, as a student, to ‘unfriend’ them?  Is there any red line that a friend could cross over that would jeopardize your friendship with them?”  The debate was lively and explored the limits of liberalism and the politics of pluralism and forced students to introspect on principles they hold deeply.

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Rising day school tuition is a topic that is on everyone’s mind.  If a TanenbaumCHAT education costs approximately $27,000 today, what will tuition be when today’s graduates become parents and want to send their children to day school?  How will anyone be able to afford a day school education?

As day school tuition has increased, “market penetration” has decreased.  The number of students enrolled at TanenbaumCHAT has declined steadily since it peaked in the mid-2000s.  Most people in the Toronto Jewish community make a causal link between enrollment and tuition.  They suggest that if tuition were to decrease, enrollment would increase.

However, I’d like to suggest that we reverse the causal arrow. In other words, I believe that if we increase enrollment, tuition will fall.

Tuition goes up not because our staff gets huge raises. Tuition rises because there are fewer and fewer families sharing fixed costs.  For example, whether we have 600 students at a campus or 300 students at a campus, our rent doesn’t go down; neither does the cost of keeping on the lights (and heat).

The best thing we could do to lower tuition is to recruit more students to our school, and by “we,” I mean not just our admissions team.  I mean that each parent must become an ambassador and a recruiter for TanenbaumCHAT. Our parent body’s collective network far exceeds the most conscientious admissions office.

We all know families who send their children to public school.  Those children get a scant Jewish education.  Demographic studies show that the more hours of Jewish education, the more likely that a child will grow up to feel a stake in the Jewish community and the Jewish future.  Some researchers have even suggested that one year of Jewish education post-bar/bat mitzvah is worth three years pre-bar/bat mitzvah.

If we all took responsibility for being part of the “sales force,” we could hold in check and perhaps lower tuition.  If each of us were to share a story with our non-day school friends of how a TanenbaumCHAT teacher touched our children’s lives, helped them discover their talents and deepened their understanding of who they are as Jews, then perhaps more parents would realize that their child is missing out on something powerful.

When our friends see that our children learn to live and love their Judaism in an academic environment that opens up a wide range of post-high school possibilities for them, our public or private secular school friends will be more likely to choose a Jewish day school education.

When they see that our children internalize a work ethic that will give them a leg up on their peers at college and university, and when they see that our students develop a sense of responsibility to the State of Israel and feel comfortable in their own skin outside the “bubble” of Jewish day school, our friends will be more likely to say a TanenbaumCHAT education may be expensive but it is priceless.

Being a day school evangelist is the one thing in our control to help bring into check day school tuition.  With your help, we can drive up enrollment, bring down tuition to the benefit of our current parents, and ensure that our children will be able to send their children to TanenbaumCHAT too.

I was part of a fascinating exchange with some parents and one of our teachers, Dr. Matt Reingold, a few weeks ago that impressed upon me an important insight about Jewish education.

It was the fourth week of Scholars Circle, and Dr. Reingold, a TCW Jewish history teacher, was teaching about two morally problematic events in the State of Israel’s formative history:  Tochnit Dalet and Deir Yassin.  The parents debated whether or not the less flattering side of Israel’s history should be taught to our high school students.  The majority agreed with Dr. Reingold that they should; if we do not teach a fulsome history of the State of Israel, someone, far less sympathetic, will do so.  It’s preferable that our students learn about the nuances and foibles of Israel’s history in the walls of TanenbaumCHAT where the point of doing so is to better Israel and not batter Israel, than in a hostile university environment where facts may be distorted and de-contextualized.

One of the parents then asked: “Why wasn’t my child taught this earlier in day school?  If it’s so important that students embrace a realistic Israel, and not a mythic or just a heroic Israel, why are they not taught these subjects in middle school?”  Dr. Reingold appropriately responded that these complex topics require a degree of sophistication that elementary school students simply don’t possess.

Then, it occurred to me that Dr. Reingold’s response is true about most real issues in Judaism and life.  An elementary Jewish day school education provides a solid foundation, but, frankly, much of Judaism is “R” rated, that is, it takes a certain maturity to understand.  Students who end their Jewish education after bar or bat mitzvah or when they graduate an elementary Jewish day school are left with quite a simplistic, appropriately G-rated or PG-13, understanding of Judaism.  Their knowledge of western culture continues to develop in the high school years, but their knowledge of Jewish civilization remains arrested at a pre-adolescent level.

Joel Grishaver, a liberal Jewish educator in California, put it this way in an article he wrote about Jewish day high school education:

The Judaism I am interested in teaching is a lot more like rocket science than it is like being a Cubs fan (read: Blue Jays!).  For me, Judaism is a lifelong study, the careful mastery of the paradigms that help you become a better, and then an even better, person.  It is the endless climb to get closer and closer to God.  It is the constant reconsideration of a lot of books and knowledge and ideas.  Cubs fans can learn statistics, can amass a wealth of information and insight, but essentially all you need to know is how to be loyal and, in fact, enthusiastic.

The renowned developmental psychologist Jean Piaget taught that it is not until adolescence that children gain the ability to think about abstract concepts and logically test hypotheses.  This is precisely the stage when they can comprehend the patterns and flow of Jewish history and the deeper ideas of the Torah, the spiritual symbolism of the lifecycle and holiday rituals and the Jewish ethical principles that compete within one another in real life situations.

Children who continue their education at TanenbaumCHAT are constructing their Jewish identity in a context where they will encounter the real questions of life and begin to discover real answers.  To use Joel Grishaver’s metaphor, TanenbaumCHAT is a place where they will learn “rocket science” and not simply be enthusiasts of Judaism, important as that certainly is.  It is a place where we ensure students’ knowledge of their Jewish roots develops on an adult level because most of the important issues that they will face are likely “R-rated.”

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I’d like to share an experience I had in my first year at university in a film course, for which, despite excellent preparation at TanenbaumCHAT about how to counter BDS and other forms of anti-Zionism, I was totally unequipped.  It was during the second semester of a course called “Film, Culture, and Communication” that I experienced Israel-bashing. However, the attacks came not from Palestinian students but from my professor and the teaching assistant.

The two-semester course is designed as a “blended learning” class, which means it is partly online, partly lecture, and part seminar. When the winter semester came and the professors switched, the new professor was Israeli and Jewish.  Suddenly the direction of the course took a turn.

We watched the movie Avatar. The online lectures mostly covered the environmentalist message of Avatar, about saving our planet.  And then our professor began to talk about colonialism. She went over the history of colonialism, gave some examples, and then she proceeded to explain that colonialism is still happening presently today – in Israel.

I remember listening to the online lecture multiple times. My Jewish roommate and I discussed her comments, I messaged my Jewish peers that were also in the class about it… we were all talking about it. What do we do? Should we email her? We all quietly just sort of decided that it was just a few comments, wasn’t the focus of the lecture, so we would just leave it.

Unfortunately, the majority of the rest of the semester was dedicated to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Remember this isn’t a politics or history course — this is a film course. During the online lectures is where I began to feel uncomfortable about the narrative that was being presented about Israel. It was not the explicit bashing of Israel I was prepared for and had been prepared for by my high school teachers. There was an implicit blame placed on Israel throughout the entire online lecture. The small ad-libs throughout her explanation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were what bothered me.

The final week of the course came, and we were going to watch and discuss in our tutorial section  Inglorious Basterds. The film is a fictional alternate history of a team of Jewish-American soldiers hunting Nazis. The relevant part of the plot is this:  Shoshanna, a young Jewish woman whose entire family was killed in front of her eyes at the beginning of the film, successfully executes a suicide bombing in a theatre that kills Hitler and Goebbels. In our tutorial, we were discussing whether or not we thought what she did was wrong. Almost everyone in the class said they didn’t think so and that they agreed with Shoshanna’s actions.

The teaching assistant proceeded to ask then that if this suicide bombing was okay, can’t we see the justification for the suicide bombings that took place in Israel? They, too, were just getting revenge and speaking out the only way they knew how.

I reached my breaking point. In the tutorial I had quite the emotional response, immediately crying out that it was a ridiculous and quite frankly disrespectful comparison to equate the fictional suicide bombing intended to kill the man responsible for the murder of 6 million Jews, and the real life suicide bombings of extremists terrorists in Israel against innocent people. The moment I got home I emailed my Hillel director that I was furious and wanted to launch a complaint about everything — all of the online, the tutorial questions, the films we were watching – all of it. Unfortunately, the Hillel director explained to me that they have a problem with this professor almost every year and despite their complaints, nothing with her has ever changed. In the midst of final exams, as this was the last week of school, and the discouraging fact that nothing ever changed despite the complaints made in the past, nothing I did went very far. My fellow pro-Israel students and I wrote her a terrible professor evaluation and nothing came of it. The Hillel director wrote a letter and nothing came of it.

The thing I was most frustrated about was that the platform with which my professor used to present her sentiments about Israel was a one-sided form of communication. The online lectures, the only place where she would discuss Israel, are not open for discussion. There was no forum in which I could respond or even react to the things she was saying — not even a comment board. It was just a video with her voice recording. I felt like I didn’t have a voice, and even when I tried to use my voice I was not being heard.

Had this been in second year or even during this school year, my course of action would have been completely different. After getting more comfortable at my university, I learned there is an Academic Grievance centre that I can go to specifically for situations like this, and maybe being an upper year student would have given me the confidence to go to her office hours and discuss my problems with the course. These are all things I wish I’d known in first year. However, this experience drove me to take a more active role in Israel advocacy on campus. Today, I am the co-President of Queen’s Israel on Campus, running events throughout the school year open to all Queen’s students to ensure that there is a dialogue about Israel on campus.

Overall this was a very formative experience for me. I think what I wasn’t prepared for was the implicit criticism of Israel. I wasn’t sure if I was being “too sensitive” because I was really looking out for the really negative accusations that are hurled at Israel that I was told to expect. However, the way Israel was framed in that course was wrong — and this is a far more common experience on campus than being yelled at by an anti-Zionist in the student centre. We need to prepare students for the more subtle and implicit, but still just as dangerous, narratives about Israel just as much as I was prepared for Israel Apartheid Week.