Shira Aronson is a grade 10 student at TCW who just won 1st place in the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center (FSWC) sixth annual Speaker’s Idol evening, held Wednesday night at Toronto Centre for the Arts. Shira received a laptop and a plaque.  Below is her award winning speech.

 

We’re told that anyone can change the world. Simon Wiesenthal once said, “For evil to flourish, it only requires good men and women to do nothing.” Wiesenthal’s message is simple and clear. However, its application has proven to be much more complex in our reality. Wiesenthal had a view of the infallible individual “good”, whereas today’s reality of moral relativism creates multiple definitions of good. These varying definitions of good impair the ability of an individual to positively change the world. John Locke was a 17th century English philosopher who has shaped modern thinking of how society defines for itself what is good. In the Origins of Government,he writes that “men, being biased by their own interest… [require] an established, settled, and known law… to be the standard of right and wrong.” The need for a universal definition has been demonstrated by the tragedies of recent history, caused by varying definitions of good.

The 1994 Rwandan Genocide claimed the lives of 800 000 people while the world struggled to take decisive action. The Canadian Lieutenant General Roméo Dallaire commanded the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda. He writes:

[N]ations have become accustomed to acting if, and only if, international public opinion will support them – a dangerous path that leads to a moral relativism in which a country risks losing sight of the difference between good and evil.

While hundreds of thousands were being killed in Rwanda, the nations of the world decided for themselves how to respond. As they deliberated over their individual definition of good, a genocide occurred that resulted in the death of 800 000 people.

In Biafra in the late 1960s, the Nigerian civil war led to the starvation of one million people in full view of the Western World. Countries could do very little to assist, since, in spite of numerous peace conferences Nigeria, Biafra, and their allies could not come to a basic humanitarian solution. No parties could find a definition of good that would benefit all people and as a result, one million people starved to death.

Wiesenthal’s ideal had been based on a universal definition of good. In today’s reality, the relativism of people and nations demands integration of varying definitions of good in order to actually effect world change. There cannot be individual definitions of good. Simon Wiesenthal said that “for evil to flourish it only requires good men and women to do nothing,” which implies that individuals can each change the world. Wiesenthal’s insight can actually be interpreted more richly: to change the world, individuals first must strive for a universal definition of good as a standard relevant to all people.

 

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Rabbi Buckman congratulates Shira on her award.

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Shira receives a Certificate of Achievement from Jennifer Valentyne.

One of the key elements that is facilitating the merger of our two campuses is a series of programs and activities that are planned to bring our students together.  Last weekend was our Grade 11 shabbaton.  Starting a year or two ago, we already began implementing joint programming in order to reduce cross-campus duplication.  Our Jewish Student Activities leaders have paved the way for this type of collaboration.  Below is a powerful testament to collaboration and resilience written by guest bloggers Olivia Varkul and Marci Jacobs.

Over the past three years at TanenbaumCHAT,  the Shabbaton program has greatly enhanced  our connection with the school and to our Jewish identities. Shabbatonim give us, as well as many other students, the unique opportunity to observe Shabbat, think more deeply about our Jewish values, enhance our knowledge regarding Zionism and provide us with a strong feeling of community.  Although in school we study many Jewish topics, the Shabbaton is a time where we can be with our friends in an informal setting and apply our knowledge and beliefs learned in class to hands-on activities and discussions.

This past weekend, we had the opportunity to go on the grade eleven Shabbaton with students from both TCK and TCW. With the recent announcement of the merger, we feared that there would be tension and segregation between the two campuses. We were both nervous that our Shabbaton experience that we cherish and love would be negatively impacted. Nobody knew what to expect, and it is safe to say we were all extremely worried and uncertain of what was to come over the next couple of days.

When we arrived, our nervous feelings quickly subsided as we realized that the Shabbaton program, which both campuses love so much, would be something that would help to bring us together. Everyone was there with the same intentions: to have an amazing, ruach-filled weekend. The Shabbaton began with ice breakers,  debates about hot topics in Israel and a shabbaton favourite, Kumzitz (campfire songs).  Kumzitz is a program that is so dear to both campuses although each campus runs the Kumsitz in a unique way. This was one of the first times we were able to see TCK and TCW begin to truly mesh their traditions together.  TCK was able to learn new things from TCW and vice versa. Not only did this enhance the Kumzitz experience as a whole, it showed us that both campuses have truly great things to offer and we all have so much to learn from one another.

On Friday afternoon, the special Shabbat feeling began to sink in as we all got ready for Shabbat. This traditional day of rest allows for self reflection. This Shabbat especially gave us the opportunity to contemplate all that has happened and enabled us to keep open minds about the rest of the Shabbaton and about the upcoming school year. At first, it was hard to accept the two campuses, two cultures and two communities will soon be one.  However, as the Shabbaton progressed, we were able to realize the importance of keeping an open mind in the face of change. The merger is not something that will be easy and it will take time to adjust. However, this weekend proved that bringing the best of both campuses together is what is going to make this transition as easy, effective and positive as possible. We are excited about the opportunities ahead and look forward to embarking on this journey together.

Shabbat shalom!

Marci Jacobs (Grade 11, TCK) and Olivia Varkul (Grade 11, TCW)

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It’s often difficult to reduce to a sound bite complex issues.  It is especially true in a heated Town Hall meeting.  However, certain questions deserve a thoughtful response.  In today’s blog I explain the principles behind teacher retention.

April 1st is the deadline by which TanenbaumCHAT must issue layoff notices.    Since 2008 when enrollment began to decline, teachers wait anxiously through March to hear whether or not they or their colleagues will be laid off.

The collective bargaining agreements govern teacher layoffs in terms of who and when.  As a general rule, the most recently hired teachers, regardless of which campus they are from, are the first to be laid off when the number of students decline in the overall system. That is, a teacher may be laid off from a campus that is not experiencing a declining student population if he or she is the most recently hired.

This coming year, as enrollment in the combined TanenbaumCHAT system is expected to drop by over 100 students, teachers on both campuses wait with nervous uncertainty to hear if they have a job next year.  We know this is very difficult for teachers and we empathize with them.

Understanding this reality, the administration works creatively to retain as many teachers as possible.  For those whom we simply cannot retain, we help teachers network and find new employment.  We write letters of recommendation and speak to other school administrators.

It is a sad reality that as enrollment declines, we must say goodbye to friends and colleagues.  Our hope is that the number is as few as possible and that every one of us remembers to say thank you for playing a role in shaping the next generation of strong, passionate and proud Jews.

 

It’s often difficult to reduce to a sound bite complex issues.  It is especially true in a heated Town Hall meeting.  However, certain questions deserve a thoughtful response, and I am utilizing my blog to launch a series of responses that address the questions on everyone’s mind.  The first addresses student recruitment, the far-reaching efforts to maximize enrollment. Consider it also as one more invitation to get involved.

What drives any school’s viability is enrollment.  One of the great paradoxes is that even though the Jewish population north of Steeles has grown rapidly and significantly over the past ten years, the vast majority of these families are not enrolling in day schools.  We know this from the fact that enrollment is down considerably at Leo Baeck North and the Kamin branch of Associated Hebrew Schools on Atkinson just as it is at TCK.

Three years ago, we hired a consulting firm that helped us develop a strategic plan to slow the downturn in enrollment.  If it had not been for the plan (described in the next paragraphs), it is likely that the need to close TCK would have occurred sooner.  The plan called for several changes which included the following:  We shifted our focus from admissions to recruitment, from “management” to “sales.”  We increased the number of full-time staff in the admissions office by redeploying a senior staff member to manage this vital area. The director reported to me weekly but also provided reports to the board and UJA.

We established a committee of 40 parents with representation from both campuses as well as the Board. These parents were subdivided by feeder school in order to intensify recruitment in their former school whether a Jewish day school or public or secular private school.  We formed a student hosts committee at TCW and worked together with the highly successful TCK student ambassador program.  They worked at every open house and recruitment event and also made phone calls to prospective applicants (see the January, 2106 blog post “Bring people onto the dance floor” at http://thebuckstopshere.tanenbaumchat.org/?author=3&paged=5.  They also attended “parlor” meetings in homes where we met with groups of families from a particular neighbourhood.

We created the Scholars Circle to provide not only additional tuition relief to new families and Judaic content to discuss as a family, but also exposure to our Jewish Studies teachers in an intensive way so that parents will become even stronger ambassadors of the school.  To help ease the burden of tuition for even more families, we offered the UJA’s Extended Payment Program.

We developed novel ways to reach New Stream students by going to Jewish summer camps to make recruitment pitches and showcase some of our unique offerings like robotics.  We follow up with families who receive One Happy Camper grants, a program that targets a population that can feed our New Stream program.  We built relationships with supplementary Jewish schools (particularly JRoots, Neshama, Ahavat Israel, Beit Rayim, Kachol Lavan) and brought TanenbaumCHAT into the classroom so that these students can learn what opportunities can be theirs.  Rabbis have been provided material to promote TanenbaumCHAT from the pulpit.  Synagogues have created TanenbaumCHAT shabbatot where our students participate as a group in the main sanctuary Shabbat morning service.

We worked with a marketing firm to help strengthen our brand and have a stronger presence in social media. That firm encouraged me to start a blog to publicize all the wonderful things our teachers and students do in the school, make the case for TanenbaumCHAT, and alert families to the challenges that lie before us (http://thebuckstopshere.tanenbaumchat.org/?author=3).

We ramped up advertising to prospective students in specific ways via:

  • Postal drops (3 rounds of 10,000-11,000 postcards advertising Open House) (35% of the people who attended Open House heard about it through the postcard they received)
  • Feeder school calendar
  • Feeder school newsletters
  • The CHATTER magazine to incoming and feeder school families
  • Facebook ads
  • Russian language advertisements and articles
  • Flyers for open house posted around the city: Starbucks, grocery stores, etc.

We developed deeper partnerships with our Jewish day school feeders via:

  • Alumni success packages showcasing how well grads of feeder schools do at our school
  • The Student Leadership Conference for feeder school student councils
  • The Robotics outreach program for middle school students held at TanenbaumCHAT
  • Student hosts/ambassadors calling prospective students to answer questions
  • Feeder school students come for half a day to experience the arts program
  • Personal phone calls to any Grade 8 day school child who did NOT enroll

That enrollment has declined is not due to a lack of effort on the part of teachers, staff, students, parents, and community members. Yes, we can always benefit from more ideas and more TanenbaumCHAT evangelists.  The need to do so is no more evident than now.  To get involved, contact Laurie Wasser at lwasser@tanenbaumchat.org.  The long-term health of our school depends on you.

 

The Book of Genesis is a book that is filled with sibling rivalries and jealousies.  It is framed by Cain killing Abel at the start of the book and Joseph’s brothers throwing him into a pit at the end of the book. In truth, however, Genesis begins with fratricide, but ends in fraternity. Joseph and his brothers reconcile.  Thus, although the Book of Genesis begins with conflict and continues with contention (Isaac and Ishmael, Yakov and Esau), it ends with conciliation.

The Book of Exodus also presents a sibling pair, Moshe and Aaron, except that these brothers from the start seem to appreciate their different strengths.  Moshe is a man of truth.  Aaron is a man of peace.  Moshe becomes the leader of the people.  Aaron becomes the speaker on behalf of the people.  Moshe becomes the law giver.  Aaron becomes the high priest.

I can imagine that inside they may have felt envy; the text, however, gives us no indication that this was the case.  They do not seem to covet or resent the other’s position or honour.  Instead each rejoices in the other’s contribution and accomplishments.

As a result of their combined effort, they succeed in liberating an entire nation of ex-slaves and raise them to the level of a royal people ennobled by the charge to become “a kingdom of priests and holy nation.” Together, Moshe and Aaron lead them safely to the Promised Land.  It was because they stood together, led together, functioned as a team, pooled their talents, strengths, and aspirations that they accomplished one of the most grand missions in human history.  We are who we are today because of their partnership.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks puts it this way in his d’var torah on this week’s Torah portion:

“The story of Aaron and Moses is where, finally, fraternity reaches the heights. And that surely is the meaning of Psalm 133, with its explicit reference to Aaron and his sacred garments: “‘How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity!  It is like precious oil poured on the head…running down on Aaron’s beard, down upon the collar of his robes.’”

My hope is that Aaron and Moses’ example of brotherhood is one that guides the lives of all members of our magnificent TanenbaumCHAT family especially when our loyalty to each other is tested.

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This week, I visited Mr. Steinfeld’s Grade 10 New Stream Tanach class at TCK. The course is on the Book of Samuel and specifically the themes of love, loyalty, and leadership. The day of my visit, the students were asked to characterize different relationships in the book, e.g., Saul and David, David and Jonathan, Michal and David.

Three years ago, we implemented a new way of teaching and thinking about Tanach called Standards and Benchmarks where our Tanach curriculum was re-shaped.  It was a project spearheaded by Rabbi Michael Rootman, the head of the department at TCK, and Judith Shapero, TCK’s Vice Principal.  The teachers in the Tanach department have been revising the curriculum and organizing it around what’s called in the field of education, Big Ideas and Essential Questions.

Big Ideas refer to core concepts, principles, and theories in a field of study.  Essential Questions are questions that are open-ended, don’t have a single correct answer; they’re thought-provoking and demand higher order thinking. These Essential Questions point to the hard-won big ideas that we want students to understand.  They spark the curiosity of the students to explore the Big Ideas, the key issues and problems that are discussed in the subject.  The idea is to focus not on minutia but on large organizing principles and universal themes that then help the student gain insight into their own experiences.

In Mr. Steinfeld’s Tanach class some of the Essential Questions include:

  • When should we relinquish our personal perspective and desire for the sake of our purpose or role?
  • When should we listen to others and when should we just do what’s right?
  • How can we make sure that leaders do what’s right and not just what’s popular?
  • How do we deal with biblical texts that have a troubling message?

Some of the Big Ideas include:

  • All people, even prophets, have their personal bias and perspective.
  • Relationships with others (with God, community, other people) require that we look beyond our own personal needs and perspective.
  • The Divine perspective is not always the same as the human perspective.

The Standards and Benchmarks process has been transformative. The Tanach faculty at TCK is invested in ongoing learning and improvement, and our students are gaining a deep understanding of the important themes and questions raised in our Tanach.   The training for Standards and Benchmarks is currently underway in the Rabbinics department at both campuses as well.  We thank the faculty who have dedicated their passion, expertise and time, and we thank the generous donors for their support of these enhancements of faculty and student learning at TanenbaumCHAT.

The next time you ask a student “What’s the Big Idea?,” don’t be surprised if he or she gives you a serious answer.

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