Over Pesach a friend of mine passed away.  He was 93 and lived in Detroit, Michigan.  He is the grandfather of two of our students here at TCW.  And he was a survivor.  His name is Henry.  I officiated at his funeral.

He was one of the smartest people you’d ever meet.  He taught little kids how to multiply two-digit numbers in their head before their teachers thought they knew how to add.  

He was a lawyer and an accountant and worked for the Internal Revenue Service.  The most difficult tax cases that the US government was working on would be sent to him to figure out.

He loved to read and learn and attend classes even in his his 90’s.  He was known by his teachers as the one who asked the toughest questions.

But what’s most remarkable about him wasn’t his intellect. That was a gift that God gave him.  What was most remarkable was his resilience.  That was an act of will.

Henry had just finished Grade 12 when the war broke out.  He and his family split up.  He went with his mother to a city called Radom thinking it was safe.  When the SS came in, they gave the 33,000 Jews there 10 days to relocate themselves into a small ghetto.

Within a short period of time, people were dying of hunger and disease.  There were daily transports taking out the dead from the ghetto leaving the strongest there.

Henry was assigned with some other prisoners to work the night shift at an SS ammunition factory.  

One night Henry saw a glow over the ghetto and at dawn there were bodies strewn all over.  He ran to his grandmother’s place and saw her body lying beside his aunt’s.  They had been shot.

Henry worked a 10 hour shift. Prisoners were given one piece of bread and watered soup everyday.  He came to the conclusion he wouldn’t last much longer.

But he did. He survived a death march, a beating, and typhus.

Somehow this man who weighed only 92 pounds when he was liberated found the strength of body and mind to start life over in the United States.  This man who had every reason to lose his faith in God, raised a family that is so committed to the Jewish community that he now has grandchildren here at TanenbaumCHAT.  This man who had every reason to lose his faith in people, would sing in German about the brotherhood of mankind.  

Elie Weisel worte a book called Messengers of God about different biblical stories.  He describes what he calls the first genocide:  Cain kills Abel.  Abel is dead.  Cain is exiled. Remarkably, Adam and Eve survive the loss of two children and they have a third child, Seth.  The greatness of Adam and Eve was not that they were the first couple, says Weisel.  That’s an accident of chronology.  Their greatness is not that they began but that they began again.  They loved.  They lost, and they began again. That was an act of will.

Henry was a man who began again. He reminds us that we are part of a people that generation after generation has figured out how to begin again.  All of us today who come to school daily and study Torah are proof that we are an undying people always prepared to begin again.

I am a guest blogger on The Times of Israel*. I have included a blog post about my late teacher Mora Nechama. Please click HERE to read my thoughts.

* The Times of Israel is a Jerusalem-based online newspaper founded in 2012 to document developments in Israel, the Middle East and around the Jewish world.

In the past several months, I’ve thought a lot about a statement that our sages made about the Exodus.  They said that due to the merit of righteous women, the Israelites were redeemed.

The rabbis recognized that it was the heroism of five courageous women that led to the redemption of our people:  Moses’s sister, his mother, an Egyptian princess, and two midwives.  They each defied the murderous decrees of the oppressive Pharaoh.  They had a choice:  to go along and acquiesce or stand up and take action even at great risk to their life.  They chose the latter.

Over the past nine months, I’ve felt as if the Jewish community has met a group of modern day heroines.  They didn’t stand up against an evil decree, except in an existential way.  But their faith and actions were so heroic that I realized that if we emulated these women, we could redeem the world.

First are the mothers of the three Israeli teens who were abducted this past summer:  Racheli Frenkel, Bat-Galim Shaer, and Iris Yifrach.  These three mothers of grief possessed such strong faith and inspired the Jewish community to unite in ways we had never seen before.  Thousands of Jews–Hasidic, secular, and everything in between–gathered at the Kotel.  Racheli Frenkel was approached by a group of children who told her that they had just offered a prayer on behalf of her son and the other two boys.  She turned to them and said reassuringly, “I believe with full faith that they’ll return; but if they don’t, be strong.”  “Hashem lo oved etzleinu,” she said, “God doesn’t work for us.”  What humility to maintain faith in God and yet recognize in a time of desperation that the world does not revolve around us!  Racheli Frenkel showed me, all of us, what deep faith looks like.

That was the summer.  The winter came and we met another set of women.  Bashi Twersky, Chaya Levine, Breine Goldberg, and Yakova Kupinsky were the surviving wives of the four men killed in the Har Nof synagogue massacre. These women were faced with a choice in the face of the brutal murders.  They could have cried out for vengeance.  They could have cursed in anger.  Instead, they looked inward.  They said that within the Jewish community there was so much divisiveness.  The unity of the summer seemed to have been forgotten.  Healing must begin from within the Jewish community, and they declared that the first shabbat after their husbands’ deaths should be devoted to “Ahavat Chinam,” unbridled love towards one another.  I was inspired by their selflessness and so were others.

This Pesach, I understand better the rabbis’ insight that due to righteous women, we can redeem the world.  We can redeem it if we emulate the moral courage of Miriam, Yocheved, Batia, Shifrah and Puah.  We can enrich it if we draw from the deep faith of the three strong mothers whose brave sons brought out the best in us.  We can improve it if we incorporate the selflessness of the four wives whose husbands won’t be at the seder this year.

Jewish day school enrollment has been the hot topic of discussion in the Jewish community.  Everyone has a theory why enrolment is down.  Some argue it’s because of the cost of education; tuition at day schools can exceed that of Canadian universities. Others say it’s because of value; fewer families today value an intensive Jewish education than in previous generations.  Whatever reasons we come up with, we cannot neglect the fact that we are part of a larger issue facing the GTA education sector as a whole.

Anyone who has been following local news knows that our public educational institutions are also experiencing financial stress.  The Toronto Catholic board announced a budget deficit in excess of $23 million.  The Toronto District School Board announced that 130 of its schools are less than 65 percent full. The Teaching Assistants at the University of Toronto and at York University are on strike.  The student population is down all over the city, and budgets are stressed.

There are likely unique factors that affect the Jewish community.  However, we shouldn’t think that we are immune to the demographic challenges faced by all schools in the Greater Toronto area.

I am confident that the entire TanenbaumCHAT community has the support, the grit, the vision and the creativity to overcome these challenges. We as a team has  what it takes to create a school of enduring significance with two thriving campuses.

This week is Rumble in the Jungle.  My schedule was crazy, but I managed to sneak in a few minutes to watch the boys’ volleyball game—TCW v. TCK.  I entered the gymnasium at TCW, moved over the right of the judge, and then realized that I was standing on the TCK side.  I began to worry that someone might think that I was favoring the younger child over the older.  Anyone familiar with the Book of Genesis knows the problems that causes.

I crossed over to the other side of the floor and stood behind the scorekeeper’s table, which is situated at the midpoint of both teams.  There I stood.  TCK had won the first game.  TCW won the second.  I didn’t need to see the tie-breaking third game because either way I won.

The two campuses have distinct identities.  Yet, while one is Toronto and the other Vaughan, one is Wallenberg and the other Kimel, one is South and the other North, one is CHAT and the other CHAR, to me they are both TanenbaumCHAT.

I imagine Serena and Venus Williams’ parents felt the same way when they watched the two sisters compete against each other at the Arthur Ashe Tennis Centre in Forest Hills, NY.  Archie and Olivia Manning likely shepped naches regardless of the outcome in any of the “Manning Bowls” when their sons Eli (Giants) and Peyton (Colts) butted heads in NFL football.  The Staal parents from Thunder Bay are no strangers to a face off among their sons Marc, Eric and Jordan Staal.  Regardless of the final score, these parents win.

My goal for the year ahead is to bring the schools together not just to compete but to collaborate.  Greater cooperation will help streamline operations.  It will build a stronger “chevre” for our students when they go to university or to Israel.  It will show that we are, indeed, one school of enduring greatness flourishing on two campuses.  It’s win-win!

Israel is a country that is worth devoting a year of life there.  You may have heard me or another  TanenbaumCHAT staff member already say this, but I would like to expand on this point even further.  Over the past ten years between 10-20% of our graduating class has elected to spend a year in Israel after high school. While we are very proud of this achievement, I would like to see even more of our graduates spend their post  high school year in Israel.  TanenbaumCHAT should be a leader in this area.

Promoting a gap year in Israel is not just a TanenbaumCHAT initiative.  We are not alone.  Harvard University was one of the first elite universities to encourage applicants to take a gap year.  Princeton University set a goal of sending a tenth or more of newly admitted applicants for a year of social service work in a foreign country.  The President of Princeton argued that a gap year gives students a much-needed global perspective, adds to their maturity, and gives students a break from academic pressure.

Canadian universities are very open to gap year programs.  In general, students have no problem getting deferrals.  The only snag seems to be if a student defers in order to participate in a gap year program that grants credits.  In the latter case, universities fear this will mean reduced income for them.  Leaving aside their reluctance to grant credits, universities are united on one point:  a gap year experience can make a post-secondary education more meaningful.

I’m a proponent of a gap year in Israel not only because it gives students a year to mature, temporarily exit the self-imposed academic pressure cooker, and discover aspects of themselves unrelated to their future profession.  But also because it will help our students develop a meaningful, enduring, and loyal relationship with Israel.  In the world we live in today, a relationship with Israel cannot be taken for granted.

When graduates spend an extended period of time in Israel, they get a sense of what it feels like to be an Israeli.  They have the opportunity to see Israel with all its complexities and find their place in building an even stronger, more vibrant Israel.

I know spending a year in Israel disrupts the ordinary trajectory of Middle School-High School-University-Career.  I know I am asking TanenbaumCHAT families to think differently.  That’s why I suggest that parents begin the conversation with their child in Grade 9 and not wait till Grade 12.  The TanenbaumCHAT staff are prepared to discuss gap year with any family at any time.  They include Rabbi Eli Mandel, Tamara Rebick, and Margaret Klompas at TCW, and Judith Shapero and Richie Stoll at TCK. At both campuses, families can always feel free to speak to Rabbi Yeres or me.

My goal is to make a gap year in Israel normative and thereby help all of us make a significant impact on our children, the Jewish people, and the State of Israel.

 

The holiday of Hannukah celebrates the flame of Torah that the Jewish people have kept ablaze for centuries.  Here at TanenbaumCHAT that fire continues to burn intensely.

Our teachers glow with energy. They ignite the curiosity of our students and help each student discover where he or she can shine.

Our students radiate compassion and care and character.

They brighten the lives of the elderly at Baycrest, the adults at REENA, and survivors of the Shoah.  

Our 7,000 alumni illuminate all corners of the globe.  They teach English in Hong Kong, promote world health in Geneva, and serve as commanders in the IDF.  

Our Board burns with passion so that TanenbaumCHAT remains a continual  source of light to the Jewish community and the world at large for generations.

This Hannukah spread the light.  Share with your friends the way TanenbaumCHAT contributes to a bright future for all of us.

Chag Hannukah Sameach.

TanenabuamCHAT is one of the only Jewish day high schools in North America that doesn’t require some form of regular tefilla (prayer).  A few of our graduates commented that they regretted that CHAT never taught them how to pray in a traditional service.

To address this gap, I proposed that we offer Grade 12 students an option.  For two weeks during their Rabbinics course in which they were studying about Tefilla (prayer), they could have a choice:  Continue to attend Rabbinics class as usual or attend four Shacharit (morning) services and four Mincha (afternoon) services.  We would provide two minyan options: mechitza and egalitarian.

At TCK, Judith Shapero and Jaclyn Klimitz agreed to coordinate the egalitarian minyan, and at TCW Alexandria Fanjoy and Rabbi Lori Cohen agreed to do the same.  The mechitza minyan would run as usual at each campus.

Our two-week experiment has come to an end.  On each campus approximately 30 Grade 12 students elected to attend minyan.

The overwhelming majority of the students found it to be very worthwhile.

Below are some of their comments:

“It allowed students to learn by doing.”  It was a “hands-on approach that got us involved in praying rather than just hearing about it.”  “I really liked that there was an egalitarian option.”  It allowed students to “have a feel of what it is like to pray.”  “It brought students together with their prayers.”  “It was a great experience and I would do it again next year.”  It made a “really good connection with the curriculum.”  “ I liked that that I got to pray with my friends and connect to God with other members in my school.”  “I got to know some of the prayers better.”

“I am a secular Jew. Therefore going to a Tefilah service was a first time experience for me… It was empowering to pray all together in one combined spirit, but my own independent prayer was most compelling to me.”  “I liked having a more spiritual experience of life for two weeks.”  “I liked that most of our grade came together at once to pray to God.”  “My connection with God was strengthened.”  “I used to do it all the time in middle school, so it brought back great memories.”  “I liked that after learning what each prayer meant in Rabbinics class, I was able to actually understand what I was saying and could pray with purpose.”  “After morning prayers I genuinely felt like I had more energy to take on the day.” “I liked that we had the option to attend either a mechitza or an egalitarian service, which allowed students to pray in an environment most comfortable to them.”

The students had many good suggestions on next steps.  Our hope is to give other students opportunities like this, opportunities where they can explore their relationship with God in a safe and respectful place and gain the skills to feel comfortable participating in religious life.

 

Nine or more years of Jewish day school education have the most staying power of any other Jewish experience.  That’s the conclusion that Professors Jack Wertheimer and Steven M. Cohen arrived at in a recently published article in MOSAIC.

Wertheimer and Cohen re-analyzed the 2013 Pew Survey.  They confirmed that overall, intermarriage rates are increasing, birthrates are falling, and non-Orthodox Jews are less and less affiliated with Judaism and the Jewish community.  However, this is not the case for adults who attended day schools for nine or more years.

What these researchers found was that a Jewish day school education into the high school years led to the highest levels of Jewish engagement compared to any other type of Jewish educational experience.  Adults with nine or more years of a Jewish day school education were most likely to:

  • Marry a fellow Jew.
  • Raise their children in the Jewish religion.
  • Feel a sense of responsibility for other Jews.
  • Participate in religious and synagogue life.

TanenbaumCHAT is one of the many fine Jewish day high schools that is preparing students not only to participate in Jewish life, but shape it too.  At a stage in life when teens question, reject, and challenge some of the most cherished values, Jewish high schools provide a Jewish context for teens to go through adolescence and emerge with a strong, proud Jewish identity.

If parents want their children to have one foot firmly planted in Western civilization and another in Jewish civilization, parents would be wise to provide their child with a sophisticated and sustained Jewish education that provides the best of both worlds.

If parents want to make a positive impact on the size, character, and commitment of the Jewish community and secure a strong future for our people, they should heed the well-documented findings of Professors Wertheimer and Cohen.  They are incontrovertible.

I like to run.  Two weeks ago, I ran the ScotiaBank full marathon, and the Sunday afer that, I ran the Niagara Falls half marathon.

About five years ago, my time began to improve rapidly when I adopted a running technique named after a 1972 United States Olympic runner named Jeff Galloway.  Galloway says that if you take 30 second walk breaks every 4 or 5 minutes from the start of the race, you won’t hit the wall or slow down, like most runners do, in the second half of the race, and you’ll enjoy the run more.

It takes a lot of ego strength and self-confidence to adopt this method because you’re walking four minutes into the race, everyone is passing you, and you know that many of the other runners are thinking to themselves “this guy is never going to make it another 13 or 26 miles if he’s walking already.”  But then, by the halfway point, they’re slowing down and you’re speeding up, and a big smile of satisfaction appears on your face.

What I learned from the The Galloway run-walk method is that sometimes it’s best to go slow to go fast…not just in running but in life in general and particularly as you think about Life After TanenbaumCHAT.  I promise your life will be richer for it.

Let me unpack this metaphor in three ways as you consider your options after TanenbaumCHAT.

First, there’s no finish line.  That’s true despite the fact that you’ve been in a race to the top for the past four years…for the past 12 years.

You’ll finish TanenbaumCHAT and race right into university.  Then, you’ll race through university to get to a career.  Then, you’ll embark on the career to race to the top of your field.

What you find out about 10-20 years after that is that there’s no finish line.  If you take an extra year or two for university, an extra year or two for graduate school, if you take off a year, if you change your mind, it’s ok.  You don’t have to have everything figured out right now.  You can go slow to go fast.  People change careers.  They go back to school.  They develop new interests.  There’s no finish line, and no decision is irrevocable.  You can afford to take some “walk breaks” because there’s really no finish line.

Second, like a marathon, unless you’re an elite runner, you’re not competing against anyone else but yourself.  A lot of TanenbaumCHAT students think that if they take off a year somewhere after high school, they will have missed out on something.  Or they’ll be behind.  Well, unlike high school where you are part of a grade–G9, G10, G11, G12–there are no grades post-high school.  First year students at university, for example, may be sitting in a lecture next to a third year student or even a graduate student.  Universities are gradeless….as are professions.  Some people take a year off.  Some people unexpectedly fall in love.  I got married at 23 even though I thought I wouldn’t get married till 27.  The “real world” is gradeless and there’s no such thing as being behind…which means you can go slow to go fast as long as you’re doing something meaningful.

I’ve been heading up schools for 15 years.  I started a school from scratch.  I revitalized a dying school.  And now I’m at TanenbaumCHAT.  Shana Harris at Bialik has been running schools for nearly twice as long.  Eric Petersiel at Leo Baeck for half as long.  But we’re all colleagues and equals.  And, there’s no such thing as being behind.  If you enter your career a year or two before or after a friend of yours, who cares?  If you arrive at Western or York or Ryerson a year after your friends, who cares?  As long as you’ve been doing something worthwhile, you should never feel like you’re behind.  Life is about your unique path and contribution.  You will make yours; your friends will make theirs.  Whether you do so before or after them, it doesn’t matter. You’re not in competition with them.

Third, you should “go slow to go fast” for another reason, and that is lest you think that you are what you do.  In other words, there’s more to your identity than your career or your job.  You have multiple identities now and you will have even more later.  Now, you see yourself primarily as a student and see all the other people in this room in similar ways.  And you spend most of your waking hours seeing yourself and your peers that way.  But the truth is, it’s not good to define your life only in terms of marks and courses and how well you do in school.  You are a friend.  You are a member of a family and a community and a people, and those identities are just as important if not more so than your identity as a student.

That’s why many of your teachers tell you to take a gap year.  They’re saying go slow to go fast.  Your life and your identity will be richer if you take a year to learn or volunteer in Israel and participate in building the homeland of the Jewish people.  A gap year gives you the opportunity to deepen an aspect of yourself–your Jewish self/your Israel-engaged self– that has nothing to do with your future career.

I promise you, if you go slow, and you spend a year in Israel, you’ll be ahead.  You’ll be a more complete person, and when you resume your “run,” you’ll enjoy whatever you do next even more.

You might think other people are lapping you and saying to themselves “this guy will never finish the race,” but your life will be a lot richer for it.  You’ll benefit.  The Jewish people will benefit.  Israel will benefit.

Let me end by making sure you don’t misunderstand something.  I’m not saying that it’s bad to be goal-oriented.  It’s good to have goals.  But don’t define your goals too narrowly.  Don’t think you have to follow some linear path.  No marathon whether full or half whether in Toronto or anywhere else in the world follows a straight line.  Take “walk breaks.”  Otherwise, you’ll miss out on important, life-changing experiences.  You’ll miss opportunities to learn things that really matter.  You’ll neglect aspects of yourself that really matter.  Don’t be afraid to go slow to go fast.

In the Niagara Falls half marathon, around the 8 mile mark, I caught up to a young woman in her 20’s who had passed me early on.  She ended two minutes behind me.  Around the 8 mile mark, she said to me “whatever technique you’re following is working.”  Another runner made a similar comment.  He had passed me in the first mile but saw me not far behind him for most of the race. I’d almost catch up, then walk and fall behind.  Eventually,  I passed him.  When I did, he asked me “do you take walk breaks the whole race?” And the answer is yes.  I am pretty consistent when it comes to the “go slow to go fast” philosophy for the whole race, and I recommend you take “walk breaks” too for long runs and for everything you do in your Life After TanenbaumCHAT.