Rabbi Buckman’s address to G12 students at “Life After CHAT”

I usually give a talk at “Life After CHAT” about my philosophy of running and how it applies to life after chat. But today, I just want to share a brief thought.

Much of contemporary schooling promotes a very narrow definition of success.  It defines success in terms of test scores and marks and acceptance to elite university programs.  It makes it seem as if education is about a march to some predetermined destination.

Maybe you’ve even felt this…that you are defined by a score or a mark and your fate and perhaps even your worth are determined by marks.  The bad thing about this is that education becomes about success and not learning.

The sad thing is that university students say that the race in high school continues in university.  They do community service not necessarily because it helps people but because it’ll look good on their resume.  They often make friends not because of friendship but to network.  They do an internship not because they’re necessarily interested in the work but because it will help them get into graduate school.  Resumes and networking and graduate school are all good, but they shouldn’t be the raison d’etre of making friends or chesed or doing an internship.

I want you to do one simple thing:  Give yourself permission to change your mind and take your time.  Give yourself permission to make friends because friends enrich our lives.  Do acts of chesed because your heart can’t ignore the needs of others.  Do an internship because it’ll help you figure out what you like and what you’re good at and because you want to learn something new.

If I were speaking to your parents, I’d want them to give you permission to explore your academic interests when you get to university and to change your mind and not feel as if you wasted your time or their money.

I’d want them to give you permission to see life after TanenbaumCHAT not as a march toward some predetermined destination but as a process of discovery with room for stops and detours and surprises along the way.

It’s hard to give yourself permission to do this. It’s hard for parents to do this.  They’re just as much caught up in the race to the top and worried about the competitive world out there and financial success.  I understand their fear; I’m a parent, too, of four sons.

Nevertheless, give yourself permission to go to Israel for a gap year.  It’ll be the only opportunity you’ll have to get out of the resume race and just learn and experience for the sake of learning and experiencing.  It’ll also build a deep connection with Israel before you go to university and find out that standing for Israel isn’t so popular or comfortable or easy.

Give yourself permission not to know exactly what you want to do with your life and to be an 18 year old and explore your interests.

Give yourself permission to think not just about pursuing a career but about creating a deep and rich inner life, a deep and rich Jewish life, where you discover your God-given talents and use them to help others achieve their goals.

Give yourself permission and perhaps your parents will too.

This past week, I reached out to our 2015 graduates who are spending a gap year in Israel to let them know we’re thinking of them and to find out how they are doing with the security situation in Israel.  Below are excerpts from a few responses:

It seems a lot scarier to people back home, but when you’re here and you see how much security is around you just stick to safe, non-public places and you’re good.

-Tami Poliwada, BBYO

With all that being said, I am proud knowing that I came to this country willing to experience it in any condition. I still take the bus, go to the beach, the mall, and meet up with friends, only now I have to be more conscious of my surroundings. It’s truly incredible how in light of all recent events, Israeli society comes together and life still goes on.

-Liel Cohn, Kol Ami, a “mechina” with Israelis, Australians and several Americans

As much as the situation has made certain aspects of my life here more difficult, it has also opened me up to the resilience and incredible adaptability of Israeli society. Israel is a beautiful place with so much to offer and I feel so fortunate to be here even in this time.

-Samara Gottesman, Nativ

Of course the situation has been scary at times. Of course questions of a third intafada, or where I am allowed to walk during the day has made me question why I’m here, and if it’s actually safe. But to be honest I’m here because I’m a Jew and I care about my country and I want to do everything in my power to learn, experience, and grow from this year before having to go to school.

-Geoffrey Handelman, Nativ

But would I ever consider going home? Definitely not. I am so proud of Israel for being so strong in such a difficult time, and I am confident in its ability to do whatever possible to protect its people. Being here, whether on a program like mine or like the one you are considering going on soon, is a testament to Israel’s resilience and confidence in itself to protect the Jewish people and be their homeland always. Life does truly go on here, and what I always tell myself is that one cannot live life in fear. We as a people have endured many hardships and great adversity, but we will always be here to go on, stand up for what we believe in, and stay proud of who we are.

-Max Librach, Nativ

My advice to the students who are going on the (November robotics) trip is the following: Israel is extremely safe.  It’s the Jewish home, and it needs your support more than ever in this time of unrest. The best way for you to support Israel is by being here, helping the economy, and showing other Israelis that the Jewish community in Canada cares about them.

-Max Charlat, Lev HaTorah

In the Diaspora one should interrupt their life to keep updated on the situation. In Israel, one must live as if there were nothing happening.

-Aaron Propp, in the name of his Tanach teacher at Eretz Hatzevi

My thoughts on the situation is that while it is scary that there are attacks everyday in unpredictable places, it is essential that we continue to live our lives and stay strong as a people. The objection of the terrorists is for Jews to run away from Israel. For this reason I think it is essential that we keep our heads high and not give in to their evil tactics.

-Tal Bibla, Lev HaTorah

One last piece of advice for everyone back home:  Check the news 1 or 2 times a day, not constantly. The news is a business, and they will publish anything they think is newsworthy.

-Noah Guttmann, Torah V’Avodah

I think it would be good for the students to come at a time like this to really see Israel for what it is. Israel isn’t just a place with beaches and great food. Israel exists because people choose to stay and live here. If everyone ran away when there was an incident in Israel, the Jews would not have Israel today.

-Frankie Aviv, Midreshet HaRova

I have four sons, one of whom lives in the Washington, DC area.  He is currently teaching a course on social entrepreneurship to students in a Jewish school in Grade 7.

On the first day of class, he asked students to write a list of hobbies and talents.  One was good at drawing.  Another liked writing.   Another did soap–carving.  

Then, he asked them to write a list of real-life problems that they’ve experienced.  For starters, the problems could be small, perhaps even trivial.  The students didn’t need to focus on grand problems like finding a cure for a particular type of cancer.  In fact, the smaller the problem, the more likely it’s something that these kids can do something about.  

One student wrote that it always bothered him when he cut his fingernails too short that there’s no scissors or clippers that has a built-in way to avoid this.  Another who is a soccer player thought about the fact that her shin guards keep slipping and her shoelaces keep untying.   Another listed illegal poaching of birds.  

The class shared their “problems” with their classmates.  

Then, they were asked to draw a line between their talents and one or more of the problems to identify which ones they might be able to help solve. 

Perhaps the soap carver could use her talents to create a prototype for the fingernail problem and the writer could help craft a letter to a politician protesting illegal poaching of birds.  

I like that activity because it trains Middle School children to start thinking about how they can translate their talents into something that benefits others.  It teaches the important lesson that the more people you can help, the more you can help others achieve their goals, the more meaningful one’s own life becomes. 

The Talmud (Berachot 31a) makes a similar point in an unusual way.  It discusses the architecture of a synagogue or any place where you pray.  

It says that we should always pray in a place that has windows.  At first glance, it seems that what the Talmud is saying is simply that if we see the grandeur of nature, it will increase our awareness of God.  But one commentator suggests that the windows are meant to ensure that our prayers are connected to the outside world.  Our prayers should motivate us to get involved in the problems of the world, not just meditate on God.  Prayers shouldn’t just motivate us to perfect the soul, but to perfect the world.  

The same is true not just with our prayers but with our learning and academic achievements.  The goal is to connect the lessons learned inside the school and our accomplishments earned inside the school to what’s going on outside the school.  The world around us is in need of repair.  The more we sense those problems, the richer we are.  The more we use our God-given talents–whether in math or science of English or business or law or the arts–to help alleviate those problems, the more significant our lives become.  

Tonight, we wish you mazal tov. Take pride in your accomplishments.  But remember to strive connect the lessons learned inside school with the needs of the world outside school.

In the past two weeks, Israelis have faced a wave of violence in many cities throughout our homeland.  Parents have lost children.  Children have lost parents.

Yesterday, Mayor Nir Barkat of Jerusalem held a phone conference with 1000 concerned North Americans.  He assured us that Israeli officials, the IDF, and other police and security forces are doing their best to keep Israel safe.

He further said that there is no truth to the media’s claim that the status quo on Har Habayit is changing. Moslems still have access to the Temple Mount.  There is no excuse for this violence; it has been incited and provoked by radical Moslem leaders, not by any change in policy in the holy city of Jerusalem.

Mr. Barkat and national government officials are working with moderate Arab leaders and Arab school principals to see how they can prevent more young people from committing acts of violence.

The recent events leave us filled with a variety of emotions including pain, anger, fear, sadness, and frustration.  One of the most important things that we can do is stay informed, help educate our children and grandchildren about the context of the conflict, and continue to affirm that violence achieves nothing but the destruction of life.

We pray that God will comfort those who are bereaved, heal those who are injured, guide those who protect the people of Israel, strengthen the resolve of the Israeli people to live life as it should be lived, and realize the vision that the streets of Israel will one day soon be filled with the sounds of joy, peace, and tranquility.

I like to think of TanenbaumCHAT as a community of learners where staff members model for our students lifelong learning. This commitment is translated into concrete terms every summer when teachers and administrators spend time becoming better at teaching and leading.

This past summer was no different.  Some attended workshops locally; others traveled to conferences in the US and Israel.  Three teachers, for example, traveled to Emory University in Atlanta, GA for a weeklong conference at the Centre for Israel Education and two attended a workshop at Yeshiva University in New York to begin a yearlong course in experiential Jewish education.  One of our music teachers participated in a four day “Wind Conducting Symposium” held at the University of Toronto and polished her conducting skills under the tutelage of masters from around North America.

Some of our teachers traveled to Europe to participate on history tours, spend time in art museums, study architecture, and visit historic synagogues. Others stayed at home and took advantage of the Pan Am and Para Pan Am Games in Toronto and volunteered simply because it’s good to volunteer and ended up benefiting professionally as well.  One wrote book reviews for an online review site and published academic articles; another continued his studies in an online certificate course.  Another worked on her PhD.

Asked what he did this summer, one teacher echoed the experience of many teachers saying, “I am constantly working on revamping my courses to make them as relevant and engaging as they can be. This summer, I spent time incorporating some changes based on student feedback. A colleague and I also spent a day with the author of the textbooks we use for both of our senior business courses. She gave us great insights and ideas for differentiated methods of teaching the materials. I also spent some time meeting with some teachers from other schools to exchange ideas.”

Another teacher attended a workshop entitled “Creating Thinking Classrooms; Leading Educational Change for a 21st Century World.” With presenters from the Critical Thinking Consortium, she and teachers and administrators from both private and public schools discussed and brainstormed what a “thinking classroom” in the 21st century should look like and studied the five guiding principles to creating the latter: 1) Engage students 2) Sustain inquiry 3) Nurture self-regulated learners 4) Create assessment-rich learning 5) Enhance learning through digital technology.   Interesting enough, these five principles are also the core principles of digital game design, such as Angry Birds and Minecraft!

Our teachers understand that they drive academic excellence.  It’s for that reason that they continually work to become leaders in their field—during the summer, throughout the year, on weekends, and in the evening.  They and our Principals lead the way in building a community of lifelong learners.


Standards & Benchmarks

A school should never rest on its laurels. If a school isn’t improving, it is declining. Innovation isn’t a choice; it’s a necessity.

It is for that reason that we regularly seek ways to enhance the value of a TanenbaumCHAT education.  We ask ourselves: Where are opportunities to innovate? How do we better prepare students for our rapidly changing world?

One of these areas is in engineering and robotics. Thanks to a nearly $1.5 million gift,  we have launched a robotics program this year and are establishing “The Anita & Daniel Chai Engineering Academy” which will open in the 2016-2017 school year.  Both TCK and TCW will house these two initiatives.

We are investing in STEM education–education that integrates science, technology, engineering, and mathematics–because these disciplines are what is driving innovation.  STEM education seeks problems that need solving.  It teaches students how to transform ideas into realities.  It teaches students how to approach messy problems that have no clear solutions.  We are part of this innovative spirit.

This year we have done a soft launch of the engineering program by introducing robotics on both campuses.  We hired two University of Waterloo Engineering interns, Bjorn Hanks and Chris Thorogood, who have already attracted nearly 100 students to their robotics clubs. Mr. Hanks and Mr. Thorogood are smart, conscientious, student friendly mensches. Neither is a stranger to student groups, as both were leaders in their own robotics teams in high school.  They are sharing their passion for programming, system design, manufacturing and electronics.

This November, we are taking a group of interested students to Israel to deepen their exposure to engineering and robotics. This 9-day mini-mester is designed for students interested in the sciences in general, medicine and biology in particular, as well as for those interested in mathematics, engineering, and technology. The program will take place in three cities: Haifa (The Technion’s Centre for Robotics and Digital Technology Education), Beer Sheva (Ben Gurion University’s Department of Robotics and Beit Yatziv Educational Centre), and Eilat (Goldwater High School, the first place international champions of the First Robotics Competition).  It will include hands-on workshops, visits to companies that utilize robotics in their industry, and guest lectures.

Students will learn engineering concepts through the interaction with robots.  They will apply this knowledge and their background knowledge in mathematics and science to create, program, operate and evaluate different robotic models of technological and biological systems.  (To apply, go to http://tinyurl.com/minimester.)

I spoke a few students last week about our robotics program. They are beyond excited. One Grade 12 student couldn’t express enough how fortunate he felt that this program started before he graduated. Another said how she likes the spirit of innovation that fills the robotics club.  Indeed, innovation is not a choice; it is a necessity.



Throughout my career as Head of School, three core beliefs have guided my commitment to teaching, learning, and school leadership.

#1  Intelligence and ability aren’t fixed.

I believe that students become what they believe they can be.  I reject the notion that a student’s academic capacity is innate and fixed, that intellectual and emotional skills are static and unchangeable.  People get better, stronger, and smarter through effective effort.  When we work at something, we strengthen their capacity to do it.

At TanenbaumCHAT, courses are challenging, and teachers are demanding.  However, our teachers also stand ready to push students to recognize that they possess more potential than they give themselves credit for.  If students have confidence in their ability and apply themselves to the task, they can master even the most challenging academic work.


#2  Students learn best when they feel a sense of belonging.

When students feel safe, they open themselves up to learn.  They take intellectual risks, ask questions, share an opinion or expose a belief.  The result is deeper learning.

TanenbaumCHAT teachers understand this:  When kids feel that they belong, they learn better, do better, and are more likely to achieve the goals that they set for themselves.  That’s why our teachers invest so much time in building healthy relationships with and among students in the classroom, on stage, and on the ball field.


#3  The best schools address the whole child.

Most schools nurture students’ academic, athletic, and artistic self.  The beauty of a school like TanenbaumCHAT is that we cultivate those three aspects of our students’ identity and do more:  We nurture every child’s Jewish self.  We do so on shabbatonim, at holiday celebrations and ceremonies, and in Israel.  We do so in informal conversations with teachers. We do so, most regularly, through Jewish Studies classes, which are a seamless part of what students do every day.  Students learn Bible with the same level of depth as they do Biology. They learn the laws of tsedakah as naturally as they learn the laws of physics.  They learn to be knowledgeable and responsible members of the Jewish community and loyal and knowledgeable members of Canadian society.  A TanenbaumCHAT education is not only preparation for university, it is preparation for life.

I’ve worked in three schools in my career.  I founded a high school similar to TanenbaumCHAT in a suburb of Detroit in 1999.  I helped revitalize an elementary school in Atlanta a decade later.  Now, I am here at a large, stable flagship Jewish high school.  Students of all sizes and in all places proved that they can accomplish anything they work hard to accomplish.  They will learn even more to the extent that they feel a sense of belonging; and they will be the ones to stand up for the Jewish people, the State of Israel, and Jewish tradition even when it’s uncomfortable or unpopular because we have educated them to do so.

Dear Students,

The beginning of the year is a good time to set goals.  But don’t be tempted to set a goal only about the marks you want to earn. Think bigger because TanenbaumCHAT is about much more. It’s about curiosity, connection, community, character, and contribution.

Curiosity:  A lot of students think school is all about marks and building a resume so that you can get into university.  All that’s important, but school should be about expanding your intellect, exploring new ideas, asking questions that advance your knowledge and others’.  So, set a goal, something that keeps you curious.  Commit to reading a book or a daily newspaper or following up on one thing everyday that you learned in class–even if it has nothing to do with marks. You’ll be smarter for it.

Connection:  TanenbaumCHAT isn’t the only place to get a quality education but it is the only co-ed Jewish high school of its kind that delivers a first-rate education.  Your parents sent you here so that you would deepen your connection to your Jewish roots.  Set a goal. Pick a mitzvah.  Commit to studying a book of the Tanach this year on your own or Pirkei Avot.  Make it a priority.  Track your progress.  Be part of a new generation of Jews who defies all the concerns about assimilation.

Community:  You’re part of many communities.  One of them is the Jewish community.  We want you to feel a responsibility to the Jewish community and to the State of Israel.  Israel in particular needs you.  Israel needs all of us.  Set a goal of doing something everyday or every week for Israel.  Learn more.  Read more. Do more for Israel.  Make it doable and meaningful.  Devise a system to see if you fulfill your commitment.  Israel will be better off because of you.

Character:  So many books today are written about how to enhance your own self-esteem and how to be happy.  Mensches don’t focus just on their own self-esteem.  They’re more interested in ensuring others’ happiness.  It’s the start of the year and there are a lot of new students in the building. In fact, this year’s grade 9 is bigger than last year’s.  There are a lot of lonely or unsure people walking the halls.  Introduce yourself.  Set a goal of meeting one new person each day.  We’ll be a better school because of you.

Contribution:  You’re in a high pressure school in a high pressure society.  There’s a lot of pressure to focus on your own success and your own achievement.  But at TanenbaumCHAT we want you to think beyond yourself.  This year, take up a cause that benefits someone else other than yourself.  Blog about it.  Tweet about it.  Stand up for it.  Start a club that supports it.  Help someone else achieve his or her goals.  Track how well you do on this. You have something unique to offer, and the world needs what you can give.

In the spirit of Rosh Hashana, let me wish you a Shana Tova which I’m going to translate as “May you set high but realistic goals, create a system to track your progress, find the stamina to work on those goals; and may you achieve every one of them.”  Shana tova.

I have spent my first two years at TanenbaumCHAT on a mission to enhance the centrality of Israel in the life of the school and our students.  I have always said that I want our students’ relationship to be based on wholesome experiences—friendships with Israelis, an appreciation for Israeli culture, competence in speaking Hebrew.  I don’t want their relationship to be based on crisis Zionism–that Israel is a place to run to only when we’re in trouble or that we stand up for Israel when she is in trouble.

Yet, I cannot ignore the fact that one of the most pernicious, highly organized, well-funded anti-Israel campaigns on campus today is the BDS movement, And although I resent allowing haters of Israel to determine our high school curriculum, we have an obligation to equip our students to respond to the fallacies and half-truths that underlie the BDS argument.

Every TanenbaumCHAT graduate should understand at least these three things about the effort to boycott, divest from, and sanction Israel (BDS).

First, BDS doesn’t challenge a policy; it is meant to call into question Israel’s existence.  Reasonable minds can disagree on Israel’s policies.  As we know, Israelis themselves are divided, and many internally conflicted, on immigration laws, the economy, the treatment of minorities, democracy and Judaism, the two-state the solution.

However, those aren’t the issues BDS activists want to discuss or debate.  They challenge the State of Israel’s fundamental right to national sovereignty.   They support other people’s inalienable right to cultural self-definition and political self-determination. They support the Palestinians’ aspirations for statehood. They deny ours.  They couch their argument in the language of human rights, anti-racism, and freedom of speech while denying the very same rights to Jews.  Their true objective needs to be unmasked:  They seek Israel’s destruction.

Second, BDS activists make our right to exist contingent on meeting impossibly high ethical standards that they apply to no other nation regardless of the atrocities they commit.  This double standard denies our right to exist and is a nothing other than anti-Semitism.  We don’t like to use that word, anti-Semitism, but we must call out Jew hatred when we see it.  BDS is part of a larger anti-Semitic movement that attacks the Jewish people as a national entity because it is not in vogue to attack individual Jews.

Lastly (for now), we need to distinguish between legitimate criticism and illegitimate criticism.  Not every critic is an anti-Semite. Criticism that is meant to better Israel is healthy.  Criticism that is meant to batter Israel is not.  Criticism must come from a place of love and loyalty and commitment to Israel and an awareness of the right context to voice that criticism lest it be used in the service of those who deny our existence.

Israel is a place that provides Jews the best opportunity to be Jews not just in our homes but in the public sphere as well.  To deny Israel that right and compel the Jewish people to hide who we are–to deny our inalienable right to self-determination– is to rob the Jewish people of a fundamental human freedom.  Whether our students choose to debate an activist, which has dubious merit, or they productively engage the vast middle ground of students who do not understand the issues and remain uncommitted or misinformed, or they simply want to have answers for themselves, every TanenbaumCHAT student will be prepared to deal with the BDS movement before they leave our school.


Herzel with the Israeli flag

“You lied to me!”

How do we engender a love of Israel without our graduates saying, after they are exposed to other views about Israel on a university campus, “you lied to me in high school!”

In my experience, it is no benefit to our students to shield them from the complexities of Israel’s history or contemporary reality.  We won’t succeed in helping them develop a deep connection with Israel if we stifle debate, suppress doubt, or deny Israel’s failures. Israel is a country filled with the best a nation has to offer (high tech, individual freedoms, lots of opportunities) and with problems that all other countries possess (illegal immigration, religious conflicts, racial tension.)

No country is perfect, and no country should be expected to be perfect.  We need to teach our students to “hug” Israel and “wrestle” with her.  Only then will they learn to love Israel for what she is even with her imperfections.

This summer a group of educators participated in a seminar organized by the World Zionist Organization where we explored some of Israel’s challenges first hand.  We met Arabs who claim their land was confiscated in 1948 and Jews who held title to the very same land.  We met illegal immigrants from Africa who are seeking a better life in Israel and residents of Tel Aviv who have seen the crime rate increase as a result of these new neighbors.  We met an Ethiopian Jewish man who described the discrimination he has experienced in the workplace and young Ethiopian teens who seem to be oblivious to any racism.

TanenbaumCHAT is a safe place to learn about these and other problems.  Better our students should be exposed to them from us than from someone else.  Better they should learn about them in a context that also teaches the miracle that is Israel–that deserts have been made to bloom in Israel, exiles have been ingathered, a high tech society has been built out of the ashes of the Holocaust.  Israel has done all that and more while facing existential threats and fighting enemies who are not dressed as soldiers who draw battle lines in urban areas populated by civilians.  We gain nothing by avoiding Israel’s imperfections.

We are not going to hide Israel’s foibles.  Not because we are afraid we will be accused of lying but because every imperfection is an invitation to our students to get involved in building this phenomenal Jewish enterprise called Israel.  And because we will have missed an opportunity to teach a lifelong lesson: how to “hug” and “wrestle” Israel.

The American Jewish author Cynthia Ozick put it well: “Israel is imperfect…Because she is imperfect, she is always building.  Because she is always building, she is eternal.”