Pure Light

Dear families,

It’s always a little disorienting when Chanukah does not fall during the days in December when school is in session.  This year, the first light of Chanukah is this coming Sunday night, when we are all on break, on staycations, road trips or away in sunnier climates.  While our students have been learning about Chanukah these past few weeks, we have not had the chance to celebrate together with the lighting of the candles as per usual.

So, in the Chanukah spirit, with school winding down, I’d like to share a Chanukah teaching, based on the following account in the Talmud (Shabbat 21b):

“When the Greeks entered the Temple, they defiled all of the oils. After the Hasmoneans defeated them, they searched and found but one cruse of oil, untouched and sealed with the seal of the High Priest. The cruse had only enough oil for one day, but a miracle occurred and they were able to light from it for eight days. The following year they established these days as a holiday for praise and thanksgiving.”

There is so much to unpack in this deceptively simple holiday.  Chanukah, with its dueling narratives and critical debates about the nature of what the miracle was, the clash of cultures of Hellenism and Judaism, and the contrast of its outsized popularity in modern Jewish culture with the relative obscurity of its origin story and the minor holiday status accorded it by the rabbis – the holiday is actually representative of so many aspects of who we are as a people, and who we are as individuals.

Like Chanukah, what story do we tell?  What do we emphasize?  What do we diminish?  What parts are we proud to share with the world, and what parts need to stay close to our chest?  When we teach about Chanukah or share the best wisdom of Judaism with our children, what do we need to focus on?  If we share too much, all at once, it only gets more confusing.  If we share too little, then we risk a watered-down understanding of themes that are immensely powerful and potentially life-shaping.

So what do we do?  Where do we start?

I think the beginnings of an answer lie in the above Talmudic story, and it is a distillation of a major teaching about Judaism.  The Talmud emphasizes the significance of the small jar of oil in the rescue of the Jewish people – not the larger military victory or any of the other facets of the Chanukah story.  The sealed jar of pure oil is a metaphor for that little bit of pure and complete faith that resides in the depths of the Jewish soul.  It’s the piece of us that no one can take away from us, which nothing can defile or destroy.  We’re all a little bit like the Beit Hamikdash, in the state it was recaptured in by the Hasmoneans – we’re all a bit broken and we’re all somewhat damaged, each in our own and unique ways.  But we have to search for that part of us that is pure, that is capable of being a light and giving light to others.  And then we can start again, and build again.

I think of this when I think of our students; they are so young and they are for the most part blissfully unaware of the challenges that may lie ahead.  And so for them, finding that “one cruse of oil, untouched and sealed with the seal of the High Priest” is something that comes naturally and intrinsically – their light is pure and clear and warm and beams from their smiling faces.  The harder challenge is for us to find that cruse of oil in other people, the adults, and most of all, in ourselves, with all of our broken pieces and idols strewn everywhere.

But search we must, because it is the only way to be in this world.  Everyone has value, hiding as it may be behind so much that is unclean and compromised.  Everyone has a spark of the Divine.  And it is something we share, and can use to light the way forward.

Have a wonderful vacation and Chag Sameach!

Mar Abba
Head of School

Yaakov’s dream, unity and academic success

Erev Shabbat, Parshat Vayeitzei, 7 Kislev, 5780

Dear families,

This week’s parshah opens with a dramatic scene. Yaakov escapes Be’er Sheva and heads off on a perilous journey to Charan. His family situation is beyond dysfunctional and stressful. His father has just passed away, his brother Esav is furious with him and is planning to kill him, and Yaakov just leaves everything behind, all he has ever known, and runs for his life.

He stops for the night, exhausted and afraid, and after building himself a shelter made up of 12 stones that surround him to protect himself from the elements and from wild animals, falls fast asleep. And he dreams a dream, the famous dream we all know, of a ladder on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God ascending and descending on the ladder. God then appears to him and promises him the promises given to his father and grandfather.

In this story, the sages focus on the stones. Before Yaakov lay down to sleep, we learn:

He took some of the STONES from the place, and he set it under his head… (Bereishit 28:11)

But after he had dreamed and woke up, we see that:

He took the STONE which he had set under his head and erected it as a monument… (Bereishit 28:18)

The Midrash notes the discrepancy between the two verses (was it one stone or many stones?) and teaches that the many stones actually gathered together under Yaakov and became ONE, the 12 stones representing the 12 tribes, unified as one people. Unified through the respect and love each tribe has for each other, connected to each other through ve’ahavta la’re’achah kamocha. And only then is he able to have that prophetic dream, and have God reveal Himself.

The need to feel safe and secure is paramount. Without it, everything is compromised. Yaakov needed to feel protected and safe when he set up the perimeter of stones.

Our children, our students, the spiritual descendants of Yaakov, are no different. It is well known through research that stress interferes with learning and memory. The ability to retrieve and encode information from stored memories can be quite easily disrupted by stressful situations. When a person is stressed or anxious, blood flows (i.e. leaves) from the frontal lobe region of the brain as part of the fight or flight response. The frontal lobe region of our brain is where decisions are made, it is the part of the brain responsible for our executive functions and self-regulation.

A stressed student is a student who can’t learn properly. A child who is chronically anxious cannot develop properly, cognitively, socially or emotionally.

For some students, feeling unsafe can be from something in the home, and that often manifests itself academically or behaviorally. For other students, school can be unsafe, with academic struggles, problems with friends, teachers or even bullying. And for some students, both home and school can be hard, anxious places.

At Hebrew Foundation School, students, staff, parents and board share the responsibility for creating a culture of respect and safety, and for putting in the hard work to tackle the challenges and obstacles that can stand in the way of learning and progress. The responsibility we have to get it right, for the sake of our children and students, is awesome.

That’s the business of any good school, to work to create a culture of mutual respect, and an environment that is safe, caring and orderly. It is something we actively work towards at Hebrew Foundation School – we all want our students to feel safe and cared for, and learning and growing to their fullest potential.

That being said, I want to challenge us further, and I want us to aim higher, because we are after a higher goal. Like Yaakov’s dream, that’s to bring God into the school and into the live of our students. And the only way we do that is by realizing that all the different parts that make up a school, the students, the teachers, the parents, the administration and staff, and board and volunteers… all those parts, like the 12 stones, need to come together to support each other, respect each other, and elevate each other for the highest of purposes.

When we realize that we are on this journey together, when we surround and envelop our children with love and support, when we are b’achdut and living and learning in the spirit of ve’ahavta la’re’achah kamocha, then a school and a community become ONE, and God’s presence is palpable – the Torah and the universe it contains is entirely dependent on ahavat yisrael. And only then is everything and anything possible.

There is much more to say about this subject, which I’ll be sharing and discussing over the coming weeks and months.

Shabbat Shalom u’mevorach. Good Shabbos, good Shabbos!

Mar Abba, Head of School

Lech l’cha: the boy at the bus stop

I have to tell you about the boy at the bus stop.

But first:

For many families and schools right now, it’s both a stressful, yet hopeful time. It’s Open House season, where schools showcase their academic programs, facilities and student services to prospective families, and where families try and figure out which school will be the right one for their children. Every family has a vision and a preconceived notion of how they hope their child’s academic life will unfold, and partnering with the right school is so important. We all want to set our children and students up for success, to be resilient, to be kind and and independent, and ready for life’s journey. And thank God, more often than not, that’s exactly what happens, even with the invariable challenges along the way.

This finds expression in this week’s Torah portion, Lech L’cha, when God speaks to Avram: “Lech Lcha… Go from your land, your birthplace, and your father’s house, and go to a land which I will show you.” So begins the story of the first Jew in the world, Avraham, hearing God’s command and heading on out into the world, leaving behind all he knew, moving forward into the unknown. We know that rabbinic tradition teaches that God’s commandment to Avraham to leave his home is one of the ten tests he is presented with during his life.

And boy, is life ever filled with tests.

Here is where the boy at the bus stop comes back into the frame.

Like many students at the time, when I was a kid, I took the 161 city bus to school and back. With my brother and sisters, I got on the bus on the outskirts of Outremont, took a seat, and settled in for the trip up Van Horne and into Cote St Luc. The bus would fill up as it went, adding students from all the many schools along the route (UTT, Herz, JPPS, Wagar, Maimo, and Hebrew Academy) and I got to know a lot of kids in Montreal that way. There was one kid, however, who stood out for the following reason. The first stop after Decarie, this red-headed kid would wait for the bus on most days. The driver would stop, the kid would get on the bus, pause for a second or two as if deciding to proceed or not, and then with a gentle smile, get off the bus. And the bus would proceed on the route, the boy still standing at the stop. I watched this scene repeat itself for years and years. It was obvious to us that this boy was different, having what today we would call special needs or developmental disabilities.

Years passed, and the routine stopped – he just wasn’t at the stop anymore. I always wondered what happened to him, how his life turned out.

Every time a new stage of development and life approaches for a child, it can be terrifying for a parent. The shift from preschool to kindergarten. Concerns about social development, academic ability, behavioural challenges. Choosing an elementary school. Finding the right high school. Peer pressure. Lack of motivation. Issues with focus. Marks (or lack thereof). Then, hopefully the jump to CEGEP and the right university. The constant worry that they will struggle more than they have to in life, and not have the right opportunities, a meaningful career, or meet the right person to be with.

Now imagine being a parent with a child with significant developmental disabilites. Where does your child go once he or she grows up and finishes the specialized school they went to with all sorts of supports? There’s no university on the horizon, there is no traditional career path. How will they support themselves, gain independence and move forward in the next chapter in their lives?

Enter the Atelier JEM Workshop. This organization, the jewel in the crown of Montreal’s Jewish community, is an amazing, wondrous place. For more than half a century, adults from all backgrounds with special needs have found a place to be productive and earn a living, while providing a valuable and highly competitive service for Montreal businesses in all sectors. Workers, who earn a minimum wage salary, engage in a variety of jobs including packaging and assembly work, light machine operation, labelling, sorting and much more. Each job is adapted to meet the needs and special abilities of the individual employee.

For the last number of years, our grade 6 students have been fortunate to go and visit the JEM Workshop, and learn about the special place that it is. The field trip to the JEM workshop was this week. At Hebrew Foundation School, we want our students to learn about those who are different, we want our students to learn about true chesed, and we want them to learn about community and family. A field trip to the JEM Workshop is all of that and more. I had a meeting in town on Wednesday, and afterwards, I met up with the grade 6 group at the workshop. It was so special to be a part of their experience. The students were enthralled to be there, and they soaked up the entire experience.

The boy from the bus stop works there now. He’s been there for years. He’s my age. You see, he got on the bus. He has a purpose in life and a destination to go to every day.

I went up to him and introduced myself, I was so humbled to be in his presence. I told him I remembered him from our 161 days. His smile got bigger. He told me his name is Yossi. My smile got bigger. I told him my son’s name is Yossi. We both could not stop smiling.

Life can be hard. Growing up is not always easy. But with a loving family, a supportive school and an embracing community, everyone gets to hear God’s voice, find purpose, go out into the world… everyone gets to lech l’cha.

I invite you to come to the Hebrew Foundation School Open House on Wednesday, November 27 at 7 PM. Come and see how we help children become who they are meant to be. Come and learn how community is integral to the academic, and social and emotional success of your children.

Shabbat Shalom Yossi! Shabbat Shalom u’mevorach!

Mar Abba, Head of School

Yom Kippur: Find Your Moment

I don’t pretend to be an expert on Yom Kippur, or on the process of tshuvah, repentance.

Like many of you, memories of Yom Kippur from my childhood were that shul was long, where invariably some elderly congregant would get weak and faint, someone ran to help with smelling salts, and an ambulance would come and take said congregant away. On Yom Kippur, everyone dressed to kill, but the collective bad breath of hundreds of people fasting for 25 hours is what really did you in. The day was an endurance test; you’d be looking at the clock, timing how long until the fast was over and you could eat. When the shofar would finally blow at the end, there would be a mad dash to the exits, while that guy would stand there and try and sing Hatikvah at the top of his lungs, in righteous indignation at all his coreligionists who had the chutzpah to decamp to their break-fast, instead of singing their allegiance to Israel. And while this would be going on, the shul regulars would be forcing their way towards the front of the sanctuary to pray ma’ariv, fighting the human tidal wave of starving yidden leaving their pews in the other direction to head home.

But a funny thing happens as you get older. The cartoonish nature of what I described above still occurs, but takes up less of your focus. You turn inward and more reflective with maturity. Yom Kippur becomes more interesting. You pay a bit more attention to what you are reading in the machzor, and look for meaning in the moments and the tunes, or niggunim. And if you are lucky, each year, you notice something that pulls you deeper into the time and space of Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year.

I found my moment for this year, even before I step into synagogue tomorrow night. And I want to share it with you because I hope it becomes your moment as well.

Israeli megastar singer Ishay Ribo (great article about him here) just released “Seder Ha’avoda”, a song that recalls the service of the High Priest, the Kohen Kadol on Yom Kippur. It is a central part of the prayer service on Yom Kippur. Most of the lyrics of the song come straight from the liturgy of Yom Kippur.

I can’t stop listening to it.

You see, I’ve spent my whole life engaged in Jewish learning, as a student, teacher and now Head of School. I’ve studied broadly and I’ve studied in depth, on a wide range of subjects. In all those years, I’ve never “felt” anything when learning about the Yom Kippur service in the Beit Hamikdash. For sure, I learned about it, and I knew about the following part of our history, as per the Rambam, Maimonides:

Seven days before Yom Kippur, the Kohen Gadol (“High Priest”) is removed from his home to his chamber in the Holy Temple.

Mishneh Torah, Laws of the Yom Kippur Service, 1:3

[Upon concluding the Yom Kippur service, the Kohen Gadol] washed his hands and feet, removed the golden vestments, dressed himself in his own clothes, and set off for his home. The entire people would accompany him to his home. He would celebrate a festival over the fact that he had emerged in peace from the holy.

Ibid., 4:2

Despite all that learning, I never understood it on a kishke level until now, until Ribo brought it to life. He composed the song about two years ago while he himself was in synagogue on Yom Kippur, in the middle of the Musaf service. That an Israeli singer can release a pop song in September of 2019 about a Temple service that was last conducted over 2,000 years ago, and make you feel awe and amazement and a deep spiritual longing is something that I am repeatedly floored by, each and every time I listen to the song. Music as a vehicle for learning and understanding is a powerful force. “Seder Ha’Avoda” has completely changed my understanding of Yom Kippur.

Listen to it before the Fast begins, and let me know if it moves you too.

Have an easy and meaningful fast. Ktivah v’chatimah tovah.

Mar Abba
Head of School

HFS as family

What does it mean to grow up in a school? Most of us would assume that it applies just to students, but the truth is that it happens to teachers as well. At last night’s beautiful Hebrew Foundation School ORT Campaign Launch, Andrew Stein (HFS class of 2012) and our very own Mme Marisol Tremblay each spoke about their connection to the school and its role in their respective lives and careers. For Andrew, now a premed student at Mcill, HFS inspired him to volunteer and help in the community, and prepared him to find success academically and take on student leadership positions. For Marisol, well, her words said it best:

“Tout comme Andrew, j’ai aussi fait mes débuts à HFS à l’âge de six ans lorsque j’accompagnais ma mère dans sa classe de première année. It was at that age that I used to roam the halls and admired the job of being a teacher. It is in these halls that I fell in love with the smell of books, the blackboards, the red pens and the stickers. It is in these halls that I learned what being a teacher really meant. It meant learning every day, you as much as the student, and it meant to work hard to achieve the ultimate goal… success in all spheres of life.

This might be cliche but for us teachers this school represents love and family. Through the years, teachers and students have faced challenges, heartbreaks, victories, successes… and we are all there for each other. We take care of each other and have created beautiful friendships. It is with this philosophy that everyday we teach and learn as a team. We not only support each other, we celebrate each other and we want our students to know how proud we are of them.

Tous les jours, je me considère chanceuse. Je me considère chanceuse d’être ici parmis vous ce soir. Je me considère chanceuse de pouvoir travailler avec des professeurs et des élèves aussi fantastiques mais surtout je me considère chanceuse de travailler pour une école qui aime sa communauté et qui désire le meilleur pour sa grande famille. HFS is a place of love and family.”

We could have not said it better ourselves.

With happiness and with goodness of heart

A Rosh Hashana Bracha: With happiness and with goodness of heart

This a Rosh Hashana blessing wrapped around a blog post:

Last weekend over Shabbat, I was part of a panel discussion on the Challenges of Jewish Education, alongside my colleagues from the city’s other Jewish Day Schools, held at the Beth Israel Beth Aaron synagogue in Cote St Luc.

It was a great panel, and the Q & A portion went on for over an hour, well past the food and dessert being served – people did not want to leave, asking question after question and sharing their thoughts and experiences with so much passion. Their questions and comments were wide-ranging, from Judaics curriculum to the use of cell phones in schools, from provincial funding to the struggle with day school affordability.  It reminded me of the beginning of the famous talk Sir Ken Robinson gave at the 2006 TED conference, in which he describes being at dinner parties when the topic turns to education, and he says (at the 01:33 mark):

But if you ask about their education, they pin you to the wall, because it’s one of those things that goes deep with people, am I right? Like religion and money and other things. So I have a big interest in education, and I think we all do.

In my opening remarks, I began by quoting the last verse of  parshat Ki Tavo that was read on Shabbat, in which Moshe tells the Jewish people “And you shall observe the words of this covenant and fulfill them, in order that you will succeed in all that you do.” This verse, I explained, is essentially the encapsulation of the dream and promise of a Jewish Day School education, regardless of the type of school, from the most secular of Jewish schools to the most chareidi of yeshivot. Put simply, learn the traditions and teachings, put them into practice, and then you will be successful in life.

I believe every school sees themselves as fulfilling these holy and aspirational goals, and indeed, many do. However, as I added in my subsequent remarks on Shabbat, there is a qualifier to all of this, a secret ingredient to the Jewish education recipe , which coincidentally is also in the same parsha.  Moshe admonishes the people to remember that:

“… because you did not serve the Lord, your God, with happiness and with goodness of heart, when you had an abundance of everything.”

Over the 40 years in the desert, Am Yisrael, the Jewish People were given so much from God – manna from heaven, miraculous dry cleaning for their clothing (it’s true, look it up), protection from the elements day and night, and God’s presence throughout.  And yet, consistently, stubbornly, they fell down, they failed to recognize the good, and they struggled with the deepest of secrets, which was to serve Hashem with happiness and with gladness of heart. 

Consider this – we live in a time where, relative to so many others in the world, we are blessed with so much, and we use that abundance to try and give our children a great education and the best chance at a successful future.  So much so, that tens of thousands of families the world over invest in sending their children to Jewish Day Schools, families who spend their hard-earned money paying private school fees, all to give their children every advantage possible for success.  However, how many stories do we read about how stressed our system is, how many fundamental challenges our day schools face?  How many stories do we know of Jewish Day School families who, disillusioned, can’t wait for their kids to graduate out of elementary school or high school?  How many students do we know about in Jewish Day Schools, who, after finishing elementary school, or upon becoming bar or bat mitzvah, or on graduating high school, walk away from community, from tradition and practice, and from Jewish life, because their Jewish learning experiences ranged from pareve at best, to negative at worst?

There’s a famous expression that applies here: If a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well.  If we are going to do this Jewish education thing, in this day and age, then let’s all make sure to do it right and do it b’simcha u’vetuv levav, with happiness and with goodness of heart.  Don’t get me wrong – I’m not suggesting that we be pollyannaish and pretend problems don’t exist.  On the contrary, let’s absolutely acknowledge the challenges we face, and work to make them better. 

However, let us also first recognize the immense good that exists, the opportunities that abound, the unmatched excellence of a strong Jewish Day School education, the passion and dedication of the teachers, the resilience and beauty of our students and children, the innovations and refinements to practice that are constantly being introduced.  Let us recognize the miracle that in 2019 there are more Jewish children studying Torah and doing Jewish today than at any point in our history.  And that this occurs in countries and societies relatively free of religious persecution or coercion, which means we as a people of faith do this as a conscious, positive choice, and not because we are circling the wagons.

So here is my Rosh Hashana blessing and charge for us all, the spiritual heirs and descendants of the Jewish people who spent 40 years in the desert:

Let’s invest in Jewish education b’simcha u’vetuv levav.

Let’s learn about our traditions and values b’simcha u’vetuv levav.

Let’s teach and inspire our students b’simcha u’vetuv levav.

Let’s partner together b’simcha u’vetuv levav.

Let’s build together b’simcha u’vetuv levav.

On behalf of the administration, staff and teaching faculty of Hebrew Foundation School, we want to wish you all a ktiva v’chatima tova, and a gut gebensht yohr.  On vous souhaite une Chana tova oumetouka, Kétiva vé’Hatima Tova à toutes et à tous, et une douce et heureuse année 5780!

 – Mar Abba, Head of School