The irreplaceable importance of Jewish education

Dark times require light, some form of illumination.  Thus, pandemic requires a heightened sense of responsibility for others. And, assault on Israel (read Jews) because they are Jews, requires us to champion our Judaism. Thoughts and prayers are necessary but never sufficient.

So, we point out again and ever, the irreplaceable importance of Jewish education. There is no better way to champion our Judaism – during these dark times and indeed always – than by teaching the young generation who they are, where they come from and how they too might make their own unique contributions to improving the world for the next generation. And the eve of the festival of Shavuot is an ideal moment to recall this millennial, permanent, people-sustaining relationship.

In the summer of 2018, Rabbi Allan Zelenetz, published an essay in Conversations, The Journal of the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals, entitled Born in Another Time. It is a wide-ranging reflection on the essence of Jewish education. Although Rabbi Zelenetz writes ostensibly about Yeshiva Day School education, his thoughts provide a template for all (affordable) intensive Jewish education. His ideas are applicable to all schools whose aim is to instill in their students the knowledge of how to “be” and how to “do” Jewish.

“[T]he ideal Jewish Day School is an organic unity within whose walls our younger generations… learn to live as whole beings whose Jewish identity is at the same time intrinsically bound up with their intellectual, spiritual, and social-emotional growth, with their studies in the liberal arts and sciences, and with their positive participation in society at large” Rabbi Zelenetz wrote. His definition may be a bit cumbersome. But it hits home.

Our tradition tells us in language intended to penetrate the soul as well as the mind that we – all Jews – were present at Mount Sinai for the Giving of the Torah (the origin of Shavuot). Unlocking the memory of having been there is the purpose of Jewish education. And then, just as we did some 3,500 years ago at the foot of that small craggy desert mountain, we will be standing in common purpose alongside each other.

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Rabbi Zelenetz’ article is available at:

https://www.jewishideas.org/article/born-another-time

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Be safe. Be well. Shabbat shalom. Chag Shavuot samayach.

GAJE, May 14, 2021

Posted in Uncategorized

Agreed-upon principles

The discussion reimagining Jewish day schools continues in the wide educational community with pointed debate.  Ideas and counter-ideas fill digital screens and travel through the invisible fibre-miraculous pathways of cyberspace with unabating frequency.

We are monitoring this discussion only insofar as it reinforces the essential core principles of the key importance of intense Jewish education for maintaining a diverse, knowledgeable committed Jewish life. We are not commenting on the different design speculations for schools of the future.

Thus, we wish readers to a succinct restatement of core principles by Lindsey Bodner, the executive director of the Naomi Foundation whose mission is to support innovation in education in the US and Israel and the academic study of Yiddish. 

In an essay posted on eJewishPhilanthropy, Bodner commented positively on a redesign proposal for Jewish day schools by Hillel Rapp, Director of Education of the Bnei Akiva schools in Toronto. Rapp’s suggestion is indeed innovative. Bodner endorses it. In the course off providing her stamp of approval on Rapp’s blueprint, Bodner reiterates the following three principles of wide agreement among all the discussants on the subject of modern day-school education.

The importance of day school education for Jewish continuity – Even controlling for other factors like the religiosity of the family, the most reliable way to ensure long-term engagement with Judaism is sending children to Jewish schools. 

The unaffordability of most Jewish day schools – The burden is particularly acute for middle and upper middle-class families (as opposed to those in financial distress who receive full tuition coverage or the very wealthy who don’t need it). 

The Jewish community has a responsibility to make education more accessible to families who are interested in sending children to Jewish day schools and greatly benefits from doing so.

Thankfully, we can confidently say that the lay and professional leadership of the Jewish community of the GTA also agree with these principles.

The struggle for true affordability is not yet won. But with the above principles as an agreed-upon community-wide foundation, the path to true affordability is steadier, if not yet certain.

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Bodner’s article is available at:

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Be safe. Be well. Shabbat shalom. 

GAJE, May 7, 2021

Posted in Uncategorized

Blessing our teachers

The prolonged Covid virus crisis, the need for day schools to adjust to the dread effect of the virus and the successful manner in which many schools did adjust – especially in the GTA – has led some educators to reimagine day schools of the future. With lessons from the pandemic pivot fresh in their minds and the ever-present concerns of affordability and sustainability always part of the structural architecture, many educators are establishing new day schools – at least in their minds.

Jonah Hassenfeld, Director of Learning and Teaching at Schechter Boston and Ziva R. Hassenfeld, the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Assistant Professor of Jewish Education at Brandeis University responded to some of the “blue-sky” suggestions for future schools. Piqued, and with a traceable sense of worry, they reminded the well-meaning re-imaginers of day schools that economies of scale and creative staffing models should not be sacrosanct over-arching principles of redesign and restructure.

In an essay entitled The Silver Bullet of Jewish Education is Teachers, the authors remind us that the inestimably most important feature of any day school is the quality of its teachers- their substantive excellence and goodness.

The Hassenfelds write: “One place that we should never compromise is in the development and support of educators. No, they won’t be able to wear every hat, or teach every subject, in every language, but with the right leadership, culture, and opportunities for development, they will help develop kind, curious, and knowledgeable young Jews.”

The authors have written a truth we should never forget. Teachers – and the lay and professional infrastructure that support them – are the true and key shapers of our collective Jewish future. Families, parents, grandparents reinforce through example and love what our teachers impart in the classroom.

God bless our teachers not only during Covid, but always.

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The full article by the Hassenfelds is available at:

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Be safe. Be well.

Shabbat shalom. 

GAJE, April 30, 2021

Posted in Uncategorized

Working together to conquer the challenges

Some three decades ago, after worrisome revelations about the state of American Jewry, most community leaders, planners arrived at the conclusion that the most effective way – though not the only way – to ensure Jewish continuity and Jewish engagement was through sustained, intense Jewish education.

As a result, especially for the past two decades across North America – as readers of this weekly update know – the affordability and sustainability of Jewish education has been one of the key subjects on Jewish communal agendas.

Thankfully, our UJA Federation understands the connection between widely accessible Jewish education and a widely secured Jewish future. And as readers of this update also know, it has recently implemented a new scholarship mechanism that will assist many middle-income families to send their children to Jewish elementary schools. Indeed, the forward-looking policies of the Federation were noted in an article by Deanne Weiss Etsekson posted on the eJewishPhilanthropy website.

In the article, entitled The High Cost of School: Buying down day school tuition for the Jewish future, Etsekson, describes an experiment conducted in a Jewish day school in Seattle some 25 years ago that proved empirically the direct relation between reduced school tuitions and higher school enrollments. Of course, we in the GTA, have known about this relationship for many years.

It is to call attention to her concluding remarks that I mention Etsekson’s essay.

“As we look to our future, both for day schools in our communities and the children who attend them, we must re-examine and celebrate this tremendous success for Jewish continuity [the five-year experiment at a small Seattle high school] while working together and conquering the challenges of financial sustainability.

The key phrase that we emphasize is “while working together and conquering the challenges of financial sustainability.” It surely applies to us and to our community as well at this moment in our history. Despite the creation by UJA Federation of the innovative and generous Generations Trust Scholarship, we all know that much more needs to be done to bring down the cost of school tuition.

But it is not for the UJA Federation alone to help “conquer the challenge”. It for all of us in the community who truly care about securing a strong, diverse, caring, creative, meaningful Jewish future for our children in perpetuity.

In this vein, and fully in the spirit of all of us working together, GAJE has engaged the services of an expert team of lawyers headed by renowned human rights activist and constitutional specialist, David Matas, to end Ontario’s discriminatory educational funding policies. The lawyers are essentially giving of their time and expertise on a pro bono basis. To help fund the modest fee for their services and the unavoidable expenses and disbursements, GAJE will soon be asking readers of this update and all other interested individuals to help us – to contribute to the legal challenge. Charitable tax receipts will accompany each contribution. In the next few weeks, we will publish the details of how you can help. We thank you, in advance.

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Etsekson’s article is available at:

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Be safe. Be well.

Shabbat shalom. 

GAJE, April 23, 2021

Posted in Uncategorized

Ongoing moral offense

The Toronto Star reported this week that the federal government is giving Queen’s Park $525.2 million to help schools pay for Covid-19 related health measures. The provincial government is adding $131.3 million to this amount for a total of $656.5 million that school boards in the province will receive to better protect the lives of students against the Covid pandemic.

In announcing the provision of the funds to Ontario, Federal Minister of Infrastructure and Communities Catherine McKenna said: “The COVID-19 pandemic has had a major impact on the well-being of students, parents and teachers. As we continue to battle this crisis, ensuring a safe learning environment for our kids is critical”. The projects to be funded by the federal government’s disbursement “will improve air quality, install more hand washing stations and support better physical distancing.”

Provincial Education Minister Stephen Lecce Lecce said “this one-time investment will help improve the safety of schools.”

It appears however this investment – like the preceding federally funded “investments” – is intended to improve the safety of only some Ontario schools. The Star story indicates that six school boards in the GTA will receive funding. The independent schools will receive – as David Hunt, the Education Director at the Cardus Think Tank, coined in his recent thought piece on this issue – “not even a dime.”

Again, we are obliged to point out the moral offense in Queen’s Park’s ongoing disregard of the Covid 19 related health and safety concerns for children in Ontario’s independent schools.

Why does the government treat these children with such hard-nosed indifference to their Covid health risks?

The Toronto Star article can be found at:

https://www.thestar.com/politics/provincial/2021/04/14/ottawa-province-pledge-6565m-for-schools-for-covid-19-costs.html

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Be safe. Be well.

Shabbat shalom. 

GAJE, April 16, 2021

Posted in Uncategorized

Other voices are protesting too

The Government of Ontario’s preoccupation with containing and eliminating Covid-19 and its manifold harmful societal effects is, of course, entirely appropriate and the correct policy imperative of the moment.

Paying no attention however – or worse – being indifferent to the Covid 19-related dangers and risks to the province’s 150,000 children who attend independent schools is entirely unconscionable.

For many weeks, GAJE has pointed out that Ontario has refused to disburse funds it received from the federal government to abate the heavy burden upon the independent schools of making their schools safe for children and staff, even though those funds were specifically earmarked for all children ages 4 – 18 attending school in the province.

The government announced its budget on March 24 and still refused to share any of the “Safe Return to Class Fund” from Ottawa. As a result, many other voices are also protesting the government’s reflexive bias against the children in independent schools. We point out two op-ed pieces and one news story that recently appeared in the media.

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Amanda Dervaitis, executive director of the Ontario Federation of Independent Schools, published an opinion on behalf of the Supporting Students Coalition that appeared in the Toronto Sun last week.

She pleads with the Premier and with the Minister of Education to keep the promises they made to all parents in the province “to do whatever it takes to ensure our kids can continue to learn.”

Dervaitis dispels the commonly held, but completely false, notion that independent schools are learning domains of the children of the rich and famous. She explains that fewer than 3% of Ontario’s independent schools are what some might consider ‘elite’ schools. Of the 1,503 independent schools in the province, very few meet the stereotype of the private school.

“These 1,500 schools simply can’t absorb the tens of thousands of dollars in costs related to keeping students safe from COVID-19. No one wants an outbreak in a school. But with a third wave well underway in Ontario, we need to be doing everything we can to keep the virus out of every classroom….The premier should keep his promise and authorize funding for safe and healthy operations of all schools — for the sake of all Ontarians.”

Dervaitis’ article is available at: https://torontosun.com/opinion/columnists/dervaitis-nearly-1-in-4-ontario-schools-still-without-covid-support

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Sara Carson, the breaking news and education reporter for Simcoe.com, posted an article last week that points to the severe difficulties and challenges that local schools face without any financial help from the provincial government.

Rod Berg, principal of Timothy Christian School in Barrie, poignantly explained to Carson the injustice of the Ministry of Education’s Covid-19 supports funding policy. “[Covid-19] doesn’t go from the public school down the road and skip us. We are affected. And we have to make sure our kids are just as safe without any of that support,” he said.

Carson’s article is available at: https://www.simcoe.com/community-story/10363080–covid-doesn-t-discriminate-over-schools-simcoe-county-independent-schools-asking-for-help/

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David Hunt, the Education Director at the Cardus think tank, forecefully criticizes the provincial government for its discriminatory policies. His opinion piece appeared in the Ottawa Citizen.

“It’s one thing to make a policy decision not to fund independent schools. But it is unconscionable to refuse public health resources to children and teachers of independent schools — especially when it puts an entire province at risk.

“Of the $760 million the federal government sent Ontario to help pay for schools’ personal protective equipment, enhanced school cleaning and other pandemic safety measures, not a dime has gone to independent schools. This is the untold story from the recent Ontario budget.

COVID-19 is a public health crisis, not a public-school health crisis. It is inexcusable that amidst a pandemic, Ontario’s government is disregarding the safety and wellbeing of children in nearly one in four schools.

“The government failed to announce how it would correct this injustice, leaving Ontario’s independent schools without any COVID-related support. Premier Doug Ford and Education Minister Stephen Lecce have repeatedly claimed that keeping kids healthy and safe is their top priority. Yet, despite these schools bearing excessive costs and working tirelessly to honour all the rigorous COVID regulations and expectations, they have been left exposed.”

Hunt’s op-ed covers more territory than Ontario’s Covid-related education funding. It ranges across many of the sore point issues that emerge from Ontario’s antiquated, outmoded, out-of-step views concerning who exactly attend independent schools.

Hunt’s article is available at: https://ottawacitizen.com/opinion/hunt-independent-schools-left-out-of-ontarios-covid-support

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How can there be one health and safety Covid imperative for children in public schools and none at all for Ontario’s children in independent schools? Of course, there should not be. For Queen’s Park to maintain and perpetuate so uncaring a differentiation is an affront to decency.

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Be safe. Be well.

Shabbat shalom.  GAJE, April 9, 2021

Posted in Uncategorized

Without political will, we must turn to the law

The creation by UJA Federation of Greater of the Generations Trust Scholarship, as we wrote last week, is a giant step at enabling more families to provide a Jewish day school education to their children. It is an innovative, positive initiative that extends a financial hand to a potentially large swath of middle-income families.

It is indeed a watershed event in the history of the Jewish community of Greater Toronto. UJA Federation of Greater Toronto and the participating schools deserve enduring praise and high accolades for the generous, far-sighted policy benefiting children, families, schools and the community.

But, the problem of affordability is too urgent and too large for one group, agency, organization or individual to resolve. As visionary and generous as it is, the Generations Trust Scholarship, understandably, is designed with inherently qualifying and other restrictions. Moreover, the fund applies to elementary school education only.

Thus, still more needs to be done Jewish education in day schools and withal to be truly and permanently affordable for all families. The entire community must become part of the solution.

It falls therefore to all of us who care about our Jewish future – a fully representative cross section of individuals and organizations within the community – in addition to UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, to play a role in reaching the “more” that needs to be done.

As most readers of this update know, GAJE is committed to trying to change Ontario’s unfair educational funding policies.

Ontario is the only jurisdiction in the western world that funds the education of a single faith alone to the exclusion of all others. In our country, British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Quebec include non-Catholic, faith-based schools and other independent schools in their respective public educational systems.

The current Ontario model of public education is anomalous in Canada. Indeed, one could also say it is quite un-Canadian in the Canada of 2021. Why is this still happening? The answer, we all know, is that there is no political will to include the 125,000 students in Ontario’s independent schools into the system from which they continue to be cavalierly and callously excluded.

Since the political will is lacking, GAJE hopes to compel the government to remedy its unconscionable policy by operation of the law.

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Be safe. Be well. Shabbat shalom. 

Mo’adim L’simchah.

GAJE, April 2, 2021

Posted in Uncategorized

UJA Federation plants seeds for the future

The holiday of Pesach is the quintessential commemoration of Jewish history and peoplehood. Education – teaching and tender, loving hands-on instruction of children – by their parents, grandparents and other hoary heads, is the celebratory core of the holiday.

How wonderfully fitting therefore that heading into this year’s Pesach festival, the UJA Federation of Greater Toronto has taken a precedent-setting, some might even say a revolutionary step, toward making Jewish education more affordable for a large swath of middle-income families in our community.

This week UJA announced the establishment of the Generations Trust Scholarship, an innovative, thoughtful, generous system aimed at enabling more families to provide a Jewish day school education to their children.

The theory of the Scholarship “caps the cost of tuition for qualifying families with up to three children enrolled in JK to grade 8.” The scholarship is in place for the long-term, beginning in the 2021-22 school year at nine UJA-funded day schools. An anonymous calculator is in place on the Scholarship’s website to enable families quickly and with their privacy protected, to estimate their new tuition, based upon household income. We are told the calculation takes only minutes.

We urge interested or curious families to go to the UJA Federation website to check out the operation of the Generations Trust Scholarship.

The creation of the Scholarship is a watershed event. It is a huge achievement for the Toronto Jewish community and UJA Federation with the potential to secure the future of our schools and through them, the quality and vitality of Jewish life in Toronto for years to come. Equally important, not to be overlooked, every year hundreds of middle-income parents will know that the community supports them in their decision to choose high-quality day school education for their children.

UJA Federation of Greater Toronto – staff, board of directors and the donors whose funds actually give life and substance to the Scholarship – and the Julia and Henry Koschitzky Centre for Jewish Education, have fulfilled the promise that UJA President & CEO, Adam Minsky made some months ago, pre-pandemic, regarding the indispensability of Jewish education for meaningful Jewish life.

GAJE commends Federation’s forward-looking, profoundly important efforts. Indeed, in keeping with one of our tradition’s key values, hakarat hatov (acknowledging the good that others do for us) – we urge everyone whose family will benefit from the Scholarship or who understands the important, long-term implications for the long-term “Jewish viability” of our community to communicate their appreciation to the Federation and to the various school leaders and respective Heads of Education who have also championed the need to make education affordable.

To be sure, more needs to be done to make all Jewish education entirely affordable. The Generations Trust Scholarship is a radically new, positive initiative – a giant step – toward making it happen, finally.

Much beloved and renowned Rabbi Reuven Bulka of Ottawa, points out in The CJN Magazine this week that the first Passover Seder was a “planting of seeds for the future”.  So too is the Generations Trust Scholarship a planting of seeds for the future. May those seeds bring forth an ever-yielding harvest of the very best of literate, committed, caring, diverse, humane, values-laden Jewish life for all generations to come.

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Be safe. Be well. Shabbat shalom. 

Chag Pesach Samayach. Mo’adim L’simchah.

GAJE, March 26, 2021

Posted in Uncategorized

It is wrong to prefer one group over another

As we have written before, the federal government has given Ontario some $763 million through the Safe Return to Class Fund. The amount of the funds was calculated on the number of all children between the ages of 4-18 attending school in Ontario. The refusal by the Government of Ontario to distribute any portion of these federally sourced Covid protection funds for the safety of children attending independent continues to disappoint and hurt. It is, simply, unfair and wrong.

Set aside for the moment the undeniable fact that all of the approximately 125,000 children in independent schools are being disadvantaged. The effect of the government’s policy against children attending denominationally based independent schools is clearly discriminatory as well as unfair and wrong.

It is true that ever since the Adler case was decided in 1996 by the Supreme Court of Canada, the Government of Ontario can legally say that Canada’s Constitution and specifically the Charter of Rights and Freedoms does not compel it to provide any funding to the independent denominational schools. But it is equally true that the Constitution does not prohibit Ontario from providing funds to these schools.

One would imagine, if not also hope, that an extraordinary once-in-a-century circumstance of life-threatening pandemic might move the conscience of the Minister of Education to seek to protect the health and safety of all Ontario’s school children, including children learning in independent schools. But alas, such is not the case, even though the funds he would spend on trying to ensure Covid-safe classes come from federal – not the provincial – treasury.

We repeat and we emphasize in unambiguous terms that this stubborn differentiation practised by the government of Ontario harms all children attending independent schools. But we also point out the additional discriminatory affront against children in independent denominational schools.

Again, we note that Canada’s Constitution does not require Ontario not to discriminate. But nor does it prevent Ontario from not discriminating. Even the Supreme Court seems to hinting that the law should more closely conform with conscience. It may be time to articulate a constitutional protection for the right to equal treatment in education of a religious minority. For how else, but through the education of the community, can an individual fully express his or her religious freedoms?

In a case in 2015 in which the Loyola High School sued the Government of Quebec involving curriculum – not funding – issues, decided in 2015, Madame Justice Abella of the Supreme Court offered this powerful statement about the group aspect of religious freedom.

“The context in this case is state regulation of religious schools. This raises the question of how to balance robust protection for the values underlying religious freedom with the values of a secular state. The state has a legitimate interest in ensuring that students in all schools are capable, as adults, of conducting themselves with openness and respect as they confront cultural and religious differences. A vibrant, multicultural democracy depends on the capacity of its citizens to engage in thoughtful and inclusive forms of deliberation. But a secular state does not — and cannot — interfere with the beliefs or practices of a religious group unless they conflict with or harm overriding public interests. Nor can a secular state support or prefer the practices of one group over another. The pursuit of secular values means respecting the right to hold and manifest different religious beliefs. A secular state respects religious differences, it does not seek to extinguish them.” (Our emphasis)

To be sure, no one is accusing the Government of Ontario of not respecting religious differences or of trying to extinguish religious differences. But it is also indisputable that by withholding federal funds for Covid safety protections for all Ontario’s school children, the provincial government is effectively preferring to boost the Covid safety of the publicly funded schools and the children learning there, including of course, the Catholic schools and Catholic children, to the Covid safety of the many denominationally different children attending Ontario’s independent schools.

This is just not right in Ontario society in the year 2021.

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Be safe. Be well. Shabbat shalom. 

GAJE, March 19, 2021

Posted in Uncategorized

A year of pandemic pivot (2)

One year after Covid-19, communal educational professionals continue to take stock of what was gained, lost and learned over this past unprecedented year. Thus, this week we offer another observation of the way Jewish Day Schools navigated through the pandemic storm.

While the performances of the day schools were not uniformly excellent, they were mostly excellent. GAJE believes it is very important to get this message out to as many parents and newly forming families in our community as possible. For, once Jewish education becomes truly affordable, we hope young families will consider enrolling their children in Jewish education because it is important and valuable for reasons of connection and peoplehood and confident that it is also excellent in its own right.

A number of renowned educators this week collaboratively posted an article on eJewishPhilanthropy’s website entitled “Marking one year of COVID in Jewish education”.

The authors respectively provide Covid-year assessments of various forms of Jewish educational experiences. However, we restrict this update to the observations on Jewish Day Schools by Paul Bernstein, CEO of Prizmah: Center for Jewish Day Schools.

(The full article can be found at:https://ejewishphilanthropy.com/marking-one-year-of-covid-in-jewish-education/)

Bernstein writes what has already been noted and praised by many observers: “Jewish day schools in March 2021 look an awful lot like they did before March 2020. Our schools are still doing what they do best—inspiring and educating our kids, preparing them for a vibrant Jewish future. 

“In many ways, the pandemic has shone a light on the best of Jewish day schools–the trust between schools and families, the passion and dedication of teachers, and the determination of leadership to respond well to the needs of students, faculty, and families.

“In no small part, this is possible because most schools were already “hardwired” for resilience, particularly in the ways they create, cultivate, sustain, and contribute to supportive communities. This takes place on multiple levels: individuals contribute to a vibrant school community; schools themselves are centers of the local Jewish community; and the broader community makes a difference in the life of its schools.

“More broadly, in the past year we have seen the way schools and the other Jewish institutions in their area have bonded together and made sure all members are supported, emotionally, physically, financially, and spiritually.

“The achievements of the past year and the return of so many schools to in-person or hybrid learning…directly result from what existed in Jewish day schools long before we ever heard of COVID. Awareness of the power of community and investing in that key capacity—for individuals, for the school, and more broadly—has deepened schools’ core capacity for resilience.”

Bernstein’s observations are succinct and true for the day schools of the GTA.

We should offer praise and give thanks where they are due.

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Be safe. Be well. Shabbat shalom. 

GAJE, March 12, 2021

Posted in Uncategorized
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