Let us thank our teachers and educators

The end of the Pesach holiday meant the return to school.  But just like Pandemic Pesach was so very different than all other Pesachs, so too is Pandemic School.

Children, parents, and teachers are well aware of the “successes” and “failures”, the ups and the downs of distance learning. But that there is school of any kind during these anxiety-laden days is a testament to the ethos of the sanctity of learning and study embedded so deeply into our very genes and chromosomes as well as to the educators doing their utmost, despite the obvious difficulties, to bring learning and study into the homes of their pupils and student.

Thus we bring to readers’ attention a tribute to educators written by Shira D. Epstein, dean of the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education at The Jewish Theological Seminary.

Dean Epstein writes: “The conversation about educators being underappreciated is not a new one, but now more than ever is the time to place them high in our priorities, to redouble our efforts to affirm their work… As a community, we need to figure out how to bring our educators through this marathon so that they will come out strong on the other side. We need to collectively assert: “We are here for you and will not let you fail” to those who demonstrate resilience, creative thinking and flexibility – not just because this is what this time demands, but because of who they are in spirit.

“In this time of crisis, let us think of how we will bring hope, support, encouragement, and promise to the educators and leaders who have seen us through Jewish communal life. They will be there for us on the flip side of this pandemic. We, in turn, need to be here for them now.”

Let us heed Dean Epstein’s words.

To all of our educators: “Thank you. Bless you.”

•••

Be safe. Stay safe. Be well. Stay well. Be strong. Stay strong.

Shabbat shalom

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Worrying in the right way

Rabbi Marc D. Angel the founder of the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals offers a mini theological “pep-talk” for maintaining our emotional and all other personal stabilities through these very difficult Covid days. As his basis for discussion, he points to the all-shattering, panic-laden dilemma faced by the Children of Israel when, in front of them they faced the impassable waters of the Reed Sea and behind them was the angry Egyptian force of charioteers and bowmen seething with the desire to exact revenge. The situation our ancestors faced did indeed seem hopeless and futile.

But we know how that situation resolved. Rabbi Angel offers some of its key learning nuggets. He recalls for us the writings of two scholars from whom we may find helpful instruction.

The late Professor Simon Rawidowicz in his fascinating essay, “Israel – the Ever-Dying People,” pointed out that it seems since the time of Abraham we’ve been worrying about our imminent demise. In each generation, going back many centuries, Jews thought that Jewish history was coming to an end. They worried about destruction at the hand of vicious enemies; they worried about exiles and expulsions; they worried about spiritual decline; they worried about assimilation. And yet, although we have been “ever-dying”, after 3500 years, Professor Rawidowicz reminds us, we are still alive!

The 19th century Rabbi Israel Salanter once quipped: “When people come to a wall that they can’t go through, they stop. When Jews come to a wall that they can’t go through–they go through.”

The reference to going through a wall brings Rabbi Angel to the dilemma at the Reed sea.

“When we… are facing enormous threats, we should worry. But we should worry in the right way.

“We should worry like Nahshon ben Aminadav (the first person to step into the Reed Sea) worried. We should not minimize the dangers and the risks; but we should deliberate on what is at stake and how we can overcome the difficulty. We should have confidence that if God has brought us this far, He will keep His promises to us and bring us ultimate redemption. We should be ready to act decisively, to think “out of the box”, to maintain forward momentum.”

Rabbi Angel adds that “perhaps our very awareness of the fragility of our existence has given us an added tenacity to survive, to find ways of solving problems.”

Of course, Rabbi Angel is correct. We – planet earth – will find a way to solve the Covid-19 problem. And then, after the threat to health has passed, we – the community of the GTA – will find a way to solve the problem of making Jewish education affordable to those families that seek it for their children.

•••

Be safe. Stay safe. Be well. Stay well. Be strong. Stay strong.

Shabbat shalom,

GAJE

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Expressing gratitude, affirming hope

Pesach 2020 is here.

Who would have thought that the annual liturgical reference to plagues would be ever more than a compelling reference point in the Haggadah?

We have been enjoined by God to be a holy people. “Holy” is not a descriptive term but rather a prescriptive one. We are not “holy” by virtue of who we are, but rather by virtue of what we do, how we behave toward each other and toward the world. Such holiness now requires us to meld our cause to the urgent, overarching cause of saving lives and saving the myriad life-affirming institutions of our community – including our schools – that together, imbued with and animated by the values of our people, strive to create for us the very best society possible.

Last week, we reproduced a National Prayer for Canada co-authored by Rabbi Reuven P. Bulka Archbishop Terrence Prendergast.

This week we reproduce a “Special Prayer for Healing at Our Passover Tables” written by renowned educator and scholar Dr. Erica Brown. These days, many prayers are being written by remarkable people with the suggestion to invoke additional words at this year’s Seder. The point of course, is to keep in our minds and hearts – and never lose – a sense of gratitude and hope during the Covid-19 plague of 2020.

(Dr. Brown suggests that the prayer be inserted and recited in unison after reciting the Ten Plagues in the Haggadah.)

“God, who brought us out of Egypt with a strong hand and an outstretched arm, shower us today with Your wonder. Bring a swift and steady end to the plague blowing through the world like pestilence. Free and deliver us. Redeem and liberate us. Lift and carry us through this crisis.

“Shine Your enduring love on those performing daily miracles: medical personnel and teachers, grocery and delivery workers, sanitations crews and volunteers, and all of our healers and helpers. Reward their kindness with good health and a thousand blessings. We thank them for lifting and carrying us through this crisis.

“Endow us with abundant love, compassion, strength and extraordinary patience to remain kind in these trying times and find true shelter in each another. Let us lift and carry one another through this crisis.

“Bring solace and consolation to those who are grieving and to those who are alone and grant a complete healing of body and soul to those who are suffering, in the spirit of Isaiah’s wisdom, “For the Lord comforts his people, and will have compassion on his afflicted ones” (49:13).

“Hear us, O Lord, and answer us, lift us and carry us, and let us say, Amen.”

•••

Be safe. Stay safe. Be well. Stay well. Be strong. Stay strong.

Chag samayach.

GAJE

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The life-sustaining, strengthening sum of individual acts of kindness

Overcoming the viral pandemic surpasses all other causes in urgency and immediate priority. All other causes, values, purposes and moral principles flow into this one worldwide obligation: “defeat” the virus, treat the sick, save lives.

Those of us not “in the trenches” of the campaign also have responsibilities in this struggle. Self-isolation or quarantine does not cancel or even defer those responsibilities. We are responsible too. We can and must be agents for collective strength and positive outlook. Individual acts of kindness and chessed can help create a communal, if not also global life-sustaining weapon of inspiration against a common, international peril.

Earlier this week, Rabbi Reuven P. Bulka of Ottawa and Ottawa Archbishop Terrence Prendergast co-authored a National Prayer for Canada. A great many Canadians all around the country invoked the prayer at 3:00 pm on March 31 in the hope that common purpose heightens common resolve.

Common resolve, of course, heightens all possibilities for goodness and wide benefit.

The prayer is reproduced below.

Its words, its pleas and its aspirations can be invoked for the duration of this pandemic trial.

•••

O God,

We gather together separated by life-saving distancing, but united more than ever in spirit;

We know we are in a war against COVID – 19 together, and the more together we are, the better and stronger we will emerge:

We know the challenges are enormous, yet so are the opportunities;

That whether we are in isolation with loved ones, or alone, we will have abundance of time;

We commit to using that time to the max, to help those in greater need in whatever way we can;

We know we all have the opportunity, and time, to be life-savers and life enhancers;

We give thanks for those who are on the front line taking care of those who are not well;

We give thanks for the researchers who are working at breakneck speed to find cure and vaccine;

We give thanks for our leaders, federal, provincial and local, for their dedication to all of us;

We give thanks for the providers of our daily needs who go to work in spite of the risk;

We give thanks for those who have ramped up their ability to produce life-saving supplies.

We pray for the well-being of all our life savers; For those who are not well, that they recover fully;

For those enduring difficulty, that they may overcome their challenges.

We pray that a cure and vaccine will soon be available,

And that we all – family, friends, all Canadians, the entire world may be healed in body and spirit.

We ask you, O God, to bless our leaders, our front line care-givers, our life savers and life enhancers.

We ask you, O God, to bless Canada, to bless the world, to bless everyone.

Amen.

•••
Shabbat shalom.

Stay safe. Be well. Stay well.

GAJE

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Mutual obligation, the value that protects us

Last week when the full threatening force of the Covid-19 pandemic spawned governments around the world to invoke preventative medico-legal measures, the President of the State of Israel, Reuven Rivlin sent a video message specifically directed at the Jewish communities around the world. The message was one of prayers and wishes for health and wellbeing.

Rivlin is Israel’s 10th president. He was born in Jerusalem and stems from a family with multi-generational roots in the city that can be traced back more than two centuries. He is regarded by nearly one and all in Israel as a force for compassion, goodness, tolerance, benevolence and morality.

The message is ten days old, but it is also, in truth, timeless.

The following is the full text of President Rivlin’s remarks:

“My brothers and sisters, members of the global Jewish community. The whole world is, right now, in a difficult time of fear and confusion because of the corona crisis which has turned all our lives upside down and which has claimed lives. Now is the time when every country is calling out to its citizens to deal with the dangers together.

“But at this difficult time, we here in Israel think of another ‘together’ that we are part of, and look to you, our brothers and sisters of the global Jewish community. Your welfare and ours are inextricably linked. With every update on the spread of the virus that we hear from around the world, we also think of you, our family abroad and pray you are staying strong, united, healthy and well.

“The People of Israel, over the years, has managed to overcome danger and crisis and to survive, sometimes against all odds, thanks to the value we place on community and mutual responsibility which are embedded in our Jewish tradition. These are times when we must use this tradition and the values we were given to take care of ourselves while following the instructions, and to take care of others, particularly the elderly who live amongst us – in our buildings, communities and neighborhoods – those at highest risk not just of getting sick, but of finding themselves isolated and without supplies.

“Our sense of mutual obligation is the fundamental value that has protected us. This is the Jewish spirit, our spirit, and if we maintain it, it will take care of us. My dear ones, at this difficult time, when the special excitement of preparations for the Pesach holiday gives way to fear and anxiety, we, the people that dwells in Zion embrace you and send our prayers for your welfare and your good health.

“He who makes peace in the highest, may he bring peace to us and to all Israel and to all peoples of the world. God bless you and keep you healthy. Be strong and of good courage.”

•••

Of course, the values of which President Rivlin spoke and the warmth, concern and compassion that are the living manifestations of those values, are the very ones our children learn in their respective Jewish schools.

•••

To view President Rivlin’s video message, visit:
https://mfa.gov.il/MFA/PressRoom/2020/Pages/President-Rivlin-sends-message-to-Jewish-communities-around-the-world-17-March-2020.aspx

•••

Shabbat shalom.

Stay safe. Be well. Stay well.

GAJE

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Into the darkness blazing with light

The first week of school-at-home did not go without glitches. Indeed the Internet was a busy thoroughfare trafficking funny, sanity-saving, but all too-true memes of parental frustration with and adjustment to the complications of forced home schooling.

But that it happened at all is a testament to the dedication of our school staff to their respective duties as educators and teachers and, of course, to their love of their young pupils and their students. In a matter of a few, urgently charged days systems were put into place. Most of the wrinkles were straightened out and “formal” learning resumed.

Our children are to be praised and hugged when hugging is allowed again; parents are to be commended and supported; and teachers applauded and thanked.

Paul Bernstein, CEO of Prizmah: Center for Jewish Day Schools published an article this week on the eJewishPhilanthropy website in which he describes the challenges inherent in the quick turnaround to “virtual” learning. He also praises the schools and the families for the quick, effective, values-laden switchover to school-at-home.

“Too often, people are quick to find fault with their schools, missing the beauty of learning, and the values, as well as the social and emotional strength that schools foster in their children,” Bernstein writes. “Right now, we see our schools at their very best, dedicated to their students and families, delivering the best possible learning in adversity. Our day schools are leading the field of education with their innovations, which we are proud to share within our community, and beyond. They continue to offer a remarkable blend of secular and Jewish education, cultivating the brilliance of the next generation of vibrant Jewish learners, leaders, and community members. And, as any great school does, they are sensitive to the social and emotional needs of the children and their families during this vulnerable time.

“As we fight through this global pandemic, we are grateful to those who dedicate themselves to our health, and our safety. Please join me to say a special thank you to our children’s teachers, to the administrators, to the support staff, and to the volunteers, who ensure our schools are the beating heart of Jewish life.”

Bernstein ends his essay with hopes and wishes that we all share: “Let us wish refuah shleimah, speedy and complete recovery, to all those who are suffering and ill, as well as strength and good health to our communities as a whole.”

•••

Shabbat shalom. Stay safe. Be well. Stay well.

GAJE

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Social distancing still requires mutual concern and persistent attention

The swiftly imposed series of emergency responses to the COVID-19 crisis has contributed to the wildfire spread, in some quarters, of anxiety and dread. In these circumstances, a GAJE update regarding educational affordability might appear to be more vanity than instructive. Thus, we are forgoing the usual weekly update. In its place we simply wish to remind readers during these difficult times to grasp tightly onto the core Jewish values of caring for the weak, the frail and the vulnerable.

In a recent posting on eJewishPhilanthropy, Dr. Haim E. Dahan, the author of “Touches of Grace – Philanthropy and Social Involvement in Israel,” wrote that ‘compassion, charity, kindness and concern for the weak are among the cornerstones of Jewish tradition.’ Of course, Dahan is correct.

Now more than ever, when those among us more susceptible are being urged to self-quarantine, avoid going out and keep to themselves, we must be ever more vigilant to be aware of their respective individual plights and to help them if needed.

Scientists, physicians and social planners advise that “social distancing” is essential to defeating COVID-19. But Judaism, as we know, at its core, is built on values that teach the very opposite of keeping one’s distance from the other.

Ours is a religion that extols social engagement, namely acting always for the wellbeing of the community. In today’s crisis, that means – even as we literally keep our spacial distances from each other – we must still “touch” each other through our mutual concern and by persistent attention to the needs of those among us who are at greater risk.

These, after all, are the values of course that our schools teach our children.

•••

Shabbat shalom. Be well.

GAJE

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The self-renewing, perpetual gift

A remarkable demonstration of individual and communal generosity took place this week in the GTA. Parents, grandparents, family, friends and others interested in ensuring a thriving perpetuity for Jewish education donated $6,598,043, from 5,874 gifts over a 24-hour period in this year’s annual Day of Giving.

The “speed-giving” charitable event, organized by the Koschitzky Centre for Jewish Education, is a still relatively new, creative innovation on the philanthropic landscape of our community.

The successful program, of course, demonstrates unselfish magnanimity on the part of the donors and the multipliers whose quadrupling of individual gifts was the rocket fuel that launched the fundraising into the heavenly stratosphere. But it also showcases the determination of so many diverse points within our community to meet in the sanctified heart of Jewish education. It was a remarkable geometry of peoplehood.

The success of the annual Day of Giving proves the proposition, yet again, that when the men and women of the community join forces for the patent advancement of the wider wellbeing, positive outcomes will result.

This proposition is also proved in Megillat Esther, which we read next week. Salvation from the rabid peril facing the Jews only resulted after the Jews joined forces together.

Let us take to heart the example of our forebears in ancient Shushan along with that of our neighbours and friends in the GTA this past week.

Let us do all within our power to ensure that Jewish education is forever affordable. For it is Jewish education, that is truly the self-renewing, perpetual gift to all families today and tomorrow intent on embracing life through their Judaism.

•••

Shabbat shalom. Chag Purim Samayach.

GAJE

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‘Dare we fail our generation?’

Prof. Paul Socken, distinguished professor emeritus and founder of the Jewish studies program at the University of Waterloo, published an important commentary in The CJN last week (Feb. 20, 2020). Entitled “The poor had to sacrifice everything for education”, Socken pointedly reminds us how deeply rooted in Jewish history, indeed in Jewish life, has been our obligation to ensure that all families have true access to Jewish education.

Socken begins with a Talmudic story about Rabbi Hillel when he nearly froze to death one day listening from the rooftop to the learning in an academy of study. He climbed to the roof because he did not have the entrance fee that day to enter the academy.

Rabbi Hillel, of course, was exceptional in his desire to learn. Most students would not risk their lives for the sake of more study. Socken makes the observation: “One wonders about the others, whose entry was barred due to a lack of funds and who walked away and never returned.”

The observation is fair even if painful. It was perhaps to ensure no student henceforth would be denied entry to the study hall that Yehoshua ben Gamla instituted universal education for Jewish children irrespective of economic circumstances of their respective families.

“Today’s Jewish day school system is the next incarnation of this long tradition of emphasizing education. These schools are an essential bulwark against ignorance of Jewish history culture and religion, especially in a secular, multicultural society. While the cost, in hard-earned dollars, has become almost impossible for most families, the cost of neglecting this vital institution is far higher for the Jewish future.”

“Education has always been a priority of the Jewish people”, Socken writes. And of course, he is correct.

He pleads with us not to fail this generation of children. We – all of us – must strive to bring Jewish education within the financial grasp of all families.

It is the obligation of the entire community to do so. It falls upon us all, not only the leaders and the philanthropists, to make Jewish education affordable.

We urge readers, in the manner that best fits their circumstances, to heed Prof. Socken’s plea and to support this cause.

•••

Shabbat shalom.

GAJE

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How Ontario can truly improve its delivery of education

The ongoing labour dispute within Ontario’s public education sector gives one pause. It also gives one an opportunity to reflect, again, on whether the current educational funding system is the one that serves all Ontarians best. Indeed, does it even serve the public education system best?

There is considerable evidence to suggest that the government of Ontario would better serve all Ontarians and indeed better serve the public education system in terms of both spending efficiency and more important, the improved educational results, if it made some public funding available to independent schools.

Last month, an article appeared in Calgary’s Business, entitled “Quebec and B.C. spend less on education than other provinces—while outperforming most provinces” written by Tegin Hill and Ben Eisen, an economist and Senior Fellow, respectively at the Fraser Institute.

One of the great advantages of Canada’s federation—composed of federal, provincial and local powers—is that subnational governments can experiment with different ways of providing public services, and adopt the best system based on those experiments. In the case of public education (a provincial responsibility) other provinces can look to Quebec and British Columbia to learn about successful models of spending and delivery.

The authors reviewed education spending across the provinces and arrived at the conclusion that “despite lower levels of spending, students in Quebec and B.C. outperform students in many higher-spending provinces.”

They found that the level of per-student K-12 spending varied significantly by province. Adjusted for inflation and enrolment changes for 2016-17, Quebec ($11,543) and B.C. ($11,879), spent the lowest annual amounts per student. Saskatchewan ($15,423) and New Brunswick ($14,768) spent the highest. Ontario spent $13,894 annually per student.

The authors noted that “according to the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) scores, the gold standard of international testing, students in Quebec and B.C. outperformed students in Saskatchewan and New Brunswick in all three PISA test subjects—math, science and reading. In fact, Quebec and B.C. have consistently led in student performance in Canada.

In a separate Fraser Institute study, referenced in an article published in the Toronto Sun on December 17, 2019, (“Ontario spends more on education while student test scores decline”) on December 17, 2019, researchers noted that “over the last decade Ontario’s PISA scores, show a decline in reading, science and mathematics.”

Hill and Eisen asked the obvious question. Why are the educational results better in the two provinces that spend the least per student annually than in the provinces that some so much more?

“One possible explanation”, they answered, “may relate to the very different approaches among provinces on how to deliver K-12 education.”

They elaborated. The elaborations are the reason we reproduce the article.

“Quebec and B.C. have fairly simple public education systems, relying on independent schools to provide the bulk of educational choice including religious-based education, alternative educational approaches, and content-focused programs such as STEM. In contrast, other provinces (including the highest-spender, Saskatchewan) offer religious education and other programs within their public schools. And these provinces tend to have a more complex public school system (Saskatchewan has three competing school systems, for example).

“In B.C. and Quebec, approximately one in eight students attend independent schools, the highest proportion of all provinces, compared to less than one in 100 students in New Brunswick (the lowest rate of all provinces).

“In Quebec and B.C. the government provides financial support to eligible independent schools. In the Atlantic provinces and Ontario, the government provides no financial support for students attending independent schools.

“As a result, Quebec and B.C. rely much less on the public school system to provide choice to students than do other provinces. Clearly, providing greater educational diversity through independent schools helps these provinces achieve better student performance—at a lower cost. (Our emphasis)

“Provinces should take advantage of one of federalism’s great benefits—the fact that it allows subnational (in our case, the provincial) jurisdictions to experiment and innovate with different policy models to find out what works and what doesn’t. The combination of strong student outcomes and relatively low costs to government (and taxpayers) in Quebec and B.C. suggests other provinces could learn from their approach. The evidence suggests many provinces could spend less—and improve student performance—through education reform.”

The point must be made again and again.

The evidence shows that bringing independent schools – to some extent – under the public funding umbrella, actually enhances the public good. Public monies are spent more efficiently. Educational results are improved. More families can choose the educational formats that better suit their precise needs. Moreover, by allowing wider choice while enhancing the overall educational outputs within the province, the multicultural fabric of our society is also enhanced. The argument is entirely false that extending some funding to independent schools harms our society. Indeed, the very opposite is true. It provides our society more ways to shine.

•••

Shabbat shalom.

GAJE

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