A time of transitions…

I sit here at my desk, the day after the Annual General Meeting of the Jewish Federation of Ottawa, reflecting on all the things that come with the end of June, and thinking about transitions; I’ve spent the first part of this week walking and running outside in the first summer weather, looking at social media posts with pictures of the OJCS graduating class enjoying a special trip together (likely their last meaningful experience as a class, other than their upcoming graduation ceremony), reading our former Board Chair’s first Ottawa Jewish Bulletin column as Chair of the JFO Board, and reading our Head of School’s blog from last week about faculty assignments for the next school year and all the planning to come while I think about my daughters, who are preparing to enter grade 2, junior kindergarten, and senior preschool, respectively.  It’s impossible to think about transitioning INTO something without thinking about what came before, and with that lens in mind, I’m going to write a bit about what the Board has done this year AND what’s to come (this is a very general outline; if you’re planning on attending our OJCS AGM at the end of September, you will get a much richer report of Board activities over the past year).

We’re very proud of the school that the OJCS is becoming and of the strides that have been already made in this regard; while our administration and faculty deserve the vast majority of the credit for all of this change we as a Board are also proud of the behind-the-scenes work we’ve done to increase our reputation and to develop revenue streams that will carry us forward.  As the faculty and administration are innovating at an incredible pace to bring the OJCS to the cutting edge of education in Ottawa, we as a Board have been working on our own ‘prototypes’ for development and fundraising to keep pace with our changing donor landscape and our increasing enrolment (!).  It is very exciting for us to note that next year, 3 of the lower school grades will have 2 classes!! This is in stark contrast to last year, when NO grades had a high enough enrolment to necessitate 2 classes, and even this year, when there was only 1 grade in this situation.

As with all transitions, there are some goodbyes that must occur, and for us this meant saying farewell to our Board Chair, Michael Polowin, who submitted his resignation from the OJCS Board of Directors prior to assuming the role of Chair of the JFO Board of Directors yesterday evening.  Although goodbyes are always difficult, we as a Board are very excited to start on our next path, as we are led by our new Board Chair, Leila Ages.  Although her new position will have to be ratified at our AGM in September, she will start as interim Chair; assuming the membership agrees with our decision for her to take the reins, we are confident that over the next 2 years under her leadership we can look forward to even greater innovation and improvement of our Board’s guidance of the school.

In the spirit of continuous improvement and transitions, I am also pleased to inform you that this year’s OJCS AGM, as mentioned previously, will include a ‘state of the school’-type address outlining the work that has been done this year by our Board of Directors and our successes as well as the ongoing work being done to enhance the school.  Once the date is confirmed and publicized, I encourage you all to mark it in your calendars and plan to attend.  In the meantime, enjoy the summer!!

The Power of a “Kehillah”

One of my favourite things to think/speak/write about is the power of community; I’ve said before that community, to me, is the group of people with whom we surround ourselves and a part of whom we consider ourselves. When using a translation service like Google translate, community translates to Kehillah in Hebrew; however, as we learn in this week’s Torah portion, a Kehillah is actually a group of like-minded individuals who share a common bond and are inspired by a greater responsibility to God and community, which is a powerful bond in and of itself.  I’ve been thinking about community even more than normal lately, as I have recently embarked on a new Jewish-Ottawa-community initiative while simultaneously feeling somewhat cut-off from my personal community due to personal circumstance.  As well,  a couple of weeks ago I had the absolute pleasure of watching my eldest daughter’s first meaningful community experience with her peers, her “Kabbalat Siddur”, or “Siddur Party”, with her grade 1 class at OJCS.  As we watched our children speak, sing, and dance, and then finally receive the prayerbook that will carry them through their formative years of Jewish life, we parents had moist eyes and many of us realized that in witnessing our children form their Kehillah, we had formed our own as well.  THIS is what makes our school so special, so ‘apart’, from all others.

By the same token, our OJCS Board of Directors is also its own Kehillah, a group of like-minded (not always) individuals striving towards a single purpose: to ensure the sustainability and long-term excellence of Ottawa’s community Jewish day school.  With the tremendous support of OJCS families, faculty, and administration, we continue to make great strides towards our goals; the starting work on Ottawa’s first #makerspace to be housed in an elementary school is just the latest example of how the OJCS Kehillah is changing Jewish journeys for our students, encouraging a new generation of leaders, and transforming what elementary education in Ottawa can be.  Our work as a Board has to focus on continuing to grow the opportunities of the school to harness its power as a strong Kehillah to shore up even more support, in terms of financial as well as community backing so that the school continues on its path of renewed excellence.  Our Board Kehillah is up to this challenge.

A Tree With Strong Roots Blossoms Brighter

At a leadership conference last week, much was made of the importance in Judaism of marking the passage of time, such as through the mitzvah of marking each new moon (rosh chodesh, or new month of the lunar calendar).  It made me think of the excellent new tradition at OJCS of the regular Rosh Chodesh assemblies, where the whole school comes together to celebrate the new month and talk about one of the 7 Habits of Kindness.  It also brought to the forefront of my mind that while here in Ottawa we’re dealing with deep freezes, the “polar vortex”, snow squalls, and icy roads, on the Jewish calendar we are well into the month of Shevat, which is a time of natural rebirth, sowing seeds, and blossoming trees.  The seeds that are being sowed in the OJCS students through their monthly assembly discussions are sure to pay dividends in generations to come, as these students become leaders in our community; as our faculty and administration show foresight in sowing these seeds in our students, so too do we as a Board have an obligation to sow seeds of future sustainability and success of our school for generations to come.

Not only are we in the month of Shevat, but this week is the Jewish holiday of Tu B’Shevat, “the new year of trees”.  This is an oft-ignored-in-the-diaspora but beautiful holiday celebrating our natural world, and specifically trees.  Trees provide beauty, shade from the sun, shelter for many, and, perhaps most importantly for our species, filter the air for us and provide oxygen.  In short, they’re essential to our lives on earth.  There are some who believe the ‘tree’ we see above ground — its trunk, branches, leaves and flowers or fruit — has an equal counterpart below ground that sustains its life (in other words, that the root system of the tree has a similar central ‘trunk’ with branches and smaller offshoots that gather and transport essential nutrients and water to the tree, and that the tree above ground is more or less a mirror-image of the one below).  I love this analogy and love to extend it further to all living beings, and even to organizations.  The life we live is like the tree we see, and our ancestry, upbringing, cultural history, and environment form the essential ‘mirror’ root system below the surface, sustaining us and allowing us to blossom, or bear fruit, or simply provide beauty/shade for the world around us.  Similarly, within an organization, there is the tangible, visible work done day-to-day, but equally important are the sustaining ‘roots’, made up of the history of the organization, behind-the-scenes work, and, in our case, a dedicated cadre of volunteers steering/sustaining the whole.  We cannot forget the vital role that parents and families of students play in the ‘root’ system, either — through their support of the school and its students, as well as each family’s backgrounds and home culture, the families of our students truly provide vital ‘nutrients’ that help sustain and support our school and its success.

Our Board of Directors obviously needs to be the ‘trunk’ of this nourishing root system, bringing together all the sustaining ‘nutrients’ and providing the true anchor for the sustainability of the whole.  Looking at the tree as a mirror image of the root system, then, it naturally follows that our Board must also truly adopt some or all of the ‘Seven habits of Kindness’ and this is something I hope to discuss soon, although some, such as ‘Think Win-win’, or ‘Be Proactive’ have already been adopted into Board culture.

Reaching for the stars: A Fine Balance

Welcome to my blog! I’m a proud parent and Board director of The Ottawa Jewish Community School. I’m proud because of the work we’re doing as a school and a community. I’m also proud of the forward movement we’re making to ensure that we’re teaching the future leaders of the Ottawa Jewish community to the best of our and their abilities, as well as to meet our ambition of being at the upper echelon of elementary education in Ottawa.

As many of you are aware, to this end, the school engaged NoTosh (a global educational consultancy) to help us develop and flesh out our ideals and the best ways by which to reach them. Through this extensive process, the school’s design team (comprised of faculty, administration, and a Board director) developed our North Stars, or the 6 main guiding principles of our school.   This fall our Board of Directors spent an evening together exploring these North Stars and discussing their meaning regarding our work as a board and the daily work of the school. For my first blog post, I’d like to share some of that discussion with you.

  1. Each Person is Responsible For The Other

This is a central tenet in Judaism: “Kol Yisrael Arevim Zeh La’zeh”. For the school, this looks like students helping each other, teachers and classes working together, and ultimately everyone (faculty, students, staff) reaching together for a common goal. For our work as a Board, this means that we can’t simply work in silos and that both the quality and the reach of our work are amplified when we help each other (within the Board itself and between the Board and the professional staff and faculty of the school).

  1. A Floor, but no ceiling

This is most easily explained by saying that we reach for the stars but keep our feet firmly planted on the ground. Our best work is done when we’re striving to be the best version of ourselves. Our basic work, as a Board of Directors, is to ensure ongoing sustainability of the school without sacrificing quality or accessibility – a delicate balance indeed. In this work, it is important to remember that there is a clear baseline from which we start and below which we cannot dip, but there is no limit to the heights of quality, sustainability, and accessibility that may be reached through our best work as a team. Only by reaching for the moon can we ensure that we’re truly becoming the best we can be.

  1. Ruach (spirit, community)

Our celebrations and traditions are both what bring us together and hold us together. As a Board, we are committed to celebrating all the milestones of the school, our students, and our directors, to ensure a feeling of community throughout the organization. In the school, this may sound and look like large gatherings, loud voices, singing, or dancing, but at the Board level it can simply be celebrating each others’ triumphs or family events.

  1. We Are Always on Inspiring Jewish Journeys

Obviously, this North Star is designed to apply to students and faculty, but as a Board we would do well to remember we’re included here as well. For me, having grown up in an Ottawa Jewish home where values were lived every day, and having attended the ancestor school to the OJCS (Hillel Academy), being an active parent at the school and member of its Board is the most natural and fitting next step in my inspiring Jewish journey with my young family.

  1. We Own Our Own Learning

Remembering that learning is best as a two-way street easily applies to the governing body of the school, as we work with all stakeholders to determine the best strategic routes forward. As each student in the school finds his or her respective passion and uses it as a platform for more in-depth study, so too do we as Board directors use our unique skills and interests to further the agenda of the organization as a whole. This blog is a perfect example – I wanted to use and hone my amateur writing skills, and I was able to do so while filling a void in the leadership ‘Blogosphere’ of the school.

  1. We Learn Better Together

It became clear through our work unpacking the North Stars that we, as a Board, do our best work when we brainstorm and discuss and work as a team and also when we incorporate ideas generated by other stakeholders in the process. Through this teamwork we all continue to learn how best to advance and follow through on the mission of the school. We, like the students and staff, do indeed need to continue learning (and do so together) to help us reach our ‘stars’. Similarly, we need to keep thinking large and reaching for the highest heights, together, to make real our dream of being the best school in Ottawa. I, for one, believe we can get there.