Tal Grinfas-David of the Centre for Israel Education speaks with educators at Vancouver Talmud Torah last month. (photo from VTT)
Educators at Lower Mainland Jewish day schools had the opportunity to consider the relevance of Israel literacy last month, when Tal Grinfas-David, the Centre for Israel Education’s day school specialist, was in town the week of Feb. 18 to deliver a talk on the subject and work with local teachers and administrators. Her keynote speech, titled Teaching Modern Israel – Challenges and Opportunities, was part of a community professional development day.
The CIE, which is based in Atlanta, Ga., received a grant for a three-year initiative to work with nine Jewish day schools across North America and help them enhance their Israel education efforts. Vancouver Talmud Torah and King David High School are two of the nine schools and Grinfas-David spent a day coaching educators at each of them. She will return for the next two years to reinforce the changes CIE is promoting.
The issue, she said, is that, across North America, many graduates of Jewish day school education don’t have enough Israel literacy to grapple with the world, to justify a strong connection to Israel and to inform their Jewish identity.
“The concept we’re promoting is to turn Israel education into something all teachers can support, not just Jewish studies faculty,” she told the Independent. The desire is there, she added. “The Vancouver community is very supportive and wants to see Israel education boosted and incorporated into different subject areas. But it’s going to be a long-term process.”
No stranger to education, Grinfas-David comes to her role with a PhD in curriculum and instruction and 25 years as an educator in Israel and the United States. Over the next three years, she will move between Jewish day schools in Denver, Los Angeles, Detroit, New Jersey and Vancouver, coaching their educational teams.
“We’re thrilled to have this grant to visit the individual sites and get to know the different schools’ cultures,” she said. “Each school is different and unique, with strengths and challenges, and this grant allows us to customize and tailor our offerings to specific communities.”
The goal of Israel literacy is to graduate Jewish students who understand the relevance of Israel in their lives and feel confident in their knowledge. They need this, she said, because understanding Judaism means understanding it’s not solely a religion.
“It’s also a belonging to a peoplehood, a nation with a Jewish homeland,” she said. “To understand modern Israel today, we have to see it as a continuation of our Jewish history.”
Grinfas-David said she would need three days to address all the ways that Israel literacy counts significantly in the life of a Jew.
“Israel impacts how Jews live in other countries, like the U.S. and Canada, where we are free. Students at our Jewish day schools have never experienced powerlessness or persecution, as they have the good fortune of being born here and now, with many freedoms. But that’s all the more reason to have them understand it was not always like this for Jews.
“Being part of a nation means there is an obligation to support your people, because of your fortune,” she continued. “There’s a calling to engage and to reflect on what Israel means for these students in their lives. Israel literacy is about having a repertoire of primary sources under your belt, so that when students leave the school setting and hear different narratives, they’ll be critical consumers of information, and they’ll know the facts they need. At CEI, our goal is to give them the ability and the opportunity to have the confidence to be critical consumers.”
Lauren Kramer, an award-winning writer and editor, lives in Richmond. To read her work online, visit laurenkramer.net.
Lu Winters, academic and student wellness counselor at King David High School. (photo from Lu Winters)
In the fourth of a series of articles on sexual harassment and violence in the Jewish community, the Jewish Independent speaks with Lu Winters of King David High School, Elana Stein Hain of the Shalom Hartman Institute and Rabbi Carey Brown of Temple Sholom.
The first step in reducing bullying and other abuse in schools is to work with the students, said Lu Winters, academic and student wellness counselor at King David High School.
“I build connections with students in class,” she told the Independent. “And, with various groups in the school, I sometimes take them on trips. After the connection has been built, then the helping relationship can happen. It can happen one-on-one, in groups, in gender groups and through workshops.
“At King David, I’ve created a wellness program. Each grade receives a workshop, or two or three, depending on what’s going on during the year, on specific topics that I think are age-appropriate. I wish I could do every workshop for every single grade, but then the academic part of school would fall to the wayside.
“We run workshops on topics like LGBTQ awareness; healthy relationships with your body; self-esteem; stress and anxiety; drugs and alcohol; choices and values; and sexual health.”
Since the start of the #MeToo movement, Winters has seen some momentum. People have a lot to say about the movement, she said. “We haven’t had a specific workshop about it this year, but it’s on my radar for next year. During our sexual health education classes, we do address sexual harassment and consent, including talking about the roles of everyone involved, people’s faith, and making appropriate decisions for themselves at the right time … what to do if, G-d forbid, anything happens: who to talk to, what kind of support you can get.”
In the greater Jewish educational sphere, the Shalom Hartman Institute has produced a series of videos about related topics and examines how scripture has educated Jews on the subject over the years. Elana Stein Hain, scholar resident and director of faculty, has been leading the project.
“What we do is essentially develop curriculum around challenges facing the Jewish people,” Stein Hain told the Independent. “And I wouldn’t even say it’s about developing curriculum as much as developing conceptual frameworks for thinking about issues that arise. We’re an educational think tank. We ask ourselves what issues are now facing the Jewish people and consider how to develop educational material that deepens how we think about these issues. Then, we speak with change agents in the Jewish community about some ways of thinking.”
Stein Hain and her team began by looking for Torah teachings that address the topic of harassment directly. They came up with a three-part video series, which launched with a presentation that addressed the question of how, as a 21st-century teacher, you can educate people with our most sacred text and have the value proposition of our most sacred text being very important and continuing to give us the wisdom we seek, said Stein Hain. “And, also, we address the absence or relative absence of women’s voices and women as an audience.”
The next video talk was by Dr. Paul Nahme, a member of the institute’s Created Equal Team. He speaks on how definitions of manhood are dependent on cultural context.
“There’s this ‘boys will be boys’ kind of assumption and he says that, actually, there are places in Jewish tradition where that assumption had been challenged,” explained Stein Hain. “Young men were being trained to not be bravado macho, arrogant and assertive – to instead be trained to think about what it means to have doubts, to need someone else’s help. That was in contrast to what masculinity was understood to be.”
The last talk in the series was done by another member of the team, Dr. Arielle Levites, who discusses the portrayal of women in some Jewish traditional texts.
“It’s a deep folk story about women who try to move beyond their station or to move beyond the assumptions of them being portrayed as monsters,” said Stein Hain. “And she relates that to the … women who come forward with claims of sexual harassment or sexual violence who become seen as the offending party, getting questioned and vilified in certain ways.”
“The idea is really to get to the root of education,” said Stein Hain. “We are glad that people are going to do trainings on sexual harassment, on mandated reporting and on how to respond in the moment. We’d like to get to the root thought process of a culture that has come to this. And we want to learn how we can educate better, so we can have an adaptive change in the way people think, talk and act. Then, society and the Jewish community in particular can be built upon a different foundation.”
The educational realm within synagogues has also felt reverberations of the #MeToo movement, according to Rabbi Carey Brown of Temple Sholom.
“I have seen an incredible amount of conversation among rabbis about this issue,” said Brown. “Some have been from within female rabbinic circles of women … some confronting it … things that people had kept within themselves for years or decades … and, now, gaining the courage to talk about it – everything from struggles to trying to understand the situation insofar as its professional implications for female rabbis … major discussions are being had on the topic at our annual conferences.
“Within the congregation, I haven’t had any individuals come to talk to me about personal experience,” she said. “But I have had a sense that women are feeling more free to bring up topics having to do with abuse, with safety, within the congregation, [at the] board level or [from a] staff perspective.”
A couple of months ago, the synagogue’s Men’s Club had a program on the #MeToo movement and sexual harassment in the workplace, including panel discussion on the topic in which Brown participated.
“I was really glad they took the initiative to have this program,” said Brown. “This didn’t come from the rabbis; it came from their leadership wanting to have an opportunity to talk about it. The conversation was really good and those who attended were very engaged and didn’t want to leave.”
Brown spoke about the Jewish perspective, discussing its tradition of values and ideas around sexual harassment, as well as her own personal experience with harassment.
“We talked a lot about consent,” said the rabbi. “A few different pieces of Talmud were discussed. We looked at this one that was about what happens if a man – one who counts money for a woman from his hand to her hand in order to look upon her – even if he has accumulated knowledge of Torah and good deeds like Moses, he will not be absolved from punishment.
“We talked about how, if someone even has a good reputation in the community, is known for their knowledge, good deeds and business … if they are abusive or using their power in a way that puts someone else in a position in which they are abused and powerless … our tradition says that, no, that is not OK.”
Abuse can be as simple as the way one person looks at another – if there is a misuse of power or position to objectify someone, Jewish tradition says that is not acceptable, stressed Brown.
“We talked about how we need to stand up when someone is being objectified, abused or put into a difficult situation,” she said. “That is part of our Jewish imperative – not to look away. It is part of what the Torah teaches us: that we can’t be indifferent and we must act.”
Over the years, Brown has had inappropriate comments directed at her. She said, “I’ve received comments like, ‘You don’t look like a rabbi’ or ‘If my rabbi looked like you, I’d have gone to shul a lot more when I was younger,’ or comments on my clothing and hair, and such.
“I mentioned at the event with the Men’s Club that my experience, both in Vancouver at Temple Sholom and in Boston, has been that the longer that I am the rabbi of a community, the stronger the relationships. And, I feel some of those things begin to fade away … within the regular, active population of the synagogue.
“It’s often when I’m in a new environment with people who don’t know me – at a shivah minyan, a wedding or something like that – my antennae go up. I’m very aware that it’s very likely I’ll get comments that are really inappropriate or that I have to psyche myself up a little bit to deal with.
“If I’m at a shivah minyan, I’m there to comfort the bereaved. I’m generally not going to confront in that situation,” she said. “I will take it with a grain of salt and maybe grumble about it to a friend. But, sometimes I’ll say, ‘That’s not appropriate.’ Sometimes, I’ll hear things like, ‘I’ve never kissed a rabbi before.’ And, I’ll say, ‘Well, we don’t need to kiss.’ I’ll push back a little bit to establish some boundaries.”
King David High School head of school Russ Klein. (photo by Pat Johnson)
King David High School has chosen to refund families who made a $1,000 deposit for next year but opted to send their kids to a different school. The decision ends a controversy that some parents said was a money grab.
Faced for the first time with more applicants than available positions, the school requested a non-refundable deposit of $1,000. Timing was a factor, as families were awaiting admission decisions from other private schools or space-limited specialty programs in the public system.
The idea, said KDHS head of school Russ Klein, was that families for whom King David was the first choice would pay and those for whom the school was not first choice might opt not to pay, thereby ensuring that those who most wanted in were admitted.
“It didn’t work out that way,” he said. “What we thought would happen, didn’t happen. They all just made the deposit.”
In the end, the school got what it wanted – full enrolment – and families ended up with their children in the schools of their choice.
After reflection on the process, Klein said, King David decided to refund the deposits to families who chose other schools.
“It wasn’t a cash grab,” he said. “We did it with good intentions.”
As it turned out, of the nine families offered the refund, four declined, choosing to make it a donation to the school, another donated half, two received the full refund and two others didn’t respond to the offer at all.
This year’s graduating class had 45 students, the second-largest ever. Next year’s class will be the biggest – between 55 and 60.
Klein said dealing with more applications than they have spots available was a learning opportunity.
“Now that we think we know how to handle this situation a little better, we’re hoping we get this, as we say, ‘good problem,’ where there are too many applicants again in the future,” he said. “The school next year will probably be at its biggest number ever.… We’ve just got nothing but good things to look forward to.”
Russ Klein recently marked his 10th year as head of school at King David High School. (photo by Pat Johnson)
Russ Klein resisted becoming King David High School’s head of school. Ten years ago, he was a vice-principal in the Vancouver school district, an 18-year veteran of the public system. One of his colleagues – Ben Lubinizki, a teacher at Prince of Wales, where Klein was VP – was a King David parent and on the search committee for a new head of school.
Klein was on track to become a principal in Vancouver and, besides, after attending Vancouver Talmud Torah, becoming bar mitzvah at Beth Israel and volunteering on kibbutzim as a young adult, he hadn’t had much to do with the Jewish community. But Lubinizki was persistent and encouraged Klein to just drop by the school and check it out.
“I saw what things were like,” Klein recalled. “I saw the potential. I also saw lots of things that I thought they needed a little bit of guidance on at that point.”
It turned out that the Vancouver School Board thought a time at King David could be a good experience for Klein before he became a principal, so offered him a two-year leave of absence.
“I thought it was going to be a temporary position,” he said. He is now celebrating his 10th year at the school and, as he reflects on the past decade, he says the move not only altered his career path, it changed his life.
A year into the two-year “temporary” gig, the VSB called with a principalship for him.
“I had to think hard about it because, in a little over a year, I had quite fallen in love with this particular place,” he told the Independent during an interview in his office at King David. “I loved everything about it, from its size to the people I was working with, to the mission that it had.”
But, while job security in the public system is assured, he said, “In the private system you don’t have any.”
The King David board offered him a 10-and-a-half year contract and Klein now hopes to retire – eventually – from a role he loves.
“I think it’s worked out quite well,” he said.
In May, at a major celebration, KDHS will celebrate 13 years – its bar mitzvah year – in the current purpose-built building. The school’s history dates back to 1986, when it was founded as Maimonides High School. It was called Vancouver Jewish High School in 2000/01, then Vancouver Talmud Torah High School until 2004, when it was renamed King David. It has always been a Grade 8 to 12 school.
As head of school for a decade, Klein has seen plenty of change.
Almost all Grade 8 students now travel to Israel on an 11-day experience, spending most of the time in the Galilee, Vancouver’s partnership region. Some of the kids in Har Vagai school – King David’s partner school there – live on Kibbutz Shamir, where Klein volunteered a couple of decades ago. In Grade 9, the Israeli students come to Vancouver.
In recent years, KDHS has changed its Grade 9 trip, which used to go to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., to an alternative trip to Los Angeles, where students visit the Museum of Tolerance and the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust. The time difference – and the need to change planes – made the Washington trip difficult.
“We thought we could get more out of the trip,” said Klein. “L.A. is a much shorter, easier [trip], it’s less expensive. But it added another feature, which is that we have a shomer Shabbat weekend in Los Angeles.” (The trip didn’t happen this year as they are moving it to Grade 10.)
A group of King David students are also going to Guatemala to volunteer in a community where women and children from disadvantaged and often abusive backgrounds access support and skills.
In all these offerings, financial ability is never a factor in participation, Klein said.
In the classrooms, change also has been constant. New options have been added to electives, and the school has added advanced math and science programs as well as a Grade 10 outdoor experience program. King David students take all the core subjects public school students do, plus Judaics.
“In a typical Vancouver high school, most students will enrol in eight classes,” Klein explained. KDHS students take two more courses in various aspects of Jewish studies, including (in most cases) Hebrew language, Jewish history and “what we would call Jewish values: ethics, Torah, what does it mean to be Jewish?”
On top of an intense academic load, Klein said, “Our participation in athletics is outrageously high for a school of our size. Probably 70% of our kids are on one athletic team or another – or more.”
Challenges remain, Klein acknowledged. The school has pretty much met its student capacity and, while expansion seems unlikely in the near future, the redevelopment of the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver, a few steps west of the school, could present opportunities for a dedicated gym and shared use of space for classes, drama and music performances.
The changes in Klein’s career have been accompanied by changes in his personal life.
“As a person who didn’t have community, coming to a community that is so kind and caring has been absolutely amazing. It has been the best thing that could have happened from my point of view,” he said. “This has given meaning to my life, aside from the fact that, as a divorced person, I now have a very committed relationship with a former King David parent [Deborah Youngson] who is very traditional herself, which has brought more Jewish meaning to my life.”
Another change is also evident. He’s grown what he jokingly calls “the rabbinical beard,” which he says leads people to assume he is very wise.
“I do have a good chuckle every time I get an email that says ‘Dear Rabbi Russ.’”
King David High School has more applicants for Grade 8 this fall than they have spaces available, and some parents are upset with the way the school is handling the matter.
On Jan. 28, parents of 52 potential Grade 8 students received a message that their children had been accepted – and that $1,000 was required by Jan. 31 to confirm acceptance.
“The normal course is that King David and the independent and mini schools all release about the same time their acceptance letters,” said a parent whose child was accepted. “They’ll send out the first acceptance letters and then parents will either accept or not and then they’ll send out the second set a day or two later. That way they don’t really have a wait list and the process is relatively painless and takes place over a few days.”
The parent requested anonymity for fear that speaking out could affect their child’s future at the school and the Independent agreed to withhold the name.
“What King David has done suddenly is say we’re moving our process up about a month and to hold that spot now you need another thousand dollars, nonrefundable,” the parent said. The $1,000 deposit is on top of a $500 application fee, which increased this year from $100. Many families apply to more than one school, some of them independent and some of them Vancouver School Board specialty schools, such as mini schools, international baccalaureate or outdoor education programs. Those schools mostly send out acceptance letters in February.
“If they want to fundraise, that’s one thing,” said the parent. “But this seems to be a negative option fundraising scheme. They didn’t tell the families that they were going to do this when they applied originally and gave their deposit of $500. They didn’t tell them they were going to change the rules.”
But Russ Klein, King David’s head of school, said the intention was to alleviate stress for the families with children who are not among the 52 who received acceptance letters. He contests the idea that the $1,000 is to “hold the position.”
“We are not thinking of it as holding,” he said. “We’re thinking of it as accepting.”
He recognizes that many families hedge their bets by applying to several schools.
“They are frustrated, which I can understand, because they’re going to need to pay a deposit. That’s where they’re using the language ‘hold the spot.’ But we have families out there who are on our wait pool who are desperate to get into King David because they are not applying anywhere else. They are very frustrated at some of their peers who are holding spots that they don’t want,” said Klein. “We’re not their first choice. They’d rather get into another school and we don’t judge that. We’d just like the students who would like to be here to get the opportunity to be here.”
The school is using the term “wait pool” as opposed to “wait list” because it does not reflect an order.
“What schools are really trying to do is pick the best cohort for their group,” he said. “If, for example, a male student leaves and you’re trying to balance by gender, then we would try to get another male student in.” A wait pool implies that learning needs, particular talents and other factors that applicants bring to the cohort are weighed, rather than ranking applicants numerically.
Klein acknowledged that the process is new and has been difficult, because the school has never had so many applicants, a factor due simply to the coincidence of a population bubble in the community. Looking at this year’s Grade 6 classes at Jewish elementary schools and in the community, he said, King David expects far fewer Grade 8 applications next year. This year’s Grade 8 cohort has just 35 students.
“This is our first time through this type of challenge and we are learning a lot,” he said. The school has 26 regular Grade 8 positions and 26 accelerated positions, in which Grade 8 students complete Math 8, Science 8, Math 9 and Science 9 in a single year.
The school isn’t releasing exact numbers of how many students are in the wait pool, saying only that it is “more than 10.”
In all, the school now has well over 200 students, said Klein, and, while that presents growing pains, he hopes the demand indicates to the community that the school is successful, and said KDHS may seek to expand in the future.
King David High School students with Teaching for Tomorrow keynote speaker Julie Lythcott-Haims, who spoke on the topic How to Raise an Adult. (photo by Jocelyne Hallé)
Our kids are not bonsai trees that need to be clipped and sheared! That was the message Julie Lythcott-Haims delivered to a packed audience at Congregation Beth Israel in her May 17 talk, How to Raise an Adult.
The keynote speaker at King David High School’s Teaching for Tomorrow evening, Palo Alto, Calif.-based Lythcott-Haims was previously dean of freshmen at the University of Stanford for 10 years. There, she said, she saw a lot of “helicopter parenting.”
“My freshmen students seemed to be like drones in their own lives, driven by someone else and constantly tethered to home and parents by their phones, the world’s longest umbilical cord,” she reflected.
Lythcott-Haims described how parents would email asking for their children’s passwords so they could register them for classes, parents calling her “unhappy with the grade a professor gave their child” and parents wanting to know where their kids were at all times. “I would rail against this absurdity,” she said. “I’d give a speech to parents each year, telling them, ‘Trust your child, they have what it takes to thrive. Trust us at the university. And now, please leave!’”
A mother of teens herself, Lythcott-Haims realized that it’s impossible for parents to let go of their 18-year-old freshmen unless they started relinquishing their helicopter-parenting tendencies years earlier. “We love our children fiercely and we’re fearful about what the world has in store for them. But we make the mistake of thinking we must cloak them in our arms instead of preparing them to be strong out there. So, we end up being overprotective, over-directive and doing excessive handholding with our kids, being like a concierge in their lives. We treat our precious kids like bonsai trees – we plant them in a pot, but we won’t let them grow.”
Lythcott-Haims peppered her talk with anecdotes about her personal adventures parenting. She described her desire to give her kids independence and trying to balance that with the over-protectiveness of their friends’ parents. She and her husband chose a house in a particular neighbourhood, she admitted, because she wanted her kids in the “right” preschools and schools, so they would have better chances of getting into the “right” universities.
Along the way, she realized she was misguided. Her son did not tick the boxes required by the “right” universities. She saw that she was inadvertently pushing him so hard to succeed, she was losing him in the process, robbing him of happiness.
What’s at the root of this tendency to overparent? “Love and fear motivates our actions, but also ego,” Lythcott-Haims stated. “We fear being judged. Our measure of worth is saying what our kids are doing. We want to brag about them because it makes us feel we’ve succeeded as parents and in life.”
A hushed, sobered silence descended over the large synagogue auditorium as Lythcott-Haims delivered an emotional talk about her own parenting mistakes and what she learned.
“Our children are not investments, they’re humans and they deserve to know they’re loved – and not because they got a particular grade. For kids, their knees go unskinned if we catch them before they fall. When we hover over every bit of play, we get short-term wins, but the long-term cost is to their sense of self and their ability to self-advocate. They emerge chronologically as adults but they’re still kids inside.”
There are serious consequences to overparenting, she continued. “When we over-direct them and lift them to the outcomes we desire for them, it leads to higher rates of anxiety and depression. They emerge as university students who are failure-deprived and who want to have a parent tell them what to do, how to feel. Though they might look beautiful on paper, when something bad happens, they don’t have the internal sense of self that says, I’ll be OK.”
Lythcott-Haims’ message to parents was a warning to back off, particularly if they want their kids to enter the world as fierce warriors, “strong individuals who are loving of themselves and feel capable and able to keep going when things go wrong.”
Just before receiving a standing ovation, she said, “It takes humility to be a good parent. The ego has to come out of it.”
Lauren Kramer, an award-winning writer and editor, lives in Richmond. To read her work online, visit laurenkramer.net.
Nov. 21 saw the start of King David High School’s now-established RAC Week. Started as part of the Random Acts of Kindness program – adapted as Random Acts of Chesed – this is a five-day celebration of paying it forward. Whether it’s picking up garbage, helping the homeless or moving furniture, every activity gives the students a chance to experience the rewards of helping others.
This year, The Giving Tree formed the basis for RAC Week’s good deeds. Illustrations from Shel Silverstein’s book about unconditional love decorated the main hall and foyer. Heartwarming messages read “Kindness is Contagious,” “Spread the Love” and “Smile! It’s RAC Week!”
RAC Week takes the students outside their comfort zones. According to the director of Jewish life at KDHS, Ellia Belson, this year’s destinations were chosen based on feedback gleaned from last year’s offerings. “The Grade 12s wanted to go where there was the greatest need,” she said.
Among the destinations were the Kerrisdale police detachment, Quest Outreach and Admiral Seymour Elementary School. At the school, which is on Keefer Street, they witnessed an unfamiliar degree of tension – and fighting – among the kids. KDHS student Ethan (Grade 10) described how he “tried to get people to play together who might not do so normally.”
Under the guidance of teacher Matt Dichter, Grade 8 student Noam accompanied Food Stash Foundation on their daily rounds. Started by David Schein, a former teacher at KDHS, the foundation was created to help reduce food waste in the Vancouver area. FSF collects leftover items from grocery stores, such as Whole Foods, at the end of each work day. Food Stash then delivers the food to where it’s needed most: more than 15,000 kilograms of food since September, said Schein. On the morning of Nov. 22, deliveries were made to the Kettle Society, Mount Pleasant Neighborhood House, Tenth Church and Oasis Café.
The RAC group from KDHS rescued food from COBS Bread, Greens, Fresh is Best and a number of other sites. The numbers speak volumes. Every year, each Canadian throws away approximately 127 kilograms of food. KDHS kids rescued 135 kilograms in a single day.
“I really liked working with the kids because it is a great way to raise awareness of food waste in the younger generation,” Schein told the Independent. “Half of food waste happens at home, so they can now go home and speak to their parents, start influencing food choices.” He added, “Saving me some lifting was also nice!”
With its emphasis on community service, RAC Week is a concentrated course in educating the emotions, as well as the intellect. Noam described how “it felt good to give back.” Asked whether his work with Food Stash had had an impact on his daily life, he answered with a definite yes. His intentions were clear, as he explained, “even finishing what’s on your plate” can have an impact on food wastage.
RAC Week offers a curriculum of social responsibility best taught outside the classroom, where students develop an awareness of other kids’ lives and struggles. The conversations that take place after the outings present an opportunity to reflect on these struggles and express gratitude for their own station in life. It also allows the students to teach one another, under Belson’s guidance, about what each group learned.
While the kids spoke animatedly about their excursions, their most energetic, personal and heartfelt responses were to Belson’s simple question, “What does chesed mean to you?”
At this, it seemed that half the students raised their hands, speaking with passion and clarity about “giving and not taking” (Ella). Connell quoted from the film Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, with the admonition, “Be a giver, not a taker.” Ethan spoke at length about how it’s easy to “take for granted a loving home, a loving family…. It’s a week to recognize that by giving back.” Jordana agreed, talking about the importance of seeing “how others live – even so close to us. It made a difference.”
Sometimes, the greatest lessons in life can be taught in the simplest of ways. Adi talked about “being a mensch, helping people who have less, making people feel happier, making them smile.”
Shula Klinger is an author, illustrator and journalist living in North Vancouver. Find out more at niftyscissors.com.
Left to right: Esther Mogyoros, King David High School director of development; Shannon Gorski, PAC co-chair; speaker Josh Shipp; and Teaching for Tomorrow co-chairs Gaby Lutrin and Elaine Grobman. (photo from KDHS)
“What’s the difference between a watermelon and a cloud?” Josh Shipp asked the crowd. “Three percent. A watermelon is 94% water and a cloud is 97% water. All that separates them is three percent, but that little difference makes all the difference in the world. That little difference can be all that separates you from being average and being extraordinary.”
Shipp, a “teen expert” and motivational speaker, who graduated from Stanford and has lectured at Harvard and MIT, was speaking at Teaching for Tomorrow, an annual celebration of King David High School (KDHS), on May 17.
KDHS, which has 220 students and expects continued growth, is British Columbia’s only Jewish high school and one of six outside of Toronto. It is also one of the most successful Jewish high schools in Canada from the perspective of having growing enrolment each year.
The auditorium at the Chan Centre was packed, flanked on both sides by galleries full of KDHS students. After an introduction by emcee Liam Sasky, a Grade 12 student, the audience heard a concise, warm and humorous speech from school head Russ Klein. A musical interlude followed, with a duet about friends struggling with the romance that’s broken out between them. Following that came a video about KDHS and its values, focusing on the experience of current students and alumni – the students interviewed emphasized the sense of community at KDHS, and the feeling that they were known and valued personally at the school.
After that came the main event. Shipp was notable for his ability to get raucous laughter from the teens, who he seemed to hold in the palm of his hand throughout his talk. He peppered his speech with memorable images and questions, tech and pop culture references, and self-deprecating humor. Shipp, who was abandoned as a child and grew up a troubled delinquent in a series of foster homes, spoke candidly of his own horrific experiences of abuse and trauma. At the centre of his speech was the role that one caring adult can play; in his life, this was his foster father Rodney, who refused to reject Shipp, saving his life and turning it around. “All of you can be a Rodney to someone,” said Shipp. “Every child, every teenager, every human being is one caring adult away from success.”
Shipp challenged students to reach out to a “Rodney” in their own lives within 24 hours and say “thank you,” something Shipp said took him nine years to do after the day his Rodney turned his life around. Shipp also had a warning for students: face your ghosts.
“You guys are pretty serious here,” Shipp said. “I know it. I watched the propaganda video. You need to be unafraid to seek help for the things that are holding you back. This can be a problem in high-achieving communities like this. Don’t be afraid to seem weak, because talking about these things is not weak – it’s courageous.”
Matthew Gindinis a Vancouver freelance writer and journalist. He blogs on spirituality and social justice at seeking her voice (hashkata.com) and has been published in the Forward, Tikkun, Elephant Journal and elsewhere.
“Question Mark” by Sydney Freedman and Rachel Pekeles is among the works created by King David High School Grade 12 students. (photo by Nancy Current)
In conjunction with their current show at Zack Gallery, Visual Midrash, artists Robin Atlas and Nancy Current conducted a two-day workshop with the Grade 12 students of King David High School. Rabbi Stephen Berger, head of the school’s Judaic studies, and some of his more outgoing students talked to the Independent about the project.
“Every year, we do a project for Passover with our Grade 12 students,” said Berger. “The Haggadah is one of those Jewish texts that’s had the most number of interpretations throughout our history, as every generation and every family bring their own understanding. So, I ask the students every year to write their own versions, a short essay on one of the aspects of the Haggadah. This year, we decided to combine the writing with the visual component. The students pitched their ideas, which topic they wanted to explore. I tried to limit the same topics but I didn’t force anyone. They were free to choose. Now, after all the art is done, we’ll put the project online. We’re also going to publish a hardcopy as a pamphlet. One of our former students, Daniel Wiseman, is helping me with the particulars. We will distribute the copies at the JCC, at the synagogues and Jewish delis.”
The rabbi joined his students in creating his own interpretation of the Haggadah, using a sheet of matzah as the base for his artistic journey. “Matzah represents both our slavery and our freedom,” he said. His piece opens the pamphlet.
Like the rabbi, most of his students hadn’t done much visual art in years and were not going to pursue art as a career, but they enjoyed working on Visual Midrash for this assignment.
“They put so much thought into their pieces,” said Current. “Some of them first tried to come up with concrete images, but it’s hard without artistic training. Then Robin and I suggested they should think about some abstract interpretations. What ideas come to mind? What concepts are associated with those ideas? The results were amazing.”
One of the students, Izzy Khalifa, chose the most fun-filled tradition of Passover – the search for bread. “When I was a kid, it was a game in our home. I loved it,” she said. “Now that I’m older, I think it’s not simply a search for bread but it has a deeper meaning, like a search for yourself.”
“Judaism grows on you,” the rabbi remarked, and Khalifa agreed. She also liked working with the abstract concept. “People can take more from an abstract picture, interpret it in different ways,” she said.
Classmates Adi Rosenkrantz and Ashley Morris decided on more concrete imagery. Their blue heart on a blood-red background symbolizes the first plague of Egypt – the plague of blood. “The blue heart is like the heart of the Nile,” said Rosenkrantz. “The abrupt color change, from blue to red, from water to blood, disrupted the Egyptian way of life.” Their heart is almost anatomically precise. “I just did a unit on cardiovascular system,” Rosenkrantz explained, “and it was fresh in my mind.”
Ma’ayan Fadida and Shmuel Hart’s illustration was more metaphorical. They selected a controversial theme for their work – the wicked son. In their artistic interpretation, the wicked son walks a black path, which winds its way across the pink and orange brightness of other family members.
“We wanted to do one of the sons,” Fadida said. “This one makes the decision to separate himself from the others; that’s why his path is black. And the abstract allowed us to show how he was thinking.”
One of the most powerful pieces is a mixed media collage: a large black question mark with the background of newspaper snippets. Created by Sydney Freedman and Rachel Pekeles, it also touches on the story of the four sons but focuses on the son who doesn’t know how to ask.
“We wanted to take a complicated topic and present it as a symbol. The black mark blocks our ability to ask,” explained Freedman.
“The information is all there. You just have to be willing to look for it,” Pekeles elaborated. “It is a challenge. Sometimes, we choose not to ask when we should.”
Olga Livshinis a Vancouver freelance writer. She can be reached at [email protected].
Aaron Friedland at Semei Kakungulu High School in Uganda. Friedland has written the book The Walking School Bus, both as a first reader but also as a means to generate funds for students to access education. To get it published, he has started an Indiegogo campaign. (photo from Aaron Friedland)
During high school and elementary, “it was too easy for me to miss school,” said Aaron Friedland, currently a master’s in economics student at the University of British Columbia. In other parts of the world, children walk great distances to attain an education.
“Five years ago, I wrote a children’s book called The Walking School Bus,” Friedland told the Independent. It was “written with the realization that students in North America really take access to education for granted.”
It was on a trip to Uganda and South Africa, he said, when he really began to understand “the distances students had to walk to obtain an education and it was startling.”
Data from the Uganda National Household Survey Report 2009/2010 indicate that 5.5% of children aged 6-12 do not attend school because it is too far away, and the average high school-aged student must walk a distance of 5.1 kilometres to the nearest government school, more than 10 kilometres every day.
“I wanted the book to serve a purpose and the purpose was twofold. I wanted it to raise awareness … that students have to walk,” Friedland said about The Walking School Bus. “But I also wanted it to be a means to generate funds for students to access education and so, in that case, I’d say the school bus itself is metaphoric and it represents access to education.
“I submitted my manuscript to a publishing house just under a year ago and it was well received, so we started moving forward. But, in order to really have a book come to fruition, it costs quite a bit of money.”
On Nov. 9, Friedland started an Indiegogo campaign to raise $15,000 to cover the costs of publication, “everything surrounding the book,” which includes editors who specialize in children’s books and the illustrations. The campaign runs for 60 days.
The Walking School Bus has the capacity to “act as a first reader and, while it does have a picture book component, I’d also like it to serve as a coffee table book and a symbol for interfaith collaboration,” said Friedland.
Friedland’s concern about and involvement in interfaith work began in 2010, when J.J. Keki, a member of the Ugandan Abayudaya Jewish community and founder of the Delicious Peace fair-trade coffee cooperative, was invited to King David High School. Many students, including Friedland, “formed a pretty special bond with him.”
A bond that continued for Friedland. “When I was in first year [university] – while all my friends were going to Mexico and hilarious holidays – I went to Uganda with my family,” he said. “It was an amazing experience for us. We benefited so much more than the ‘recipient’ community. I recognized quite quickly that our aid had been negligible, but what it did for me was it provided me with a clear trajectory, which guided me for my four years at McGill.… At McGill, I started working with the Abayudaya community in Uganda, specifically with Delicious Peace…. What most amazed me – and my rationale for getting involved – was that they employed an interfaith collaboration model in which they united these previously disparate communities, the Muslim, Christian and Jewish communities, and formed one solid frontier in which they collaborated. In collaborating, there were a variety of positive spillover effects … you see higher levels of economic prosperity in that region on Nabagoya Hill than you do in comparable areas, you see how there is much more religious tolerance.”
About his experience in Uganda, Friedland, who has worked with UN Watch, said, “I have only seen the us-against-them mentality, and this is one of the first times I have ever seen this collaboration.”
About his most recent trip to Uganda, Friedland said, “Essentially, I have been working with three schools there as well as King David over here, kind of empowering their educational sector in the interfaith forum. And the three interfaith schools I’ve been working with are the three I’m the most motivated to help provide school buses.”
While interviewing students in Uganda, he said, “One of the girls that really stood out to me was a girl named Miriam, a lovely Jewish girl from [Semei Kakungulu] high school, an 18-year-old. She was telling me that, when she walks to school, she walks six kilometres in either direction. And, in extreme rainfall events, which is pretty much all of the rainy season, she will cross a river to school and, when she goes back, the river is often flooded and she cannot cross back, so that night she’ll spend at a friend’s.”
Friedland added, “When I think about the struggle that our counterparts make to go to school and we do not – we don’t have that drive. That is something I’d like to impress on people in North America. I’m not saying you have to feel bad, just appreciate your access and your ease in getting an education and take it seriously.”
The website thewalkingschoolbus.com was created by Friedland to support the book and bus project, and sales of T-shirts and various other merchandise go towards his efforts to increase access to education. He said, “I think, as a Jew in Vancouver, in a more liberalized society, that this is the model that we should be going for … we should be supporting interfaith.”
Friedland has most recently worked with a team to connect King David’s Marketing 12 class with the entrepreneurship class at Semei Kakungulu. About his master’s degree, he said he will likely be writing his thesis on “the positive economic spillover effects from interfaith collaboration and employing interfaith collaboration, as an economic development growth model in other places, particularly Israel.”