In Richmond Jewish Day School’s Food Lab Program, students help prepare meals once a month. (photo from RJDS)
One by one, students at Richmond Jewish Day School filter down the hallways following the smells of a delicious and nutritious meal. Waiting for them in the gym is lasagna, Caesar salad and a pesto prepared by RJDS students with the help of Jewish Family Services culinary master, Chef Zoe Sorokin.
RJDS’s Food Lab Program is the first of its kind in a Jewish day school in Metro Vancouver. It is just one of the current programs running in RJDS to enhance students’ access to healthy and nutritious food in a way that promotes community and inclusiveness. Every week, JFS makes and delivers hot meals at no cost to the students or their families. Once a month, students in grades 4 through 7 take an active part in this, helping with the preparation of the meals, including chopping, grating and cooking the plant-based ingredients.
“I enjoy learning new cooking skills,” said Naomi, a Grade 4 student. “My favourite dish was the bean soup.”
“I love that we use all our senses when cooking,” said Ella, who is in Grade 5.
With demand at food banks growing over the course of the pandemic and rising inflation, food insecurity has become a reality for more families. RJDS students and school staff have led several efforts, with the support of social service partners, to help families feeling the pinch. Last year, with the assistance of the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver, Kehila Society and JFS, RJDS began a community fridge and pantry program. The partner agencies, plus the Richmond Food Bank, keep the fridge and pantry stocked and RJDS families can access free healthy snacks, dry goods, fresh produce and meals during school hours. The Food Lab represents an expansion of the school’s food programs.
“The students at Richmond Jewish Day School have absolutely loved the weekly hot lunches,” said principal Sabrina Bhojani. “Our parents have also expressed their delight with this program, knowing that their children are receiving a warm, healthy and nutritious meal at school. The research is clear – good nutrition helps our children to focus, concentrate and self-regulate, which, in turn, results in improved learning and student performance.”
She added, “Not only are the students helping in preparing food to be enjoyed by the school, they are also learning about making informed decisions about food choices, food safety, the importance of food supply and healthy nutrition.”
“I love participating in the Food Lab program,” said Yahel, who is in Grade 5. “It is a fun experience and I get to learn new skills that I can use at home.”
Vienna, also in Grade 5, agrees, saying: “I enjoy learning new cooking skills that I can share with my family.”
The RJDS kitchen has become a place for children to learn new and valuable life skills, to enjoy good food with friends and, most importantly, a place in which they can contribute and build strong relationships.
On Dec. 12, Richmond Jewish Day School hosted Cornerstone Christian Academy, Richmond Christian School and Az-Zahraa Islamic Academy. (photo from RJDS)
For the second year in a row, Richmond Jewish Day School hosted a holiday celebration at the school to promote community care, empathy and understanding.
On the morning of Dec. 12, the Shine a Light project saw three schools joining RJDS to share their winter traditions. The posting on RJDS’s Facebook page reads: “Cornerstone Christian Academy made 3-D stars to signify the star of Bethlehem, Az-Zahraa Islamic Academy made lanterns to represent light in Islam, Richmond Christian School made a stained-glass craft and talked about the advent season and, finally, our school taught the others how to play the dreidel game! We all have a role to play. Today, we dispel the darkness on antisemitism and hatred.”
“Last year, we did an evening event during Hanukkah called A Celebration of Light and invited members of the Highway to Heaven community,” RJDS principal Sabrina Bhojani told the JI.
The No. 5 Road area in Richmond, which is home to RJDS, is also home to some 20 different religious and/or cultural institutions, hence the moniker “Highway to Heaven.” Richmond Mayor Malcom Brodie and Ezra Shanken, chief executive officer of Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver, were among the attendees last year – and this year – along with several city councilors and others.
“This year, we changed the name and format to create a more kid-friendly celebration, and invited various schools to attend,” said Bhojani. “Activities of the students included those that showcased their personal winter-themed traditions and included singing and arts and crafts.”
The Shine a Light program was made possible by a grant from the Jewish Federations of North America, said Bhojani.
In addition to her land acknowledgement on Dec. 12, Bhojani said, “We also acknowledge the Elders, the keepers of traditional knowledge, wisdom and Indigenous ways of knowing. We have much to learn about resilience and responsibility. We commit to asking questions, being open to learning from others and acknowledging that that which we do not know.
“We also commit to make the community we share with you a more peaceful, loving and safe place through the First Peoples’ principles of learning.”
With regard to the day’s program, she said, it was “designed to help each of us develop our understanding and respect for one another’s faith and culture while growing in appreciation, understanding and commitment to our own faith traditions and their meanings. We hope that, through education and events like this one, we will collaboratively encourage people to work together, sharing the responsibility for addressing stereotyping, prejudice, racism, discrimination, antisemitism and social exclusion.”
She noted, “Today, as we gather together, we celebrate the unity and the unique religious coexistence of where we live. I hope you are reminded that is up to each and every one of us to be a ‘Shine a Light’ in the darkness of racism and discrimination.”
One parent who saw the event photos on Facebook wrote Bhojani an email. Having experienced antisemitism, they wrote: “What RJDS is teaching, its values, and [the] education the children are receiving, it’s world changing. It’s hope. It’s proof of a better future.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and B.C. Premier David Eby interact with kids at Richmond Jewish Day School on Dec. 2. (photo from Province of BC)
On Dec. 2, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and federal Minister of Families, Children and Social Development Karina Gould were joined by B.C. Premier David Eby, B.C. Minister of State for Child Care Katrina Chen and Musqueam Indian Band Chief Wayne Sparrow at Richmond Jewish Day School to highlight federal and provincial efforts to make childcare more affordable.
RJDS established its Early Learning Centre this past September, with Sara Solomon as director. (See jewishindependent.ca/rjdss-new-early-ed-program.) It offers two preschool programs, one for infants and toddlers (0-3 years old) and one for children ages 3-5.
Reut Dahan, a parent at RJDS, commented on the government’s reduction of childcare fees, calling it “life-changing.”
“Thanks to this amazing program being implemented, our costs are now reduced by over $1,000 a month, allowing both of us to work full time and easing some of our financial stress,” said Dahan, who has three kids – a toddler, a preschooler and a school-aged child.
Among those from the Jewish community who attended the Dec. 2 event were Ezra Shanken, Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver chief executive officer; Geoffrey Druker, chair of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs’ Local Partnership Council; Michael Lipton, RJDS board chair; Shannon Gorski, a board member of both Federation and Jewish Family Services; and Federation marketing and communications manager Sara Bandel. In his weekly email message, Shanken thanked RJDS principal Sabrina Bhojani and Lipton for making RJDS’s Early Learning Centre a reality.
– Courtesy Richmond Jewish Day School, Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver and Province of British Columbia
Richmond Jewish Day School preschool children gather for Shabbat celebration, with Sara Solomon assisting. (photo from RJDS)
Sara Solomon, Richmond Jewish Day School’s new program director for early education, knows firsthand the importance of a community-centred Jewish day school. She can remember making the daily half-hour bus ride each way from Richmond to Vancouver to attend the nearest Jewish elementary school. It wasn’t until 1992, when RJDS opened its doors, that she could attend school closer to home. But it isn’t sentimentality that has drawn her back to RJDS. It is the school’s novel and forward approach to teaching elementary education.
“[RJDS’s] family-centred culture of the school and the progressive approach to education … aligned with my own values,” said Solomon, who graduated from Langara College in 2010 with a diploma in early childhood education and a certificate in special needs. She said the school’s focus on innovative teaching methods for individualized education aligns with her own practice of “emergent curriculum” – a teaching method that supports the belief that children excel when they are permitted to learn at their own speed and according to their own strengths, interests and abilities – was a deciding factor when it came to applying for the position.
RJDS offers two preschool programs: Gan Alef, for infants and toddlers (0-3 years old) and Gan Bet, for children ages 3-5. For both, the school employs what RJDS principal Sabrina Bhojani refers to as a “constructivist play-based approach” to education. Instead of using teacher-led lessons and activities, educators use curiosity and inspiration to nurture the child’s development. “This provides opportunities, experiences and materials that are responsive to children’s interests and passions,” said Bhojani.
Although the children are usually in group settings, individuality of expression is encouraged. “We also weave Judaic concepts and history through storytelling; language and traditions are experienced through holiday celebrations and Hebrew songs,” Bhojani explained.
“We try to incorporate [the curriculum] in as natural a way as possible without it seeming like we’re inputting information,” Solomon added. The curriculum often uses Jewish holidays to inspire exploration of colours, themes and Hebrew words. “For Sukkot, [we had] a picture of a sukkah and there was a discussion about what the sukkah is, how it’s used,” she said by way of example.
The school also had a small sukkah outside that the students could visit. “The younger children were given some natural materials the teachers collected from outside,” along with some paints. “The older group were given the leaves or needles from an evergreen tree for the roof, some popsicle sticks and a few other things. There was no expectation for it to look like a sukkah,” Solomon explained, noting that the kids weren’t given specific exercises or told to decorate the structure. But the materials were provided for creative expression and exploration that eventually led to decorating the sukkah.
Bhojani said the new RJDS-run early education centre was created to overcome several challenges facing the Richmond Jewish community. The first was to expand access to early childhood education, an urgent need that is being felt throughout the Metro Vancouver area and beyond.
According to Bhojani, infant-toddler spaces are in high demand across British Columbia. “In the last few years, the number of childcare spaces has simply not been enough to meet the needs of families. This has been a province-wide issue, but it has been far worse for families in Richmond, particularly those families seeking a place they could be assured that their Jewish children could express themselves in an authentic manner.” At the moment, she said, “RJDS Early Learning Centre is the only Jewish child care in the Lower Mainland that accepts child under 18 months old.”
The new centre will support continuity of education for children throughout the elementary school experience.
Bhojani said the previous preschool was run by an independent contractor that rented space from RJDS, but its curriculum wasn’t synchronized with what was being taught in the upper grades. “[Being] that it was a third-party organization, we had no authority or oversight in the daycare’s programming,” she said. With the demand for childcare spaces, the former preschool also wasn’t able to guarantee availability for families that wanted to enrol all of their children at RJDS for preschool through Grade 7 attendance.
“We realized quickly we needed our own licensed facility,” and one that fit with the new lesson plans, Bhojani said. “Soon after, we made a commitment to building our own learning centre in order to be able to better serve our community.” That included renovating parts of the school.
The improvements were paid for by two local grants, one of which was specifically tailored to increasing the number of childcare spaces in British Columbia. The B.C. New Spaces fund, offered through the provincial government, helped cover the cost of structural renovations in the preschool area.
The second grant came from the Jewish Community Foundation, which provides unrestricted grants for a wide variety of community needs. While the school did not disclose the amounts they received from each grant, Solomon said the two grants allowed them to make targeted upgrades in time for the 2022/23 school year.
“So far, we have been able to repaint the building, put in all new flooring, upgrade the lighting, and the next steps are going to be some plumbing upgrades,” Solomon said.
The school will still have some further additions to make, such as a new washer and dryer, a sink in one of the classrooms and some improvements in the outdoor play space. Solomon said she is hoping the school will be able to develop an engaging play area, where classes can be held outdoors, too. “We have the most beautiful property here,” she said. “We are on farmland and we are really hoping that we can incorporate that into our outdoor play space.”
Bhojani said the school’s new early education program director comes with the life experience and drive that will help make the new preschool a real success. “As an original RJDS graduate, current school parent and former board member, Sara Solomon has an unparalleled dedication and commitment to our school,” said Bhojani. “She, along with a highly qualified and experienced staff, in the short time that we have been open, have created beautiful spaces in which children feel nurtured and loved.”
Jan Leeis an award-winning editorial writer whose articles and op-eds have been published in B’nai B’rith Magazine, Voices of Conservative and Masorti Judaism and Baltimore Jewish Times, as well as a number of business, environmental and travel publications. Her blog can be found at multiculturaljew.polestarpassages.com.
A few dozen cyclists participated in last year’s ORT Vancouver Ride for STEM. (photo from ORT Vancouver)
The third annual ORT Vancouver Ride for STEM takes place on Father’s Day, June 19. The cycling event, which begins and ends at Richmond Jewish Day School (RJDS) grounds, raises funds for STEM programming – science, technology, engineering and math, said Mary Tobin, longtime executive director of ORT Vancouver.
Participants can choose from a five-kilometre, 36-kilometre or 72-kilometre ride, all of them within Richmond, which is a naturally flat environment.
Founded in Russia, in 1880, World ORT is one of the largest education and training organizations in the world. To date, more than two million students have been educated by ORT and 300,000 students benefit worldwide from World ORT projects in more than 100 countries every year. ORT schools and training centres operate in North and Latin America, Eastern and Western Europe, Africa, Asia and the Pacific, as well as in Israel.
Katia Fermon, director of Jewish life and community engagement at RJDS, said half of the funds raised will go to ORT Vancouver and half will fund programs at her school.
During the pandemic, RJDS, like many schools, was forced to adapt to remote and virtual education. Now integrating a hybrid approach, the technology that was implemented by necessity is being leveraged to strengthen the delivery of educational programs.
“Starting this year, we are trying to push our STEM programming with graphic design, programming with robots and more online education,” said Fermon. The plan is to implement more technology, design skills, programming and coding skills into the curriculum.
“Now we need the hardware to do it,” she said.
Since the cycling event takes place outdoors, the partners were able to run the fundraiser right through the pandemic. Last year, she said, 35 or 40 riders participated, raising about $26,000. Because pandemic restrictions have been eased, the event is taking place during the school year this time and students and parents are encouraged to participate.
Because of the varying route length options, the return times of riders is staggered. As a result, the social component of the day takes place at the beginning.
“There’s a little reception at the start,” Fermon said. “We greet everyone, they get their water bottle, their snacks, we do a couple of pictures. We did it last year and it was very heartwarming. I don’t know of any other Jewish ride, so it becomes a very Jewish moment where we feed you, you say hi to old friends – ‘I haven’t seen you since the bat mitzvah!’ – it’s a very Jewish reception.”
Organizers are inviting everyone – not just riders – to get involved. With more cyclists than ever anticipated in this year’s event, more volunteers are still required. There is a silent auction that anyone is welcome to participate in by dropping by RJDS on the day. And, of course, donations of cash or auction items are welcome.
Rabbi Dan Moskovitz, left, Dr. Patricia Daly and Dr. Eric Grafstein (photo from Temple Sholom Twitter)
On Feb. 26, Temple Sholom awarded community members Dr. Patricia Daly and Dr. Eric Grafstein with the Pikuah Nefesh Award (to save a life) for their leadership and dedication to our community throughout the pandemic. Mazel tov to both of them! You can watch the presentation on the synagogue’s YouTube channel, along with the evening’s concert featuring Israeli cellist Amit Peled performing “Journeys with my Jewishness.”
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The pilot of the new Richmond Jewish Day School (RJDS) and Kehila Society of Richmond food program to enhance students’ access to healthy and nutritious food is now in progress. With start-up funds provided by Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver and TD Bank, once a week, JFS Vancouver delivers hot meals to RJDS at no cost to the students or their families. In addition, the funds were used to purchase a community fridge and pantry cupboard that will be kept stocked by JFS, Kehila and the Richmond Food Bank. Students and their families can access healthy snacks, dry goods, fresh produce and meals, during school hours.
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Denise and Wayne Thompson and Gerri and David Klein are thrilled to announce the engagement of their children, Nikki and Aden. A fall wedding is planned.
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The Canadian Friends of the Hebrew University recently announced a transformative gift to establish the Pamela and Paul Austin Research Centre on Aging at the Centre for Computational Medicine at the faculty of medicine of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
The Pamela and Paul Austin Research Centre on Aging will implement an approach to combating disease by integrating computational data analysis into medical research and practice, and by preparing the next generation of computation-science-trained doctors and researchers. It will bring together leading researchers to leverage the power of data-driven analyses, applying computational methods to study and help combat a variety of age-related diseases, including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s; pain; psychiatric disorders; genetic disorders; congenital impairment; immune and inflammatory diseases; cardiovascular aging, and the effects of aging on cancer, osteoarthritis, pulmonary disease and metabolic disease.
The Centre for Computational Medicine and its research programs are specifically designed to enable data information flow and collaborative interdisciplinary research efforts with the most advanced equipment and a disease modeling unit, all in proximity to a major medical centre.
Globally, the number of people over the age of 60 is soon expected to outnumber children under the age of 5. As life expectancy rises, so does the prevalence of age-associated diseases, posing a central challenge to healthcare systems worldwide. The gift from the Austins will go beyond the centre, establishing scholarship opportunities for students and an annual lecture.
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A new edition of the Jerusalem Talmud is now available in Sefaria’s free library of Jewish texts – available on sefaria.org and the Sefaria iOS and Android apps.
The Jerusalem Talmud, also known as the Talmud Yerushalmi or Palestinian Talmud, is the sister text to the better-known Babylonian Talmud. It was compiled in Israel between the third and fifth centuries from oral traditions. Like the Babylonian Talmud, the Jerusalem Talmud is a textual record of rabbinic debate about law, philosophy, and biblical interpretation, structured as a commentary on the Mishnah. However, a language barrier (it is written in a different dialect of Aramaic), reduced elaboration, and complex structure can make it difficult to study.
The new Jerusalem Talmud on Sefaria includes:
Complete English translation,
Fully vocalized text to assist learners in reading the distinctive Aramaic dialect,
Extensive interlinking to the Bible, Babylonian Talmud and other works, providing connections that help with understanding the work and placing it in context,
Topic tagging, so searches on Sefaria will surface references from the Jerusalem Talmud,
Six of the standard Hebrew commentaries included in the Vilna edition of the Talmud available and linked on Sefaria, including Korban HaEdah, Penei Moshe, Mareh HaPanim and others,
Standardized organization of the different published formats of the Jerusalem Talmud so readers can more easily find their place in the text.
The only fully extant manuscript of the Jerusalem Talmud was set down by Rabbi Jehiel ben Jekuthiel Anav in 1289, which formed the base for the first printing in Venice by Daniel Bomberg in 1524. Sefaria has manuscript images from both of these editions visible in the resource panel, to see the original format of the texts alongside the modern, digital version.
The English translation of the Yerushalmi was completed in 2015 by Heinrich Guggenheimer, a mathematician who also published works on Judaism. He spent the last 20 years of his life working on translating the Jerusalem Talmud. With his blessing, Sefaria approached his publisher, de Gruyter GmbH, who agreed to partner on this open access version of Guggenheimer’s historic work. Guggenheimer passed away on March 4, 2021, at the age of 97.
Food insecurity by province or territory, using data from Statistics Canada’s Canadian Community Health Survey, 2017-18. (image from proof.utoronto.ca/food-insecurity)
Jewish Family Services Vancouver (JFS), Richmond Jewish Day School (RJDS) and Kehila Society of Richmond are piloting a new food program to enhance students’ access to healthy and nutritious food in a way that promotes privacy, availability and inclusiveness.
When RJDS needed support with their school lunch program after a contract with a former caterer ended, Kehila Society saw an opportunity to work with JFS and create a food program that benefits all families throughout the week, regardless of income.
With start-up funds provided by Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver, once a week, JFS delivers hot meals to RJDS at no cost to the students or their families. These meals are healthy, plant-based, and available to all students. In addition, a community fridge and pantry program is in operation throughout the week. The start-up funds provided to the Kehila Society enabled the purchase of a fridge and pantry cupboard, which JFS, the Kehila Society and Richmond Food Bank keep stocked. Students and their families can access healthy snacks, dry goods, fresh produce and meals during school hours.
“The students at Richmond Jewish Day School have absolutely loved the weekly hot lunches sponsored through JFS and the Kehila Society,” said Sabrina Bhojani, principal of RJDS. “Our parents have also expressed their delight with this program, knowing that their children are receiving a warm, healthy and nutritious meal at school. The research is clear – good nutrition helps our children to focus, concentrate and self-regulate, which, in turn, results in improved learning and student performance.”
Proper nutrition plays a central part in learning, yet one in eight households in Canada struggle to access nutritious food, according to PROOF, a research program investigating household food insecurity – defined as “the inadequate or insecure access to food due to financial constraints” – across the country (proof.utoronto.ca). That amounts to “4.4 million people, including more than 1.2 million children living in food-insecure households.”
Healthy, universal school meal programs play an important role in giving children and families access to nutritious and safe food in a non-stigmatizing manner when they need the support.
“School meal programs can play a crucial role in ensuring that all children … can eat healthy and nutritious foods – which, in turn, supports their ability to learn,” said Lynne Fader, co-director of the Kehila Society. “School meal programs are uniquely placed to address under-nutrition, by promoting healthy diets. Serving a free school meal increases children’s intake of healthy foods, especially among children with lower socioeconomic status.”
“All students deserve access to healthy, safe, nutritious and easily accessible food,” said Ilana Labow, director of food security, JFS Vancouver. “We are inspired by this vision and are committed to helping uplift students’ lives through delicious, good food. We look forward to nourishing this program together and watching it thrive and grow.”
(image from flickr / Province of British Columbia)
Last November, the American advocacy organization Respect Ability announced some good news. New research it had conducted in 2021 suggested that disability awareness and inclusion was improving in Jewish communities across North America and Israel. According to its most recent survey, more synagogues, Jewish community centres, schools and private institutions are designing programs that consider the needs of people with disabilities. And more individuals are able to find Jewish organizations that support individuals with invisible disabilities like autism and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorders.
Respect Ability’s goal for the survey was to determine the health of disability rights in diverse Jewish communities, particularly in countries where there were laws against employment and housing discrimination. Its last survey had been in 2018, and researchers wanted to know whether accessibility and acceptance had improved in the past three years.
There were just over 2,000 respondents in total, primarily from Canada, the United States and Israel. The overall message was that inclusion and accommodation was expanding. Accessibility for wheelchairs and improved opportunities for individuals with sight or hearing challenges were on the rise, as were outreach efforts for individuals with disabilities in general.
What is more, the number of faith organizations hiring rabbis and staff who had disabilities and, therefore, understood firsthand the challenges of a physical or cognitive disability, had increased by more than 73%. More than half (57%) of the survey-takers also said that the organizations had made public commitments to support diversity.
But the survey also identified a key obstacle: many community leaders wanted to help expand opportunities for inclusion, but “didn’t know how.” Roughly one-fifth of all respondents said that expanding opportunities in their faith communities was limited by leaders’ lack of knowledge or experience in making settings more accessible. This meant, in some cases, that members with invisible disabilities like autism or ADHD didn’t have access to resources or were turned away from programs and activities.
Most of the responses to the survey came from Respect Ability’s home base: U.S. states like California and New York, where laws and advocacy initiatives are different from those in Canada. Only about 7% of the responses came from Canada, where disability rights are protected by the federal Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The survey also did not reveal how much, or if any, of the Canadian data came from the Vancouver area. So, are the survey’s findings reflective of diversity inclusion here?
The last three years have been challenging for many, but particularly for organizations that rely on in-person community participation. The 2020 shutdown of schools, synagogues and community centres due to COVID forced many organizations in the Vancouver area to suspend programs that offered disability-inclusive services. Still, the Jewish Independent found that a number of organizations were able to develop creative ways to maintain their inclusive classes and programs.
Trying to inspire inclusion
In 2018, the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver launched its Inspiring Inclusion grant program to assist community organizations in designing or improving inclusive programs. The grant competition was created as part of its 2020 Strategic Priorities, and it offered up to $2,500 to organizations that developed a new program or idea that would expand disability inclusion.
Four one-year grants, which were awarded in 2020, went to Vancouver and Richmond applicants. Each offered a unique way for engagement, ranging from new educational strategies that catered to individual learning approaches to special equipment that helped expand creative participation in the classroom.
The Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver’s Family Yoga Fundamentals program was designed to appeal to a variety of abilities and offered options for in-person family participation. It later gave rise to a virtual format that attendees could link up with from home. According to the JCC’s adult programs coordinator, Lisa Cohen Quay, Family Yoga Fundamentals integrates adaptable exercises that are non-stigmatizing and fit a variety of abilities. Quay said the program has also been shown to help with pandemic stress and loneliness.
Richmond Jewish Day School turned to music as a way to inspire inclusion. According to principal Sabrina Bhojani, the grant provided funding for specially adapted Orff percussion instruments, or xylophones that could be used by students with special needs. “Music education is an integral component of both our B.C. and Hebrew curriculum at RJDS,” Bhojani said. “Weaving music into [the] curriculum is a meaningful way to help our students develop their Jewish identity and better understand their culture.”
Congregation Beth Tikvah used the funding to help develop Kavod. According to Rabbi Susan Tendler, the program aims to ensure that the synagogue’s services and activities are open to everyone, “regardless of personal physical, financial, or accessibility limitations.” Kavod’s development is ongoing.
Congregation Beth Israel received a grant to create new Hebrew school programming. Beth Israel’s director of youth engagement, Rabbi David Bluman, said the funding helped make the Hebrew reading program more inclusive to children with learning challenges. “We always strive to be [as inclusive] as we can,” he said, adding that many of Beth Israel’s youth programs are adaptable to students’ abilities, such as the use of “shadow” companions who function as a “big brother or big sister” for a child during activities and lessons. The shadow program can be used for age levels. “We want our teens to be as independent as possible,” Bluman said.
B’nai mitzvah programs
Both Beth Israel and Temple Sholom tailor their b’nai mitzvah programs to meet the specific abilities of the child. Temple Sholom School’s principal, Jen Jaffe, said about 10% of the student body have varying needs.
“All b’nai mitzvah-aged children are given the opportunity to have a b’nai mitzvah, and the clergy works with each family to make sure expectations and goals are feasible and met. Each child is given the chance to shine regardless of any disabilities,” Jaffe said. The school also trains madrachim, or helper students, to support students with invisible disabilities.
Beth Israel is also known for its inclusive b’nai mitzvah program, which is led by ba’allat tefilla Debby Fenson. She said the program is designed to ensure that a child, irrespective of ability, can participate in the service: “I think that the expectation is that every child should be called up to [the bimah]. It’s not about how well they read the Torah, it’s about welcoming them into the community.”
Fenson said the community has celebrated more than one b’nai mitzvah in which a child’s medical challenges needed to be considered. In one case, the child, who was nonverbal, was aided by his mother in saying the Shema. “There was clear understanding on his part,” Fenson said. “His mother helped him in forming the words and saying along with him. He was welcomed into the community.”
Leadership by inclusion
Respect Ability’s survey of North American and Israeli Jewish communities highlighted two factors that are often important to creating inclusiveness: the top-down commitment to diversity and a leader’s personal experience. All of the above synagogues, schools and community services – as well as others – benefit from clear initiatives that attract families with accessibility needs and see inclusion as an expanding mission. In some cases, they also benefit from leadership that is open about their own health challenges as well.
Beth Israel Rabbi Jonathan Infeld said he is aware that his willingness to talk openly about his own challenges can help create a supportive environment for others. Infeld was born with a congenital heart defect.
“Unfortunately, I have firsthand experience with health issues that I am happy to share with people about, certainly because I want to be transparent about who I am as a human being…. I would hope, had I been born with a whole heart and not a hole in it, that I would still have a whole heart,” he said, noting that when we’re forced to reflect on our own abilities and limitations, it can inspire empathy for others faced with similar challenges.
One area that was not addressed in the survey was accessible housing, which helps expand disability inclusion. Tikva Housing Society’s very first housing project in 2008 contained accessible units. The organization’s third inclusive property, Dogwood Gardens, opens this year in the West End. This will be the subject of a future story in the Jewish Independent.
Jan Leeis an award-winning editorial writer whose articles and op-eds have been published in B’nai B’rith Magazine, Voices of Conservative and Masorti Judaism and Baltimore Jewish Times, as well as a number of business, environmental and travel publications. Her blog can be found at multiculturaljew.polestarpassages.com.
Richmond Jewish Day School held a week of activities revolving around Tu b’Shevat. (photo from RJDS)
Richmond Jewish Day School held a weeklong event celebrating the holiday of Tu b’Shevat, which fell this year on Jan. 17. Tu b’Shevat has developed into an ecological holiday that reminds us of humanity’s connection to the earth and to our role as caretakers of the environment.
On the holiday Monday, each classroom performed a model Tu b’Shevat seder, a meal that partly mirrors the Passover seder and involves eating biblical foods native to the Holy Land and drinking four cups of wine or, in the students’ case, grape juice. Additionally, all of the students assisted in planting several fruit trees in the school garden, sponsored by the Jewish National Fund.
On the Tuesday of that week, students potted succulents from the garden to give away to seniors in the Richmond community. And, in the remainder of the week, classes planted parsley and other herbs for Passover, and assisted in a large-scale, school-wide garden clean-up.
When students are able to see the effort and care needed to grow plants, they develop a sense of ownership for these living organisms. Developing this awareness of how precious nature is can help children become better connected to their environment, learning to be strong community ambassadors and advocates in protecting the planet.
Judaism is not alone in advocating for environmental protection. From Buddhism to Christianity to Hinduism to Islam, various faiths acknowledge the need for environmental stewardship and their scriptures urge followers to be caretakers of the planet, looking after the natural earth and the organisms that live in it.
Inspired by Story and Song – this was the topic of the JSA Snider Foundation Virtual Empowerment Series session held on Dec. 2, in partnership with the Louis Brier Home and Hospital.
Jewish Seniors Alliance co-president Gyda Chud welcomed the 45 Zoom participants, as well as the 35 Louis Brier residents, who joined to hear Shanie Levin’s stories and Myrna Rabinowitz’s singing.
Rabinowitz opened with a Chanukah song in Yiddish, “Drei Zich Dreidele” (“Spin Yourself Dreidel”), which was followed by Levin reading Sholem Aleichem’s Hanukkah Gelt (Hanukkah Money). In this story, Motl and his brother take part in the beloved customs of a favourite holiday: the lighting of the chanukiyah, eating potato latkes, playing dreidel, and the gift of gelt.
In the course of the program, Rabinowitz sang songs in Hebrew, Yiddish and Judeo-Spanish. She sang “Oh Hanukkah,” a song in Judeo-Spanish about the holiday’s eight candles, as well as more personal songs, including one she wrote on the occasion of her grandson’s birth and one she wrote for her father. She offered the audience a treat by singing the classic and sentimental Yiddish song by the Barry sisters from the 1950s, “Wie Nemt Men a Bissele Mazel?” (“Where Can You Get a Little Luck?”).
Levin chose the story by Abraham Karpinowitz titled Jewish Money, from the book Vilna My Vilna, which is a volume of his work that was translated into English by local storyteller Helen Mintz. Karpinowitz was known for his detailed and vivid descriptions of the city of Vilna and the odd characters who lived there.
The Spice Box is an anthology of Canadian Jewish writers and Levin read an illuminating story written in 1968 by Larry Zolf, who was a CBC personality and writer for the program This Hour Has Seven Days. The story, Boil Me No Melting Pot, Dream Me No Dreams, deals with the difference between the American and Canadian immigrant experiences.
Preposterous Papa, the final story read by Levin, was an excerpt from a book by Lewis Meyer. Meyer’s father grew up in a small town in Oklahoma, which had very few Jewish families. Unable to commute to the synagogue in the larger city, his father bought a house and converted it into a chapel, offering a place for the few Jewish families in nearby towns to socialize and pray on High Holidays.
Rabinowitz ended the program with an upbeat song in Yiddish, the title of which translates as “We Are All Brothers and Sisters.”
Nathalie Jacobs of the Louis Brier thanked the performers and expressed her wish to partner again with JSA in the future.
Tamara Frankelis a member of the board of Jewish Seniors Alliance and of the editorial committee of Senior Line magazine. She is also a board member of the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver.