Parshat Tetzaveh 2/23/24
In Parshat Tetzaveh, we learn about the garments Aharon Hakohen wore while performing his Avodat Hashem in the mishkan. The ephod, the garment worn over his tunic and robe, was adorned with remembrance stones on which were engraved the names of the sons of Yisrael, six on one shoulder and six on the other. (Shemot 28:9-12)
On Aharon’s breastplate (choshen mishpat) were mounted four rows of three stones each engraved with the name of one of the twelve shvatim. Above the name engraved on the first stone were the names of the avot, Avraham and Yitzchak v’Yaakov. Below the name on the last stone were the words, Shivtai Kah – the tribes of Hashem. When standing before Hashem in the mishkan bearing the names of Israel on his shoulders and on his heart, Aharon Hakohen thus carried all of Bnai Yisrael with him.
We, too, may wear reminders of loved ones or representations of influences in our lives to motivate, inspire, or center ourselves. Perhaps we may choose to wear particular items of clothing to embolden ourselves or communicate to others what we stand for – a superhero shirt worn by our four-year-old or an IDF sweatshirt signifying our solidarity with our chayalim. Some of us wear our own personal remembrance stones – a grandmother’s ring, a father’s watch, a great aunt’s necklace. When we wear treasured family pieces, we think of the item’s original owner and what that individual meant to us. Through these pieces, we invoke their memory and recall their guidance.
When our children were younger, my mother-in-law used to tell them when they were worried about a big event or a test coming up, they should always remember that she would be in their pocket. If they were feeling nervous and needed a boost of confidence, all they had to do was remember that Bubby believes in them and would be close by in their pocket whenever they need her.
We may not have a Bubby in our pocket, or an item from a loved one that we wear to remember them by and sometimes, sadly, those treasured items can become lost over time. However, what we do carry with us is something available to everyone and far more enduring.
Choshen Mishpat is not only the name of Aharon Hakohen’s breastplate, but it is also one of the four sections of the Shulchan Aruch. Torah – our values, our identity, our ethics, and the ways in which we conduct our lives – is the enduring treasure we possess through which we receive Hashem’s guidance and transmit our tradition to our children and grandchildren. The Torah reminds us of who we are and what we stand for.
It is an endless source of nachat and joy to watch our students learning Torah in our classrooms and Beit Midrash. It begins in the ECC where our students sing Torah, Torah, Torah and continues to build through the Elementary School where the foundations of reading Chumash and the mitzvot of bain adam v’chavero are established. Finally, the Middle School which is dedicated to advancing students’ textual skills, conceptual knowledge, halachic observance, and values clarification, deepens students’ ahavat Torah and identity formation. Every step of the way, our students are internalizing what it means to wear their Yiddishkeit with pride and to always remember that Torah is the source of kiddusha and strength that will be there to guide them throughout their lives.
May we, emulating the Kohen Gadol, merit the ability to represent ourselves and our people for the good through our learning, our tefilla, and our actions.
Parshat Mishpatim 2/9/24
Goal-setting is a concept that helps us be intentional in our efforts to accomplish whatever it is we want to achieve. Whether the goal is to make a new friend, get better at playing piano, improve their spelling, or conquer their fears, childhood development provides myriad opportunities for our children to set and achieve goals. Goals help them learn to be forward-thinking and develop a sense of agency. However, a goal without a plan is just a wish. We call that magical thinking. Wanting to achieve a goal, without creating a plan and putting in the effort to do so, will nearly inevitably end in frustration. So, we break down the process into small, definable steps and show them that by tackling each step one at a time they can achieve success.
Combining the vision with a path to achieving it is Torah. Torah reminds us both where we came from and the principles by which we should live in order to achieve our potential as individuals and as a people. “And you shall make known to them the way they shall go and the deed[s] they shall do.” (Shemot 18:20). The vision, combined with the path, becomes an action plan.
Parshat Mishpatim establishes the core concept that all areas of life, from business to interpersonal relationships, from the exceptional to the mundane, are kadosh. In outlining the basics of Jewish law, the parsha teaches us that the manner in which we conduct ourselves in business and neighborly affairs is as imbued with holiness and, therefore, shaped by halacha, as when we engage in tefilla, celebrating chaggim, or learning Torah.
The unique mission of OCA, in that we believe in the inherent kedusha of all learning, is founded upon this principle. Torah and worldly knowledge are deeply and inextricably interconnected. Hashem’s hand can be seen both in the patterns elucidated by a Talmud scholar who discovers powerful connections between distant pesukim, and in the powerful bonds between molecular compounds that comprise the human body. General studies teaches our students the skills and knowledge of mathematics and literature, history and scientific inquiry, while Judaic studies provides the overarching framework of Torah in which to contextualize that knowledge and teach us how to live our personal and professional lives with emunah, kedusha, and hakarat hatov.
As illustrated in Mishpatim, Hashem’s vision can only be actualized if we apply the teachings of Torah to our interactions with one another. Our rebbeim and morot teach our students the foundation skills to become independent and invested learners of Torah from which they can seek guidance and direction. Then, we put the lessons into practice, embedding within our school culture through both formal and informal lessons the Torah values of treating others with respect and of building healthy relationships.
Our approach to discipline is grounded in these principles. We model and guide our students to become actively and positively involved in school life, take personal responsibility for their choices, recognize the impact of their actions on others, and demonstrate good citizenship and respect for others. Using the acronym of S.T.A.R., we teach students to Stay Safe, Treasure Torah, Aim High, and Respect oneself and others. Those are the goals, and the path to accomplishing them is developed with the collaborative input from our students, based on halacha.
As Moshe prepares to receive the Torah, the Jews declare, Na’aseh venishma, we will do and we will hear, for when we follow Torah, we will understand who it is we are intended to become as individuals and as a people. B”H, OCA students love learning. They develop strong bonds with their rebbeim and morot who inspire them every day with knowledge, insights, and the excitement that comes from developing the skills for success. Our students’ eagerness, nurtured in partnership between the classroom and home, creates openness to learning, which is the first step. Then, through making connections between learning and practice, they truly understand how to accomplish their goals.
We daven that through teaching our children the beauty and inspiration of Hashem’s Torah they will merit to live a life of kedusha, and bring us tremendous nachat in all that they do.
Parshat Beshalach 1/25/24
In this week’s parsha, Parshat Beshalach, we read about how Bnai Yisrael prepared for their new life ahead, carrying with them their hopes for the future and capacity for joy and celebration, while at the same time honoring their history, experiences, and identity.
First, Moshe takes with him the bones of Yosef, fulfilling the oath made centuries before, that when Hashem redeems the people, they will take Yosef’s remains with them. Second, Miriam and the women bring their tambourines and drums. For a people enslaved for hundreds of years, to not only own these instruments, but to choose to throw these seemingly non-essential objects in the back of the wagon, is quite remarkable. However, we begin to grasp their import after Bnai Yisrael successfully cross the Red Sea. With joy and gratitude, the people sing to Hashem for setting them free from their oppressors. Miriam leads the women in dance, accompanying the singing of Shir HaYam with those very instruments. Both honoring the past, even that which is sad or painful because it has shaped who we are today, and expressing hakarat hatov.
As Jews, holding both the past and the future in our hands is our cultural inheritance. Under the chuppah, before the eruption of mazel tovs, we express our longing for our return from galut through the singing of Im Eshkachech Yerushalayim. Sadness can co-exist with happiness. Yosef’s bones and Miriam’s tambourine.
Educating our children to be comfortable feeling and anticipating the full range of emotions is one of our primary tasks. Children need to develop the tools to unpack their feelings to know how to make sense of them. Emotional awareness, particularly learning the words to identify and express how they feel, is an essential skill for successfully navigating life’s ups and downs. It helps protect them from becoming overwhelmed and paralyzed by the pain of sorrow, and feeling underwhelmed and consequently unmotivated when life isn’t always a thrill.
Teaching emotional awareness, both of our own emotions and those of others, starts at the very beginning when babies learn that their needs will be attended to by a loving adult. As toddlers and preschoolers develop language and social skills, we teach them the words for the emotions they are feeling so they can begin to express their needs through language. It is only through recognizing their emotions that they can begin to learn how to manage them.
It can tear our heart out to see our children hurting and not jump in to make things right. To make the hurt go away. But, teaching our children that our feelings are road signs Hashem gave us to help us make good choices puts them in the driver’s seat. Feelings serve a purpose – they aren’t good or bad. They are there to be listened to and learned from. We probably have all had the experience of ignoring a gut feeling which we quickly came to regret. Teaching our children to listen to those feelings, express them appropriately, and use them to make good decisions is therefore one of the best ways to prepare them to navigate the myriad challenges in life.
The other essential skill is learning to be comfortable with discomfort. Feelings can be very uncomfortable, and even painful. Deeply feeling children, especially, need to learn that emotions are not to be ashamed of and that avoiding them only increases their power over us.
Working through difficult emotions by talking about them, reframing the situation to consider other perspectives, or even taking a walk, on the other hand, helps our children learn that emotions are tools they needn’t be afraid of.
Our children will experience sadness, loss, embarrassment, and regret at points throughout their lives. We can’t protect them from feeling hurt. However, if we give them permission to feel those emotions, and acknowledge that they hurt, rather than fear those emotions and try to dismiss them, our children will be able use their emotions as valuable tools for making healthy decisions.
We are currently straddling two extreme emotional states, ourselves: celebrating the joy and finding the gratitude in our everyday lives, while storming the heavens for the release of our hostages and davening that no more Jewish lives will be lost. May we take strength from Moshe and Miriam, and daven that with Hashem’s help, in this generation as in the past we will achieve freedom from oppression for Am Yisrael and together sing our own Shir HaYam.
B’sorot tovot. Shabbat shalom.
Parshat Vaera 1/12/24
“You must do the things you think you cannot do,” said Eleanor Roosevelt, diplomat, author, advocate, and First Lady of the United States. For our children, and indeed for us as well, this sounds aspirational, perhaps even unrealistic. When faced with a task that feels difficult, do we tackle it head-on because we relish a challenge? Or do we shy away from it, afraid of taking a risk in case we fall on our face?
Fear of failure is one of the biggest stumbling blocks preventing us from taking on challenges, large and small. In Parshat Vaera, when Hashem instructs Moshe to go to Pharaoh to release Bnai Yisrael from bondage, Moshe is initially afraid to take on such a tremendous responsibility. Insecure in his ability to communicate, he is afraid that Pharaoh will not listen to him any more than Bnai Yisrael did.
The first time Moshe approaches Pharaoh, his request is soundly rejected. Pharaoh instead makes life worse for the people, doubling their quota of bricks, and withholding the straw necessary for their production. As a result, Bnai Yisrael is furious and rages against Moshe.
Moshe doesn’t give up, however, and tries again. This time his staff is transformed into a snake, but that fails to impress. Then, he brings the rest of the plagues, one at a time, to convince Pharaoh that Hashem is on the side of Bnai Yisrael. Pharaoh becomes incrementally moved by the plagues’ power. We are on the edge of our seats. It looks as though he might capitulate, but each time he renegs. That is, until the tenth and final plague that takes Pharaoh’s son. Only then, does Pharaoh recognize that he is no match for the Gd of Bnai Yisrael and releases the Jewish people from bondage. Moshe finally accomplishes his goal.
We see that Moshe tries and fails repeatedly before eventually getting Pharaoh to cave. From the mashal we learn that “A righteous man falls seven times, but rises again.” (Proverbs 24:16) Everyone falls. We all do. In fact, if we aren’t putting ourselves in a situation in which we might fall, are we truly challenging ourselves? The problem lies not the failing, but in not picking ourselves back up and trying again until we succeed.
As Thomas Edison, inventor of the light bulb, reflected: “Meaningful success cannot be achieved without failure. I have not failed, I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Fortunately, for Moshe and Bnai Yisrael, success didn’t require 10,000 attempts, but what can we learn from this to help our children grow into resilient adults who embrace, rather than fear, challenge?
When our children are very young, just learning to walk, they don’t just stand up from a crawl and off they go. With determination they fall, and get back up, over and over again. And soon they’re running. Until they fall and scrape their knees. They look to us to decide how to react. If we are calm and reassure them that they are fine, that is how they will learn to interpret their failures. If we make a fuss and suggest that they should try a safer activity, they will internalize a very different message.
Disappointments, setbacks, and embarrassments hurt. But those feelings are temporary. We remind our children that even Moshe Rabbeinu failed. What made him successful was his determination to persist in spite of his failures.
Persistence is “the quality that allows someone to continue doing something or trying to do something even though it is difficult or opposed by other people.” (The Britannica Dictionary) Moshe doesn’t take his failures as confirmation that he lacks native talent or ability. He persists, knowing that he has a vital role to play for Bnai Yisrael, and he will be strengthened by seyata diShmaya, Hashem’s faith in him.
At OCA, we don’t believe in making things easy just so students succeed. Doing so actually diminishes students’ motivation to try hard things because their success becomes meaningless. They can see right through it. As Mrs. Shar teaches all of our students who have had the good fortune to be in her first grade classroom or in the OCA Theatrical Society, they can do hard things! If they keep trying, by using strategy, reflective thinking, persistent effort, and using their resources, our students can, like Moshe, accomplish truly great things for which they will rightfully be very proud.
Parshat Miketz 12/15/23
From Parshat Vayeshev to Parshat Miketz, we see the metamorphosis of Yosef from the depths of a pit to the height of Egyptian leadership, propelled by his ability to interpret the dreams of first Pharoah’s butler and baker and then of Pharoah, himself.
As we recall, in Pharaoh’s dreams, seven fat cows were consumed by seven lean ones and then seven plump ears of grain were swallowed by seven lean ears. Yosef informed Pharaoh that both dreams communicated the same message, that seven years of plenty would come upon Egypt, followed by seven years of famine. Yosef advised Pharaoh to hold the excess grain that would be grown in the coming seven years in reserve for the lean years to follow. Pharaoh was greatly impressed by Yosef’s wisdom and named him governor of Egypt, placing him in position to propel the story forward.
Two themes stand out from this story. First, Yosef stood out to Pharaoh for his ability to identify the patterns in his dreams, from which he was able to discern their meaning. The first man in the Torah known to be wise, Yosef had the ability to connect the dots. He not only possessed knowledge, but he could see the similarities in repeated events. Based on the patterns of the past, he could project into the future.
Second, Yosef modeled the power of patience and emunah. Yosef had to wait two full years in Pharoah’s prison before he gained his freedom, until the time was right according to Hashem’s plan. As the leading character in his personal story, Yosef couldn’t see where he was heading or understand the role he would play in the history and development of the Jewish people. The hand of Hashem was hidden from Yaakov, as it is from us, behind the tapestry. What looked like a series of random circumstances was actually part of a larger divinely inspired plan.
The outcomes we desire do not happen merely because we wish them into being. There is a greater plan for us, as well. As a child, no doubt like many children, I would pray to G-d for what I wanted – a friendship to develop, a good grade in school – things that mattered to me. When prayer didn’t quickly solve the problem to my satisfaction, I questioned the point of it all. Such is the simplistic and tenuous spirituality of a child. I had to learn how to make friendships and choose the peers who would value me as a person. Similarly, I had to learn that succeeding academically required putting in time and dedicated effort, and using the most effective strategies for the task. It wasn’t Hashem’s job to do the work for me. But, He was a partner in my story, guiding me to make the choices that would form my life’s path.
Good things come to those who wait. That’s one of the important messages of childhood. Just because our children want something doesn’t mean they have to or actually should have it now. Waiting builds self-control, reduces impulsivity, strengthens resilience, and creates the space to consider what truly matters. Will they still want that exciting new toy next week? Probably not. Will they be able to recover from a social misstep or learn from receiving a disappointing grade? Yes, they absolutely can.
Our role as educators and parents is to guide our children to look for patterns in their lives from which they, like Yosef, can gain wisdom and insight. Through reflective conversations, we can help them brainstorm a list of choices they may have to handle a given situation. What did they try last time and did it help? Should they try a different approach so the outcome will be different?
Although our ability to reflect on the past and discern patterns helps us to see beneath the surface, it is the calming, centering belief that Hashem has a plan for us, that acknowledges that we alone do not shape our future.
We, both children and adults alike, still have to work hard to try to see the meaning in the lows we experience, the meaning obscured behind the tapestry. But, if we hold on to our conviction that everything will turn out for the best, this reflective mindset can help shape an approach to life that is resilient and hopeful. That is the greatest gift we can give our children.
Chanukah Sameach and Shabbat Shalom!
Parshat Vayishlach 12/01/23
In Parshat Vayishlach, Yaakov wrestles with an unknown man, a malach in the form of a human. It is thought that the interaction between Yaakov and the malach reflects the duality and at times conflicting relationship between our physical and spiritual needs. To engage in the inner struggle between our spiritual and physical selves, between what we can see, hear and touch, and what we believe, is what it means to be believing person.
Even the most devout among us struggle at times with our emunah. We wrestle with spiritual doubts and conflicts. We are imperfect in our belief and practice. Through the ups and downs of life, it is our deep commitment to Torah and Hakadosh Baruch Hu that drives our commitment to raising our children to be believing, knowledgeable, Torah-observant Jews.
Developing an understanding of who Hashem is begins in early childhood and continues to evolve throughout childhood and adolescence. At each stage of development, children’s ability to understand and relate to Hashem in increasing abstract ways expands. Both driving and supporting that growth process is the rich opportunity to teach students about Hashem in ways that are developmentally aligned with their capacity to understand.
Young children are naturally inclined to be spiritual. Filled with a sense of wonder, they actively construct their own understanding of what they experience and observe. They love listening to stories, singing songs, and following rituals and routines. Always watching us, they are eager to learn from and copy what we do; they want to do the right thing.
Dr. Deborah Schein, originally a Jewish early childhood educator turned researcher in childhood spiritual development posits that spiritual development is based on three interrelated factors: (1) being able to ask big questions within the context of trusting personal connections with others, (2) observing and engaging in experiences that generate wonder, awe, and joy, and (3) learning to act toward others with caring, kindness, and empathy. These key factors are reinforced by parents and educators closely observing and guiding their children, by their own modeling, and by recognizing and pointing out the spirituality of individual moments.
Spirituality nurtured from the early years plays an important role in the development of resilience in adolescence and throughout adult life. In adolescence, teens search for their identity and sense of purpose. They struggle with choices that may seem appealing in the moment, but may not be appropriate or beneficial in the long run. They eagerly seek a connection to and acceptance by a peer group. At the same time, they yearn for a connection to something larger themselves. With guidance and modeling, our teens learn to reach out to develop connections beyond themselves to their community. They learn to think about others, in parallel with internalizing a deeper sense of spirituality and connection to Hashem.
These are the years when we can help students develop their inner strength. When they begin to grapple with what is real, true, and meaningful versus what is superficial, false, or fleeting, they learn, sometimes the hard way, whom they can rely on and where to turn when they need help. Children who grow up with spirituality in their lives are less likely to experience depression, substance abuse, and to engage in high-risk behaviors. When permitted to question and (respectfully) challenge their parents, teachers, rebbeim, and Hashem, Himself, they develop confidence, gratitude, humility, and empathy.
When our children face challenges and experience difficult times, which they will, we teach them that they are not alone, that the Torah reminds us that Hashem will be there for us, just as He was for Avraham Aveinu. We teach them that they are resilient that challenging experiences push us beyond what we think we were capable of accomplishing. Those times provide us the opportunity to learn how overcome our limitations and fulfill our potential. If we aren’t experiencing those moments of challenge, we aren’t growing. It’s not easy to overcome challenges at any age, especially as we are growing and figuring out who we are. However, we teach our children that through our tefillot, we gain focus, strength, and courage to come through on the other side with greater clarity and purpose.
Our children, like ourselves, will wrestle with their inner nature, with their competing wants and desires, and with Hashem. With a strong foundation in spirituality, built on the ability to question, observe, and wonder, and strengthened through the practice of chesed, tefilla, and community building, our children will develop the resilience and emunah to be able to accomplish incredible things.
Parshat Vayera 11/03/23
In Parshat Vayera, Hashem appears to Avraham when three men, malachim, approach. According to one interpretation, Avraham looks up at the visitors and then calmly and confidently asks Hashem to wait while he tends to their needs. Imagine asking Gd, the Rebbono shel olam, to wait a moment! But, Hashem is fine with the request and waits while Abraham brings the visitors food and drink, before engaging him in dialogue about the fate of Sodom.
Putting the needs of human beings before attending to Gd seems astonishing. However, Avraham was acting on the understanding that every person is created in Hashem’s image. He could see the visage of Gd in the face of the stranger. That was Abraham’s gift and his legacy. He knew that honoring Gd and offering hospitality to strangers were one and the same.
Only after he brings the men a royal feast and they have had their fill, does Avraham turn back to Gd. Hashem now tells Avraham that He will destroy the people of Sodom and Gomorrah because of their sins. Once again, Avraham speaks up and begins to negotiate on behalf of the good people of Sodom. Would Hashem save the city for 50 righteous people? 40? 30? 20? 10?
How was Avraham able to stand up to Gd not once, but twice? Perhaps, his courage came from his driving sense of purpose. Avraham was chosen by Gd to create a nation built on chesed. He was the model of what it means to look out for the good in others, to recognize the divine spark in each of us. He spoke on behalf of the righteous, and treated those whom he didn’t even know as if they were Hashem, Himself.
That clarity of purpose and the courage to act according to one’s purpose are profoundly inspiring. Purpose is what helps us get up each day with enthusiasm and propels us forward to make a difference in the world. Knowing our “why” gives us the courage to overcome inertia and pursue what matters to us and ultimately enable us to achieve great things. When we aren’t sure of our purpose, on the other hand, we can feel lost, aimless, or anxious.
In what way can we as individuals uniquely contribute to the lives of others? Our purpose isn’t stamped on our foreheads at birth, but must be discovered as we accumulate life experience. If we approach our lives through a reflective lens, we can uncover what we are passionate about and what gives us meaning and fulfillment every day.
Some of us find our purpose through volunteering, turning a side gig into a career, or spending time with people who inspire us. Others turn our pain into purpose. We may end up learning so much about a challenge we or a loved one is going through that we realize it lights a fire within us. We see a path forward through the pain where could make a difference for someone else.
As Jews, we share a common purpose to be a light unto the nations. That common purpose creates a powerful sense of community wherever we are, whether in Israel, the US, or around the world. At OCA, our purpose is to educate our students to be caring and confident Torah-observant Jews in the world today. Our goal is to inspire a love of learning and Torah, one child at a time. To bring light to our students by showing them that learning is an engaging and empowering experience and that they are capable of whatever they set their minds to achieving. To teach our students that Hashem’s Torah guides everything in our lives and that through acts of chesed, we follow Avraham’s example, showing others that in each of us lies the divine spark. This is what drives us every day and underpins our curricular and programming decisions.
B”H, our OCA community is growing. Year after year, more families want to be a part of the OCA community. Families who see themselves and their children reflected in our purpose. Join us as we launch our 2023 “Shaping Lives” Annual Campaign to help ensure we as a school can achieve our purpose of enabling our students to achieve theirs. Supporting our growing school involves everyone who cares about the future of our school and about the Jewish future. We hope you will make a generous pledge and encourage others to do so, as well!
Parshat Noach 10/20/23
What do you see? What do you notice?
Amidst the day-to-day blur of our busy lives, we all too often fail to notice the details around us, details that offer us opportunities for growth, gratitude, and connection. What if we really took the time to slow down and notice the details around us?
Consider Noach for a moment. Hashem tells him exactly how to make a tevah – out of gopher wood, to detailed specifications with three stories of compartments, a skylight, and finished with caulking both inside and outside with pitch. Noach pays attention to the details, loading up the tevah with all the animals, food, provisions, and his family members, as Hashem requires. Attending to the details enables Noach, his family, and the animal world to safely survive the flood and rebuild once the waters receded. When it is all over, Hashem rewards him with a rainbow as a sign of the covenant that He would never again flood the earth to punish mankind for their sins.
Rainbows take our breath away. The joyful display of colors stops us in our tracks and fills us with awe. It is always worth running outside to see! In the moment, we take in the magnificence of the rainbow and remember Hashem’s covenant. And as a reminder to stop what we are doing and be in the moment, we say a bracha: ברוך אתה ה’ אלוקינו מלך העולם זוכר הברית, (ו)נאמן בבריתו, וקיים במאמרו.
Rainbows don’t happen every day, but every day there are details waiting for us to take the time to notice.
One of the most important skills for success in school and in life is the ability to notice the details. Those details can make the difference in our personal outlook, professional success, and in the strength of our social relationships. Teaching children to stop, notice, describe, and make meaning out of what they notice is foundational for the development of strong comprehension skills in all aspects of academic learning. In school, we teach students to distinguish between essential and non-essential detail, notice patterns in the details, and figure out how the details fit together to form a whole.
Teaching children how to notice actually begins, however, when parents take their infants and toddlers out for a walk or when they read a book together. Literally pointing out a bird in a tree and describing what you see, for example, helps the young child develop the cognitive skill of directed attention and the ability to describe the visual-spatial world in language. This skill later translates to tracking and locating information in written text and finding one’s mistake in a math problem.
We model for children how to notice when we help them describe features of a puzzle piece they may be looking for or offer strategies to help them get unstuck when they become frustrated trying to complete an assignment. When we teach our children the language of problem solving, we are helping them develop the patterns of the thought they will need to keep themselves organized, construct a persuasive essay, and handle adversity with flexibility and confidence.
Modeling for our children the practice of noticing the positives in their behavior also shows our children that they are seen and appreciated. Pointing out when they are doing well and making good choices is the most durable (and inexpensive!) reinforcement tool available to us for shaping good behavior.
Noach paid attention to the details and Hashem rewarded him with the rainbow. During this time of our communal pain and anguish, we daven that our attending to the details in providing critical support for our Israeli family; our commitment to tzedakah, tefilla, and chesed; and our teaching our children to live the Torah values we so treasure will bring the rainbow we are deeply craving. May we notice and share the stories of good – they are plentiful and awe-inspiring! And may we as a community continue to bring out the best in one another.
Parshat Ha'azinu 9/22/23
In Parshat Ha’Azinu, Moshe urges B’nai Yisrael to remember Hashem by asking their parents and grandparents about the past. They who witnessed the power, care, and mercy of Hashem, the One who created us, took us out of Mitzrayim and delivered us to Eretz Yisrael, will transmit to you their collective memory, through Torah, that He is just, righteous, fair, and rewards the good in all of us.
In the days leading up to Yom Kippur, memory plays an outsized role. While the exercise can be an uncomfortable or even painful one, we take inventory of our shortcomings over the past year. We have tried to be just, righteous, and fair, but surely, we made mistakes. We may have inadvertently caused harm and failed to acknowledge or make amends for it. Perhaps we weren’t even aware of the impact our actions or inactions on others.
Maybe we are still reliving the hurt a family member caused us and have had trouble letting it go. If so, are we allowing the emotional weight of those instances to shape how we perceive those people? What if the tables were turned? Would we want others to see us through the lens of our mistakes?
If you spent Rosh Hashana with your family, it is likely that stories from the past were retold. Depending on who told those stories, the facts may have varied widely, however conveyed with absolute certainty. In your family, like mine, maybe there is someone who confidently remembers events as they never were and steadfastly refutes evidence to the contrary.
Stories, it is said, take on a life of their own. Every time we recall an event, our brain reconstructs that event afresh: adding, subtracting, blending, and reordering details without our conscious awareness. Not only are we usually unaware of this memory mashup, but all too often our confidence in our recall is stronger than the factual basis for it. It feels real, so it must be.
By design, physiologically, memories are unreliable. They are not etched in stone. Every night as we sleep, our experiences during the day are revisited, and selectively stored for later recall or let go of. We store only that which has personal relevance, emotional significance, and which involves our senses and physical interaction. Emotion is key, as the events and information we remember are interpreted, shaped, and stored according to the emotions we experienced at the time.
Imagine having a conversation that leaves you feeling hurt or embarrassed. Perhaps the other person said something inadvertently insensitive without realizing how their comment would have affected you. Time goes by and this is still weighing on your mind to the extent that the memory has left an imprint on your relationship with that individual.
Is it time to let go of that memory, or is it time to sit down and talk about it so we can repair the relationship? If we choose the latter, with both of us openly sharing our memories and perspectives of the conversation, we may find that we each gain a new insight into the other that helps strengthen and renew our connection. That conversation, replayed in our mind numerous times, may have been amplified and distorted over time without our even realizing. It may be eye opening to find that what happened wasn’t exactly as we recall. (Of course, it is also possible that the conversation that was emotionally charged for us was not even stored as a memory for the individual for whom it was emotionally neutral.)
As part of the social-emotional learning at OCA, we teach our students how to talk through the inevitable hurts and misunderstandings of social relationships. Key to developing a resilient and healthy emotional life is learning to use language to express one’s feelings, develop the flexibility to see an event through the eyes of a peer, reframe events using these new insights and perspectives, and continually work on building positive relationships. Providing our students with the tools and practice in these essential skills is a daily component of school life that begins in the ECC and continues all the way through MS.
As we prepare for Yom Kippur, may we apply the lessons about memory to heal our relationships with others. May we, like Hashem, strive to remember one another for the good, just as how we would like others to remember us. G’mar chatima tova!
Parshat Nitzavim 9/08/23
By: Dr. Deborah Rapoport, Head of School
At OCA, opening day is celebrated with decorations, special activities, festive music, and even an occasional circus performer. But the real stars are our students who bound out of their cars excited to see their friends, meet their new teachers, and set goals for the new year. It is truly a joy to behold!
We missed our students over the summer – the buildings are just not the same without the beautiful energy of our beloved children! Not unexpectedly, but always a wonder to behold, they grew taller and more mature over the long summer break. Who are they now in their colorful new polo shirts and dresses and how do they view themselves at the cusp of the new year?
We see several parallels between the start of the new school year and the scene at the conclusion of Ki Tavo and beginning of Nitzavim as Moshe gathers Bnai Yisrael to prepare them to enter the land Hashem has given them. It is the start of something new after the long “summer break” in the midbar. Like our students who return to school developmentally more mature and able to think in new ways, Bnai Yisrael is standing on the precipice, looking ahead to life in Eretz Yisrael with a new “heart to know, eyes to see, and ears to hear.” (Devarim 29:3)
Moshe implores Bnai Yisrael to recommit to Hashem as they head into this next stage of their lives. Similarly, we as a community of educators and parents recommit ourselves to instilling in our students a love for learning Torah and general studies and renew our purpose to inspire them to develop a personal relationship with Hashem.
Moshe reminds Bnai Yisrael that living a life of Torah is within their grasp. “It is not hidden from you and it is not distant … the matter is very near to you – in your mouth and in your heart – to perform it.” (30:11,14)
These pesukim form the essence of OCA’s mission and educational philosophy. That is, by breaking down complex skills and concepts into scaffolded steps, and learning by doing, our students organically internalize the eternal messages of Torah, feel the joy in tefilla, and develop a strong sense of emunah. Torah is in their mouths and in their hearts.
We, like Bnai Yisrael have choices to make, and we choose to uphold our commitment, as Moshe reminds us, to raise our children in the way of Hashem. To that to that end, forging our path as a school over the next three years, we are thrilled that our Board of Directors under the leadership of Lanie Carter completed and passed OCA’s first three-year strategic plan.
The four central components of the strategic plan begin with Educating the Whole Child. This includes ensuring that our curricula are comprehensive, academically challenging, and cohesive; our Israel education, creative arts, athletics, extra-curricular and mishmar opportunities are robust; and our academic, social-emotional, and behavioral support is comprehensive.
Our second goal is Recruiting and Retaining High Quality Teachers. Teachers are the treasured backbone of our school. In this time of teacher shortages, the Board and School leadership commit to establishing a competitive salary and benefits package for faculty and staff, strengthening our formal teacher onboarding and mentoring program, and creating opportunities for innovation, collaboration, and a pathway for teacher advancement and leadership.
Our third focus is in Building Our Community. Community is developed on several levels, both within the OCA community and between OCA and the greater Baltimore Jewish community. A hallmark of OCA, the strategic plan sets forth a goal of expanding the variety of cross-division and community chesed activities available to our students, continuing to build a strong PTA and Parent Ambassador volunteer network, and developing an outreach and engagement plan to build relationships with community rebbeim, leaders, and funders.
Finally, we are excitedly Planning for the Future in several ways. The board is committed to strengthening school governance and developing a lay leadership pipeline. It will be creating a multi-year financial plan reflecting OCA’s mission and educational philosophy and strengthening the School’s institutional advancement efforts. Thinking ahead to our next steps as a school, a subcommittee of the board is already working to identify prospects for a permanent location and initiating a capital campaign to fund the purchase.
No less than Bnai Yisrael as they look ahead to their future, do we feel a deep sense of gratitude to Hashem for giving us the opportunity to provide our children with the best education possible, so that they too will someday follow in our footsteps. May Hashem guide us in our efforts and may this year be one of joy, growth, success, and good health!