Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Reflections on leaving King Solomon High School

After two years teaching Jewish Studies and History at King Solomon High School, I am leaving to make Aliyah to Israel. I have enjoyed every moment of my time at the school, and I always use the phrase 'I'm going to school' rather than 'I'm going to work' because, much of the time what I do has been as much pleasure as work. It's hard to sum up my feelings in a short blog post, but I will try and do so anyway!

Firstly, the students are the best thing about the school. There are so many wonderful people with such great potential! I have enjoyed banter in the lessons, shmoozing in the dining hall and sharing deep and meaningful conversations about Judaism, Israel and Tottenham Hotspur. It has always been my aim to build strong kesharim (connections) with the students. One of my life's ambitions has always been to help Redbridge Jewry and encourage young people to be passionate about their identity and committed to their community - I hope I have gone some way to achieving that.

I have also really enjoyed working with the teachers, especially the Jewish Studies department. There has been no end to the support they have given to me and others and it is a very friendly and fun environment in which to work! There is so much more to say but I couldn't even start to thank individuals here.

I am a product of the Redbridge Jewish community: I learnt how to live Jewishly through going to Wanstead & Woodford shul with friends; I had an amazing Jewish education at IJPS, learning Chumash, Mishna and leyening as well as gaining an encylopedic knowledge of Jewish songs; I socialised and learnt so much at South Woodford Bnei Akiva, my local youth movement. I believe it was my family and community upbringing that enabled me to get where I am today, from learning in Yeshivat Hakotel and Birmingham University to becoming Mazkir of Bnei Akiva and a qualified Jewish Studies teacher with a Masters in Jewish Education. I am therefore in debt to the community - and these two years were a small way in which I was able to encourage the youth of today that they can achieve high and find their place in the Jewish community too.

The number one question I have been asked by others about KS is 'What is it like with non-Jewish students?' Having attended Ilford County High School, the school's ethnic make-up has always been quite familiar to me, albeit with the difference that here we are positively promoting the Jewish religion. I have enjoyed close relationships with Jewish and non-Jewish students alike and I am passionate about educating them about the Jewish faith as well as universal morals and ethics. If it is possible to generalise, they have enhanced the school in many ways and have even made Jewish students think a little more about their religion and identity - which is certainly not a bad thing. We are building a model of what society should look like, with strong moral foundations and respect for all beliefs, and I am proud to have seen, and helped, this ongoing project to develop.

There are many messages I'd like to have imparted during my time here - from the fact that one's religiosity is not based on what one wears to my belief that a gap year in Israel is the most important part of a young Jewish person's education, and many more besides.

But above all else there is one message that I would most like to share. That is that we must be maximalist in our approach, aims and content of our education. We must ensure that our Orthodox Jewish ethos pervades every aspect of the school, from the 'secular' classroom to the tidiness of the floors, from the way we connect to local shuls to our PR and social media activity and from the way we act in public to the way we act in private. We must never use the changing student intake, or the fact that we are from 'Essex' and considered by some to be 'inferior' to North London, as an excuse for not giving the best education we can. There is no reason why King Solomon can't be the most successful Jewish school, academically and Jewishly, if we all believe that it can be. We have shown this year that we can get a minyan for Mincha every week without fail, all because of a maximalist belief that has pervaded a growing number of students and staff that Mincha is the most crucial thing we could do on Wednesday lunchtimes!

I made a decision to turn down another job offer at a Jewish school to come to King Solomon because I believe more people should put this community first; I hope others will do the same, whether students, teachers or parents, for the good of the school and the future of the community. It's now time for me to put the dream of aliyah at the forefront of my life, fulfilling an important mitzvah and being part of the greatest journey home in world history, but I will never forget the time I have had at KS and I wish everyone connected with the school all the best for the future.

Sunday, 7 July 2013

The Four Seasons

This article was written for the King Solomon High School newsletter.

A short exercise: think of all the Jewish festivals and place them into the four seasons. What you will notice is that most of the key biblical festivals fall during Spring (Pesach and Shavuot) and Autumn (Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot). This makes sense practically, agriculturally and philosophically.

On a practical level, Hashem ensured that pilgrims to Jerusalem for the three foot festivals would be able to fulfil this great mitzvah without unnecessary hardship of scorching heat or the rainy season. On an agricultural level, Spring and Autumn are times of harvest and gathering, and are opportune moments to celebrate what has been sown and reaped and thank Hashem for it. On a philosophical level, the fact that the natural world is changing in these times means that we are also more open to internalising new ideas and themes, such as Teshuva and personal development in the Autumn to freedom and national revelation in the Spring.

In contrast, Summer and Winter are times of extremes, hot or cold. For many people in history and even today, the challenge of Winter has been to stay alive. It is hard to have belief that things will get better when every day is dark, cold and wet. We tend to confine ourselves to the home at this time. In harmony with this idea, the only Jewish festival in Winter is Chanukah. The primary message of Chanukah is to maintain faith in ‘dark’ times of persecution and to show this, we put ‘light’ into our lives – and it is no surprise that the Mitzvah of Chanukah candles applies specifically to the home.

The challenge of Summer is more subtle. It is seemingly a more positive time, where we feel energised to be free, explore and take a holiday from our regular lives. The concept of a summer holiday has become enshrined in the western world. Yet in this time we have the period of the Three Weeks, which we are currently in, culminating in Tisha B’Av, the saddest day of the Jewish calendar commemorating the destruction of the first and second Beit Hamikdash. We learn that the reason for this destruction was senseless hatred between Jews. People were so caught up in their own lives that they forgot to see the bigger picture. In fact, the Jews were so busy in-fighting that they failed to unite together and combat the real threat of Rome.

As we approach the end of the school year, it is time for us to consider what we will do with our summer. Will we use it to seek pleasure for ourselves or will we continue to learn and practise the values we have learnt over the year? Our school motto, from Pirkei Avot, says “If I am only for myself what am I; if not now, when?” In the summer, when we do have time, now is the moment to help others, through volunteering, teaching and pursuing meaningful goals.

At King Solomon we aim to teach Jewish values, laws and ethics to our students so that they will make the choice to practise them throughout their year and throughout their lives. This is an underrated USP of a Jewish school – that the proof of our education does not solely lie in exam results but also in the life choices we make when we leave for the summer. This summer I will be making Aliyah, and I would like to thank staff and students for giving me a wonderful two years at the school, which I will sincerely miss.

Sharing Shabbat

I have just had a very enjoyable and meaningful Shabbat, and I'd like to share my thoughts on it with you.

This morning I ran a family explanatory service in Wanstead & Woodford Shul. This idea started informally as a group learning session for parents who wanted to know more about how the mechanics of the Shabbat service works. This Shabbat we ran an actual service and explained why we do what we do. It differed from a standard explanatory service, since rather than focusing on meaningful insights into prayer, we focused on issues such as: when we say Amen, when we stand and sit, when we are quiet, why we say a half not a full Kaddish etc.

The service was a success and I believe that many more people in regular United Synagogues would benefit from such a service. I feel that adult education in the community has somewhat neglected this aspect of shul, and possibly because some people feel that they already know it. Unfortunately, many don't, and we must find a way to bridge this gap, ensuring that as many people as possible can gain a fuller understanding of the structure of the shul service.

After shul, a group of students from King Solomon came for Shabbat lunch with my family. We had a really fun afternoon, enjoying the Shabbat atmosphere and having an entertaining game of Articulate afterwards! Reflecting on this, I really feel that this is what it means to be a teacher at a Jewish school (and not merely a function of being a Jewish Studies teacher either). When I went to a non-Jewish school, I enjoyed my time with my teachers but there is something fundamentally different about the relationship I aim to have with my students.

When you share Shabbat with someone, that leaves a mark that will always be remembered, as it is such a special and uniquely Jewish experience. The fact that the students and teachers would want to spend Shabbat together is a sign that the school, where the relationship started, is not where the relationship need end. It shows that Jewish education is not complete without Jewish experience - you can teach Shabbat in a classroom but you have to experience it to appreciate it. It also shows that King Solomon is not just a school, but a community, where people can interact informally outside of the hierarchical structure of school, yet still reinforce the lessons learnt in the classroom, being played out in real life.