OJCS high school decision was ‘tough but necessary’

Andrea Freedman says, “Passionate conversation about Jewish education is in itself very positive.” (Photo: Howard Sandler)

Andrea Freedman says, “Passionate conversation about Jewish education is in itself very positive.” (Photo: Howard Sandler)

While “difficult and painful,” this is an opportunity to explore and create new models for Jewish education, writes Andrea Freedman, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Ottawa, in announcing the formation of a task force to examine sustainable Jewish education for high school-aged students in the community.

The Board of Directors of the Ottawa Jewish Community School (OJCS) made the unenviable decision to phase out its high school. The decision was difficult and painful, yet done in the long-term best interest of the school and our community and I commend the Board for its courage under challenging circumstances. People get involved in community life because they want to build a stronger community and it takes committed people to determine that a stronger community sometimes requires a re-examination and not unlimited support for a model that is not sustainable.

Over the past few weeks, the majority (but certainly not all) of my conversations with community members regarding OJCS’s decision to close the high school, contained the following three themes: 1) a lack of surprise given the school’s small size; 2) regret, concern and sadness at the decision, while appreciating that this was an appropriate decision; 3) asking what is next, where does our community go from here?

As part of the Jewish Federation of Ottawa’s support for this tough but necessary decision, we are forming an immediate task force to examine sustainable Jewish education for teens in our community.

Like many others in the community, I have reflected on the broader community implications of this decision. While there are many challenges, and these are explored by others in the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin, I choose to focus on the positive. First and foremost, this decision has served as a wake-up call for our community with new volunteers wanting to tackle the complex issue of Jewish education with renewed energy and passion. In order for the Federation’s task force to be successful, we need representatives from this grassroots cohort to participate, contribute and help shape the future, alongside other committed leaders in the community.

As part of this process, we need to do a deeper dive and explore why not enough families are making the decision to send their children to Jewish day school in general and high school in particular. Winnipeg, a community with a similarly sized Jewish community, has 510 young people enrolled in kindergarten through Grade 12 at Gray Academy, their community school. While 510 is an enviable number, there was also a 16 per cent drop in enrolment there in the past year. In Ottawa, enrolment in our community school is more comparable to Calgary with 250 students and a Jewish population of 8,000. A few years ago, Federation researched the reasons why so many families were not choosing Jewish day education. While cost was a factor, it was not the only or even primary factor. We need to explore this further.

The OJCS’s decision to re-examine the high school is not the result of a lack of investment in Jewish education. On an annual basis, Federation invests $780,000 in Jewish education, 70 per cent of which is allocated to OJCS.

I conducted an informal survey of several Jewish Federations in Canada (Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg and Vancouver), and the Jewish Federation of Ottawa invests on average 200 per cent more per child enrolled in our community school. Because of the significant investment already being made, the task force needs to explore whether there are possible synergies with other organizations and schools in the community and/or less expensive ways of offering a high school education, if it is only desired by a small, yet important group. There is not an infinite pool of resources in our community and Federation takes the responsibility of ensuring that these precious dollars are allocated to maximize impact.

As there are approximately 900 high school-aged Jewish teens in our community, and less than three per cent attend OJCS, even if a new model proves more attractive, we have to offer alternative Jewish experiences for the majority of teens who will never attend Jewish high school. They have to be afforded the opportunity to participate in Jewish youth groups, Jewish summer camps
and trips to Israel.

While formal Jewish education is unquestionably the best way to engage in Jewish learning, it is not the only way. When I look at community leaders today, they come from diverse backgrounds and experiences and I expect this trend will continue.

This is an opportunity for us to explore how best to entice more families to make more Jewish choices for themselves, for their children, and for our future.

Ottawa has always been and will always be a terrific community. In the same time span that the decision to close the high school was announced, more than 600 people participated in Mitzvah Day; camps and schools worked collaboratively on the next steps involved in bringing shinshinim, young Israeli emissaries who will infuse our community with the Zionist spirit, to Ottawa next year; and educators from every day and supplemental school participated in joint, high-level training to enhance teaching techniques. These and many other exciting and important initiatives took place, all with the intent of strengthening Jewish knowledge, learning and our community.

It has been a difficult time for our community, and yet the fact that so many people are engaged in a passionate conversation about Jewish education is in itself very positive. The work of the task force will not be easy, but, through a combination of goodwill, innovation, partnership and a thoughtful process, I am confident our community will rise to the occasion. Every challenge is also an opportunity – so let’s work together and take advantage of this one.

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