By Louise Rachlis for Temple Israel
One positive aspect of the self-isolation for Temple Israel of Ottawa parents is that it’s easier to get to shul with children when it’s online.
“This whole pandemic has been very hard on everyone and we really miss seeing our friends and fellow community members,” says Micah Garten, a member of Temple Israel. “As we strive to stay positive, it is important to look for silver linings, and I will say that Temple’s quick pivot online has been great for our family.
“With two young kids getting to shul and children’s programing was always a struggle but now that we can do it in our pjs in the living room, we are regular attendees for Shabbat and JBaby programming.”
Getting all that programming up and running has been in large part thanks to two busy women, Ranit Braun and Jenny Tarof-Burns.
“We have moved all our youth programming online,” says Braun, an invaluable support with Temple Israel communications, “and our biggest draw is our Dungeons and Dragons game that is heavily influenced by Jewish content.”
Braun works full-time at Jewish Family Services of Ottawa as transportation coordinator and coordinator of the Adult Day Program for seniors with Alzheimer’s/dementia, as well as program outreach for her unit, the Thelma Steinman Seniors Support Services.
She also finds time to teach Grade 2 and Grade 8, to be Jewish Youth Group (JYG) and Federation of Ottawa Senior Temple Youth (FROSTY) adviser, and to volunteer for JBaby.
“I like to stay busy, very busy; I think I thrive on the opportunity to create and do a lot.”
Temple Israel Religious School teacher Jenny Tarof-Burns, who wrote the Dungeons and Dragons game, has worked very hard to get it launched online.
“We have also had several JYG events, we have partnered with Montreal Federation of Temple Youth for FROSTY events, and as well, have started JBaby and JKids, Temple’s programming for Grades 1 to 5,” said Braun. “We also moved JBaby online as well.”
Tarof-Burns is the daughter of Larry Tarof, a cornerstone of the Jewish music community. “Essentially my family has been connected to the Ottawa Jewish community for as long as I can remember.”
With a bachelor of humanities with a minor in religious studies, and an MA in folklore studies, she says “with this educational foundation I’ve firmly planted my career-flag in Jewish education and writing.”
A parent of a two-year-old and an almost four-year-old, Tarof-Burns is a long-standing teacher at Temple Israel Religious School. She has also recently taken the position of educational director with Or Haneshamah’s Machaneh Shabbat, its Shabbat camp program.
Tarof-Burns created Dungeons and Dragons as a response to the mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018.
“The results of imaginary role play are dramatic,” she said. “Your real-life problems can be explored and tackled from a safe distance in a game setting.”
“In-person, kids from each Dungeons and Dragons group have an opportunity to hang out, play some pre- Dungeons and Dragons games, and compare what’s happening in each other’s games,” said Tarof-Burns. “In transitioning from in-person to online, Ranit, our incredible team of DMs, and I discussed how we were going to maintain the integrity of a JYG event that centres around Jewish youth being together.”
She says that while creating a scenario for a Dungeons and Dragons campaign is straightforward, going digital is “a whole other story.”
“There are hiccups and technical difficulties, frozen screens, or challenges with DMs communicating with one another for support while gaming.
“There is also the attention span and tech-bandwidth of kids to take into consideration. Three hours clustered around a physical map in-person may not translate into three hours over video chat.”
She loves instilling the campaigns with Jewish content.
“On the most visual level, all the place names on the maps are Hebrew puns. At one point the kids were sent to Har Gadol – which literally means big mountain.”
Storytelling is where the Jewish content really shines.
“Our first campaign was originally designed to be a one-off scheduled around Chanukah, so the quest took place at the tail end of the Chanukah story. Every party was sent out to help a nation called ‘the Ben Chorin,’ children of freedom, to rededicate their holy temple after a war.
“This year’s campaign is a year-long endeavor and our kids are – possibly unbeknownst to them – dealing with the Davidic rebellion and the fall of King Saul, renamed King Melech, or King King. The parties have been thrown into a world where the necromancing King and his soothsaying assistant are trying to stop the rightful King from ascending.”
She says that the content doesn’t simply show up in-game either.
“JYG offers the unique possibility of lending Hebrew school lessons to gaming and vice versa. In class, I’m sometimes able to give students a heads-up that the material we’re covering might be showing up in their D&D game. Immediately they perk up and pay extra-close attention!”
“This program would not be as successful as it is – 26 kids while we were able to meet in person – without our incredible DMs and not even possible at all without our intrepid/creative/amazing writer/creator Jenny Tarof-Burns,” says Braun.
She and Tarof-Burns also recruited Jenny’s husband, Kyle Burns, and Ranit’s husband, Jason Demorest, as dungeon masters.
“DM Shannon Cooper would also bring her granddaughter,” said Braun, “and our newest DM is the wonderful student cantor, Daniel Geigerman, whom we called in a panic rush, when we realized we had so many kids. He was at a grocery store, but graciously agreed, asking for five minutes so he could get home first!”
Children not from Temple Israel families are welcome to join any of the programs.
“We have had kids from other synagogue communities for two years,” says Braun. “It’s a cohesive, fun and accepting unit. Regardless of Jewish affiliation, the group works together and feels like a team.”
Photo 1: “The Dungeons and Dragons group I am part of has done a wonderful job helping kids during COVID-19 by coming up with a solution so that I could continue to see my friends and play D&D with them,” says Temple Israel Dungeons and Dragons player Joel Purchase.
Photo 2: Dungeons and Dragons map with Jewish sites, created by Temple religious school teacher Jenny Tarof-Burns.