In the Jewish month of Elul, as we approach Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, our job is to reflect on past mistakes and consider how to do better.  My commitment for teshuva for next year is to communicate better with friends, family, and in my role here at The Toronto Heschel School. 

As Head of School, and Director of the Lola Stein Institute, one of my main jobs is to help our parents and our community understand Heschel’s approach to teaching and learning. You chose Heschel for its very intentional educational methods, curriculum, and practices.  That’s why we’re here.   

Heschel’s approach is innovative and nuanced, integrating the wisdom of Jewish sources with both progressive and classical educational methods.  It’s an approach that is different from how many of us learned.  Why do they learn math that way?  Why are they talking about Torah in Science class?  What does movement have to do with poetry?  And why poetry anyway?  Further explanation is required. 

This year, I commit myself to doing whatever I can to make Heschel teaching and learning as clear, transparent, and evident as possible.  In my bi-weekly messages, I will do that through teachings from the weekly parshah.  For as the Talmud says of our Torah, “turn it, turn it, for everything is contained within it.” 

Of course blogs and presentations can only go so far.  If you want to learn more, ask questions, offer ideas, and please reach out to me.  I’m always thrilled to dialogue with students, parents, grandparents, and community members who are inspired, curious, and interested to know more about Why, How, and What we teach here at Heschel.  

Since the theme of the year for me is communication, I thought I’d start this week with a brief dvar about cell-phones in school.  In its back-to-school edition this week, the Globe and Mail published an article exhorting us to make classrooms cell-phone free zones.  I won’t go into the details… you can read the article here: Hold the Phone.

For Heschel educators this is old news. From the moment cell-phones emerged on the scene — first with a couple of grade 8s who needed them for navigating the subway, then younger and younger — educators at Heschel knew that phones would create an enormous challenge for learning.  Phones have never been permitted into Heschel classrooms, and now, they must stay out of lockers and bags as well.  School time is for learning, not for the incessantly nagging addictions of social media, invitations for social bullying, dependency, and other distractions. 

When others were jumping on the bandwagon of figuring out what positive role cell phones could play in the classroom (see more on that in the Globe article), we stuck to our intuition as educators that real learning happens in conversation with each other, face-to-face.  When it comes to self-regulation, “not knowing” can be just as important as “knowing.”  Google can wait a few hours. 

Heschel prides itself on hands-on, multi-sensory learning in three dimensions, engaging our hearts, bodies, minds, and souls.  Cell phones (and frankly most other digital devices) reduce learning to flat screens and algorithmic spoon-feeding.   Yes, there is a place for technology, appropriately and strategically used. Yes, here at Heschel, too.  But as a general teaching practice, we are all quickly learning that it is often far more of a detriment than an advantage to much of it. 

In this week’s Torah portion, Moshe tells the people of Israel:  The Torah is not in the clouds above – לא בשמים הוא,  nor over the distant sea לא מעבר לים but rather, “it is very close to you, in your hearts and in your mouths to enact it.” (Devarim, 30:12-13).  In other words, don’t look to find the teaching of Torah far away in some distant place.  Torah happens through those daily acts of speech, feeling and action that happen very close to you. 

Today “in the cloud” has a different meaning.  But the teaching of the parshah endures.  Knowledge and learning is not to be found in the “cloud.”  Rather, in our hearts to feel it, our mouths to speak and express it, and in the active learning our hands do. That’s Heschel.  Keep the cellphone in your bag, and keep learning close to your heart. 

Shabbat Shalom, 

Moren Greg