A Sustained Vision

A Sustained Vision

Double Commitment to the Individuality and Jewish Identity of Each Child

The beach was strewn with starfish stranded by the retreating tide. An old man walking noticed a young man picking up the starfish one by one and throwing each back into the sea.

He asked, “Why are you doing this?”

The young man replied that the starfish would die if exposed to the morning sun.

“The beach goes on and on and there are thousands of starfish!” the old man cried. “You will not be able to save them all. How can your efforts make a difference?”

The young man looked at the starfish in his hand and quietly replied, “Yes, but to this one, it makes a difference.”

This is a story told by the well-known American anthropologist Loren Eisley, and it is one that applies to our school.

When we imagined The Toronto Heschel School, our eyes were on our love for children and for Jewish eternity. We had a very specific vision: We would prepare each child to participate in society as an informed and motivated Jewish citizen. Each would have a strong academic and ethical foundation and each would view the world through a Jewish, as well as a universal, lens.

But how do we sustain this vision?

The breadth and depth of our detailed vision has made our dream school blossom from a small basement premises to a full-sized five-acre campus with its ambitious targets still centred and within our grasp…. We make sure that each starfish can enjoy the ocean of opportunity that being Jewish in Toronto offers today.

We parse our goals pedagogically and communally:

  1. We pay strict attention to the unique and complex characteristics of each child.
  2. We remember how the power of play feeds the alert calmness that is essential for an optimal learning environment.
  3. We want our students to understand themselves as both Jewish and Canadian all day long, not Jewish for part of the day and Canadian for the other part. Jewish ethics and values permeate all aspects of our students’ lives; we walk the talk.
  4. Our vision-driven school is about relationship building. Everyone counts. Students learn ethical behaviour by watching how their teachers and school leaders relate to one another, how school professionals relate to parents, how parents deal with other parents, and how students engage with their peers. Any organization can declare a compelling vision, but without the right people on board and healthy relationships at work, all plans fail. Internet connection cannot substitute for human connection. A virtual or digital community may augment but not replace a safe, trusting human community.
  5. We embrace the diversity of the Jewish world and are inspired by the teachings of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. We ground the school program in tradition and halakhah, and collaborate to respect diverse opinion and modern sensibilities. To make pluralism work, we invoke the ethic of inclusivity and pursue a creative approach that ensures students from all sectors of Jewish observance feel welcome – and warmly so.
  6. Our commitment to values and practices affects not only how we teach but also the space between the classes.

One of my earliest and most profound memories at Toronto Heschel brought this point home clearly. One morning, 10-year-old Arielle knocked on my office door looking very distressed. When asked what the problem was, she answered, “We booked my Bat Mitzvah last night.”

“But that’s exciting,” I responded.

“I know,” Arielle answered, “but my best friend Rebecca [a Heschel classmate] keeps Shabbat. How is she going to get there?”

I was filled with a sense of awe. Here was a 10-year-old child clearly understanding how the values that we teach must become conscious expressions of all that we do. Each starfish matters… From that moment on, we made sure that all Toronto Heschel families could participate in celebrations and that, if necessary, special arrangements would be made.


The Toronto Heschel School is rare in its authentic double commitment to the individuality and to the Jewish identity of each child. It is a refreshing, reliable path on the, sometimes scattered, educational landscape.

The school trains teachers to focus on each child to be sure that the children are engaged in understanding both themselves and their studies. We teach students to train their attention on the close and the important.

We want our children to grow up and be successful in life. We want them to find their own song and sing it.  With the courage and imagination to value and honour each child – each starfish – we raise Jewish citizens with the skills to cope with life’s challenges, the presence of mind to pay attention to what is important, and the motivation to create a more compassionate world.

Adapted from an article originally published in THINK Issue 15, Spring 2014.

Gail is one of the co-founders of the Toronto Heschel School and was the Head of School from 2001 to 2014. In 2003 she co-founded the Lola Stein Institute and in the past has served as the Director of the institute and the Learning Community Director. Gail has a MEd in Curriculum Development from OISE at the University of Toronto, and a certificate in special education and dramatic arts from the Ministry of Education.

Gail has extensive professional experience in various educational settings. She is currently co-directing the Intergenerational Classroom, a program where students from the Toronto Heschel School and elders from the Terraces at Baycrest learn together. She was the head of the Principal’s Association of Toronto’s Board of Jewish Education from 2009-2011.

Gail has written extensively about education. She is currently a columnist for think magazine, reviewing “Good Books”. Her previous column was Teaching Teaching. Gail co-authored a book with Otto Baruch Rand entitled, “Ancient Civilizations”, which integrates Jewish history with world history. In 2011 she co-authored with Judith Leitner and Pam Medjuck Stein an article published in the Lookstein Center’s Jewish Educational Leadership journal entitled, “Transformative Jewish Education through the Arts”.

Gail has been a presenter in various settings in Toronto and in North American conferences. She continues to be involved in the Lola Stein Institute and THINK magazine.


Special Feature

Everything Depends on the Teacher
Role Models, Please
Using Academic Disciplines to Teach Children How to Think
Education for the Next Generation
Double Commitment to the Individuality and Jewish Identity of Each Child
A Sustained Vision
Why Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel is Our Inspiration
A Thoughtful Jewish School

Our Sages Tell Us


The Lola Stein Institute (LSI) is a centre of inventive educational thinking and addresses the challenge to re-frame schooling for the exigencies of our times.