One Monday morning a few months ago, I gave my son a hug and a kiss, handed him a suitcase, his passport and boarding pass, and bid him a safe journey. He was leaving that morning on a week-long class trip unlike any other he or I had ever experienced. He was going to Israel.
Did I mention that my son was five years old? In Senior Kindergarten?
In truth, the Toronto Heschel School’s SK trip to Israel was a simulation, designed to teach the students about Israel’s Independence Day, Yom Ha Atzma’ut. That Monday morning, the corridor outside the SK classroom had transformed into an airport terminal. The students were met by El Al flight attendants (their teachers in costume) who directed them to the baggage drop-off, reviewed their travel documents and handed them colouring books for in-flight entertainment. A cleverly-designed mural of an airplane hung on the wall. To make it look like the SK students were actually seated on a plane, photos had been taken of them in rows of three, which were cut into the shape of windows.
My son and his classmates were literally bounding with excitement, and I could not wait to hear about all of their adventures. Over the course of the week, the SK students visited different parts of Israel. They played in the sand at the beach in Tel Aviv and visited the Tel Aviv Museum, where they sketched paintings by Israeli artists. They wrote messages that they placed between the stones at the Kotel in Jerusalem. They used Shekels at the market, and they took part in an archaeological dig to find ancient Israeli artifacts. At the Dead Sea, they experimented with objects floating in salt water, and played with the rich Dead Sea mud.
My son and his friends were so immersed in the fun of these activities that they didn’t even realize they were learning! Math, science, history, art, language arts, Hebrew – it was all covered. But the kids were learning these subjects in an exciting context that made sense to them.
One of my favourite parts about parenthood is being able to see the world through my children’s eyes. When my kids learn something new, I feel like I’m learning it all over again. Watching my son get on board the flight to Israel that day, I could sense his curiosity igniting, I could see connections being made in his mind, and I could feel his happiness. It was one of many times that I stood in the hallway at school with tears in my eyes.
When people ask me and my husband why we choose to send our kids to the Toronto Heschel School, I tell them about the SK trip to Israel, and about the countless other ways in which the school brings learning to life. A few years ago, before we knew where we wanted to send our oldest son for JK, I met with Heschel’s principal, Gail Baker. Gail explained how important it was for students to care about what they were learning and to learn by doing. She then described how Heschel students are taught to understand geometric concepts like area and perimeter by planning and then cultivating a section of the Heschel garden. The students would actually get to walk the perimeter of the garden, and fill the area, so that the formulae they were learning had meaning for them. Later they would get to enjoy the fruits of their labour, literally! I was struck by Gail’s knowledge of educational theory and research, and even more so by the creative ways in which the school put these theories into practice.
But while I knew coming into the school about its cutting-edge teaching methods, I did not anticipate the impact that the Toronto Heschel School would have on me personally. Two years after my oldest son entered the school (my second son began JK in the fall), I am amazed by how connected I feel to it. I genuinely feel that my family has become part of a team of teachers, administrators, parents, and students who are working together to bring out the best in our kids.
Being connected to Heschel means that many of the extraordinary things that go on at school continue at home. Right from the beginning of JK, the Heschel teachers explore different ethical themes with the children in meaningful and age-appropriate ways. Before Yom Kippur, for instance, the children are asked to think of behaviours they can improve in the New Year. They draw a picture of a resolution (e.g. I will try to share with my brother; I will not hit), which is posted on display in the hallway. They also travel by bus to the Don River (this time it’s for real!) and symbolically throw their sins into the running water, carrying out the ancient Jewish practice of Tashlich. Exercises like these spill into discussions at our dinner table or at bedtime. Many times last year, if my two boys were having a hard time getting along, the older one would remember that he “threw fighting into the river”, and he would try (with adult help) to find alternative ways to deal with the situation.
In two short years, many Heschel families have become our close friends. The school has physically brought us together — at drop off and pick up, at concerts and curriculum nights, and at dozens of other school-related events thoughout the year. But on a deeper level, we are drawn together by our similar interests and values, by our common belief in the school’s mission, by our goals for our children.
There is a kind of symbiotic relationship between The Toronto Heschel School and its families. The Heschel parents I know are deeply committed to strengthening the school. They all volunteer their time and energy in some capacity: they participate in Mitzvah Day, they help sow the Heschel garden, they orchestrate the lunch program, they fundraise, they organize book clubs and lectures, and so on. These efforts undoubtedly make the school stronger and help it deliver the kind of education that we seek for our children. And as we continue to see our kids thrive, we feel increasingly committed to the school, and work to make it even stronger.
The Toronto Heschel School is so much more than a place where my kids will learn various subjects and master various skills. It has become the centre of a community of people who are working together to mold our kids into thoughtful, responsible, well-rounded people. This is a whole dimension of schooling that I never anticipated, but for which I am extremely grateful.
Lisa Richler is the parent of three Toronto Heschel School students. Formerly a teacher and writer, she is now the school’s Director of Communications and Admissions.