Bold change is an opportunity

By Gil Troy, Canadian Jewish News, 3-24-11

Question: “How many congregants does it take to change a light bulb in a synagogue?” The answer is: “Change? You vant we should change the light bulb? My grandmother donated that light bulb!”Change is never easy – personally or communally. Most of us like our lives, habits, institutions – or at least are so addicted to them we fear the unknown. As informal, democratic structures keeping our traditions alive, Jewish communities frequently resist change – even when they need it. And Jewish institutions are particularly loath to change themselves – particularly when they are still functional. Usually, we change when it is too late – failing to move deliberately ahead when strong and instead scrambling chaotically, reactively, when weak.

Aware of the challenges in changing, the Montreal Jewish community has, nevertheless, bravely launched the unification of JPPS-Bialik and UTT/Herzliah into a new, innovative, centre of educational excellence to create Montreal’s New Community School.

The visionaries behind the initiative understand the difficulties involved in combining two educational institutions, each with a proud past and distinct personality. The challenge is ensuring that 1 + 1 does not equal 1 – shrinking two institutions into a third, but to make 1 + 1 = 3, creating an institution that is bigger, better, bolder than the two were separately, when 1 + 1 only yielded 2.

The Montreal Jewish community needs a flagship school reflecting the character of Montreal’s unique community. In the 20th century, Quebec’s linguistic obsession yielded schools often defined by the languages they emphasized. A new school suited for the 21st century starts with the assumption that Jewish identity is about who we are not what language we speak. This school will reflect the central value of klal Yisrael, the unity of the Jewish People, that broad connection we feel one to another by sharing that noble title “Jew,” while making them deep, passionate, literate Jewish patriots, committed to our shared sense of community with a common heritage and common values.

Simultaneously, we have diversity within the unity. The new school will accommodate – and nourish – different languages, different traditions, different levels of observance, different communities of origin – while maintaining high standards of excellence and a tone not just of mutual respect but of community solidarity. Students will go deep, reaching into the particular traditions, ideas and Jewish expressions they bring from home, that anchor them, while also going broad, weaving their particular thread of home heritage and observance into the rich communal tapestry that unites Montreal Jews – and Jews worldwide.

The phrase New Montreal Community School says it all. “New” – it will be cutting edge. “Montreal” – it will reflect Montreal’s uniqueness as one of the most Jewishly literate, committed, activist, Zionist, multi-lingual, diverse communities in North America. “Community” – in an age of extreme individualism, disposable relationships, and the lure of the here and now, Judaism is about community, continuity, commitment – which cultivates and roots an individual. And “School” – by learning together, volunteering together, living together, students can benefit from the greater resources one thriving educational centre can offer while maintaining their particular identity. And in age of fragmentation, when everyone wants to know if you go to a Reform school or a Conservative school, if it is Ashkenazi or Sephardi, to be able to answer, “Yes, it is a community school,” could be a great peoplehood platform, a great way of reminding us that the core values, the defining narrative, the central rituals, the rich civilization – the Montreal Jewish community – uniting us is more significant, resonant, lasting than whatever differences we might have.

Other communities have succeeded with community day schools – Boston, London and – dare we say it – Toronto. Montreal’s time has now come to create this while preserving Montreal’s special character.

Another light bulb joke: “How many Jews does it take to change a light bulb?” The answer: “30. One to change the bulb, and 29 to discuss it, yelling conflicting instructions to the person changing the bulb.” This bold change is an opportunity to have a communal conversation about what community means, what Judaism means, and why we should send our children to Jewish day schools in the first place. Rather than staying on the sidelines complaining, parents, students and alumni should line up to help write this great new chapter in Montreal’s history, saying, “Hineni, here I am, how can I help?”