By BERNIE BELLAN
With schools in Manitoba set to reopen on September 8, it goes without saying that there is an enormous amount of apprehension among both parents and students as to what will happen once students are back in class.
Gray Academy, however, has gone to unprecedented lengths to plan for the coming school year. The school prepared a 36-page “Framework for Reopening” pdf that touches upon almost every conceivable concern that parents and students might have. (The pdf is available for viewing on Gray Academy’s website.)
On Thursday, August 27, we had a chance to speak with Gray Academy Head of School Lori Binder about some of the preparations that Gray Academy has taken.
Lori began by referring to the “Framework for Reopening” which, she noted, “was sent out to all our families on Friday (August 21). Our staff is returning on Wednesday (Sept. 2) and then, after Labour Day we are reopening for full days of learning for students from Junior kindergarten all the way through to Grade 12 (although, as she explained later during our conversation, different grades will be returning to school on a staggered basis for an orientation day during the first week).
Lori noted that because there are such major differences between the rules that will be in place for elementary schools as opposed to high schools, based on the ability to physical distance, for the elementary school (which consists of Grades 1-6) “we measured and re-measured and measured and re-measured and we are able to commit to 1.5+ metres across the school with two metres (between each student) for students in 1-6 and are therefore capping enrolment where there’s no more space…so that leaves us (only) with a couple of spots in a couple of elementary grades.”
I asked whether, with the new spacing requirements between students that the province has imposed upon all schools – especially as it applies to elementary, that has forced Gray Academy to turn down applications from parents whose children might have gone to other schools last year?
Lori did acknowledge that “we have had to say no to some inquiries that are most recent, so now Grades 1-4 are full.” (She also explained that no class in elementary will have more than 19 students, whereas some classes last year did have more than that.) “In a normal year,” as Lori explained, “in Grades 4-6 we could go up to 24 students, but we have made the decision to put health and safety first, so if there is no room for another desk (that would allow for more than 19 students), there will only be a wait list if a spot came open.”
That led me to wonder whether there has been a notable increase in interest among parents of elementary aged students who had been enrolled in other schools to send their kids to Gray Academy?
“We’re getting inquiries a little bit more than we normally would at this time,” Lori responded. “It’s August 31st when public schools will be sending out their plans for reopening” so, depending on how those plans unfold, there may be even more interest from parents of students in other schools to send their children to Gray Academy.
(Lori noted, as well, that some high schools will only be having in-class learning two days a week, so that might also affect some parents’ plans.)
As far as grades other than elementary are concerned, Lori explained that “in our junior kindergarten and kindergarten programs – also in our high school, we are 1.5 (metres) plus and 1.5 plus means that in early years, it’s very similar to the provisions for child care: You’re not seated at a desk all day; the kids learn a little bit differently through play, so the provisions in JK and K are therefore very different” (from elementary).
“In high school,” Lori continued – and all across the whole school, we’ll be cohorting – so every two grades is a cohort. The purpose of a cohort is really to help insure some separation for entry to the school, exiting from the school. For elementary, it’s divisions at recess. We’re very fortunate to have a lot of space for play, so cohorts (in elementary) will stay in their recess location – and switch the next day.
“In high school we have two grades for every floor so the cohort stays on the floor. The teachers now moves to the classroom.” (Until this year students would move to different rooms depending upon the subject being taught.)
I wondered how, notwithstanding the creation of cohorts of students, how much the school would be able to maintain separation of students at arrival and departure times?
Lori answered: “Our JK and K, which is our early years wing, has an outside door – which we keep locked during the day, but we’re going to use it for drop-off and pick-up of the kids…when you walk into the school from where the play structure is, one doorway will be where the (Grade) 3’s and 4’s will enter; another doorway for the 1’s and 2’s leading to their hallway, and there’s actually a third door that has a staircase that goes up, and that’s where the 5’s and 6’s will go straight to their floor and where they’ll come out at the end of the day – and for recess.”
Naturally, with so much yet to be determined in terms of whether COVID-19 will be successfully contained with all the measures schools will be forced to adopt, Lori added that Gray Academy is also fully prepared to adapt to new requirements – should they be imposed upon the school (and all other schools) by the province.
“Response level two, which corresponds to the provincial response of yellow or orange, only affects 9-12,” Lori explained. In that case, those students would return to remote learning, which is what was in place beginning in April until school ended prematurely for all students in early June. “Students in Grades 1-8 would still stay in the building,” Lori added.
If the province ordered “Response level 3,” Lori continued, “which is the highest response level, then that would take us back to fully remote, except for early years.”
“We have articulated to our parents the entire gamut that the province has set out so we could pivot to our ‘Gray Away’ (which was the term Gray Academy developed to describe its sophisticated remote learning program this past spring), if needed.
School opening itself will be staggered, as was noted earlier in this article, so that each cohort will have a different opening day. This will allow “kids to get used to the routines and parents can get used to the new drop-off and pick-up routines,” said Lori.
Based on how well remote learning under ‘Gray Away’ did in the spring, I wondered whether the school had heard from some parents of students in Grades 9-12 who would prefer that their children be allowed to stay home and take all their classes remotely?
“We have heard from very few parents – very few,” Lori answered, who would prefer that their children learn remotely, “but we have also only heard from a few parents who have chosen to home school” their children.
Let’s face it though – all the preparation in the world isn’t going to dramatically ease the anxiety that parents – and their children, will be experiencing each day as we get closer to September 8.
The staff at Gray Academy have been preparing themselves as best they can, however, and as Lori Binder noted, “we try to be very proactive so that we can have calm parents – so that parents can know what our plans are. It’s one of the reasons that we wanted to get our plans out (via the school’s website) last Friday – also to keep our staff informed as well.
“We have orientation sessions for our parents on-line next week, in addition to what we’re doing with the kids…we want to walk through this and see what’s successful that we’ll keep assessing” and where changes will need to be made.
So, while we all hold our collective breaths – and pray for the best, the pressure on schools to abide by a dizzying array of new regulations handed down by the province is immense. In the case of Gray Academy, at least, no one can say that the administration of that school hasn’t done its utmost to plan for most contingencies. Is it appropriate for a Jewish newspaper to end an article with the expression: Let’s keep our fingers crossed?
Working with late night talk show stars Colbert and Stewart dream job for former Winnipegger
By Myron Love When the Jewish Post last touched base with Raffie Rosenberg in the summer of 2020, she was back in Winnipeg for a few months during the Covid lockdown reconnecting with her father, Lewis Rosenberg (her mother, the late Dr. Fran Steinberg passed away ten years ago) and other relatives while looking forward to returning to New York in the fall to continue her studies at Columbia University.
As far back as she can remember, she noted in that earlier interview, she has had her sights squarely set on a career in the entertainment industry. “I started dancing lessons when I was two years old,” she recalled. “I loved it.”
She added that her interest in the theatre was also stimulated by her parents, both of whom had been involved in the arts. Prior to pursuing a career in medicine, her mother studied at the Royal Winnipeg Ballet. She also taught dancing and further studied dance at York University. Her dad also has a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree – Theatre Design and Technology – from the University of Minnesota.
Having graduated previously (in 2016) from Western University’s Ivey School of Business, Rosenberg earned her second degree – an MFA – with a focus on theatre management and producing – from Columbia in 2022.
And she is very happy to report that, over the past two years, she has had the opportunity to work behind the scenes with two of her heroes in the entertainment business – none other than the king of late night television, Stephen Colbert, and his predecessor, Jon Stewart.
She got on with Colbert’s “The Late Show” as a production intern during her final semester at Columbia shortly after graduation from Columbia for a five-month period (January-May, 2022) and followed up on that coup by being hired as a production assistant on Stewart’s return to the air waves via Apple TV with “the Problem with Jon Stewart,” a weekly series featuring hour-long single subject episodes. The show launched in the fall of 2021. Rosenberg joined the production team in the fall of 2022.
(The show was recently cancelled.)
Those were my dream jobs,” Rosenberg notes – “to work with both Stewart and Colbert on televised shows that include elements of live theatre (such as a studio audience and band).”
She points out that entertainment internships are difficult to get – especially in late night. “The team at Colbert is really proactive about interviewing a huge number of candidates and taking a look at people from the online applicant portal,” she reports. “I got lucky and the timing was right for that internship.”
She notes that, being in an entry level role at The Late Show and at The Problem, she didn’t work with either host directly. “The staff of The Late Show is over 100 people and at The Problem there were around 60 of us,” she says, “but both Jon and Stephen are incredible bosses. They’re kind, focused, and great leaders. Even though I never worked with either directly, being able to work on their shows was a huge highlight and definitely a childhood dream come true.”
Her role was different for each of the shows – reflecting the different responsibilities in her job titles and the fact that Colbert is nightly and Stewart’s show was weekly.
“As a production assistant, I was more involved in areas such as research, working on the podcast and deeper dives into current events ,” she points out. “Also, we were working with a longer lead time on Jon’s show – which gave us more room to expand on individual subjects.”
In her independent work as a creative producer, she points out, she is more involved in sourcing funding to help get the project off the ground, crafting the narrative, working with the script writers and hiring lead actors and the director.
For the past two summers, Rosenberg has produced the Arts in Action Festivals for the Broadway Advocacy Coalition. The BAC was founded in 2016 by a group of actors and activists with the goal of using the arts to try to create as a vehicle to help create a more just world. The two-day Arts in Action festivals present workshops, performances, panels and screenings in furtherance of its goals.
With the conclusion of production for the “The Problem With Jon Stewart” last fall, Rosenberg is open to new projects – one of which is a collaboration with a couple of other Jewish artists on a coming-of-age comedy.
It would seem that Raffie Rosenberg has a bright future to look forward to in theatre and film production.
Husband and wife team of Russel and Rori Picker Neiss bringing different aspects of Jewish learning to Limmud Winnipeg
By MYRON LOVE Rori Picker and Rusell Neiss say they are excited about their upcoming first visit to Winnipeg. The couple, Jewish educators – originally from New York, who have been living and working in St. Louis for the past ten years – will be here on the weekend of March 9-10 – as presenters at our community’s 14th annual Limmud Fest.
Russel Neiss is promising Limmud attendees that those attending his presentation will be in the first audience to view the digitized version of “The Story of Purim,” an award winning Jewish educational filmstrip which is part of a recently rediscovered lost cache produced by the NY Bureau of Jewish Education in the 1950s.
“We’ll view the slides and table-read the script together as we see how much the field of Jewish engagement and education has (and hasn’t) changed over the last 70 year,” notes Russel Neiss.
Russel is a 2005 graduate of City University of New York. The recipient – in 2020, of the prestigious Covenant Award (which recognizes educators who have made a noticeable impact on Jewish lives through innovative educational practices and models), served for several years as vice-principal of a Jewish day school in the New York area.
In 2014, Russel changed careers. He became a software engineer specializing in the development of software programming for Jewish educators for an organization called Sefaria. The nonprofit organization is dedicated to digitizing the entire body of Jewish religious writings in order to make them available so that anyone can engage with the textual treasures of our tradition.
“A couple of years ago,” he reports, “I came across a cache of film strips produced by the New York Bureau of Jewish Education in the 1950s. These films would have been shown to students in the 1950s and ‘60s. They have not been viewed for more than 60 years.”
At Limmud, he will be showing a film called “The Story of Purim.” “We’ll view the slides and table-read the script together as we see how much the field of Jewish engagement and education has (and hasn’t) changed over the years,” he says.
His second presentation – on Sunday afternoon – will focus on “what the atheist computer scientist Richard Stallman can teach us about how Torah learning can thrive in the world today while delving into the interplay between Hacker Culture, the Free Software Movement and the teachings of great Jewish thinkers like Rabbi Akiva, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein and Rebbe Nachman of Breslov.”
Rori Picker Neiss will also be doing two presentations – one of which will be a study of leadership as exhibited by Moshe Rabbenu in the matter of the Golden Calf. For those who may not know or remember the story in the Torah, some days after leaving Egypt, Moshe climbed Mount Sinai to commune with Hashem. After some time had gone by and he didn’t return, the frightened Hebrews, believing that he wasn’t coming back, gathered together everything they had that was made of gold and created a golden calf to worship – an act of blasphemy that resulted in severe divine consequences – including the Israelites having to wander in the desert for 40 years until the last of the offending generation had died out.
“What we can take away from this episode,” Rori observes, “and what Hashem made clear to Moshe- is that leadership is not about the leader and fame and glory. Leadership should be about doing what is in the best interests of the people.”
Her second presentation will be an exploration of what the early rabbis thought about Jesus and Christianity as seen through a censored Rabbinic passage.
Rori Picker Reiss has the distinction of being one of the first half dozen Orthodox women to be ordained – through the Yeshivat Maharat organization – founded in 2009 – to serve as clergy.
“I welcomed the opportunity to study Talmud and our religious texts,” she says of her decision to enroll in the Maharat program. ‘My ordination presented me with a number of different ways to serve our community.”
In St. Louis Maharat Rori served as Director of Programming, Education and Community Engagement at the modern Orthodox Bais Abraham Congregation. She was also Rabbi in Residence at Holy Communion Episcopal Church, chair of the cabinet of Interfaith partnership of Greater St. Louis and a member of the Board of Trustees for the Parliament of the World’s Religions.
Previously, she worked as acting Executive Director for Religions for Peace-USA, program coordinator for the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, assistant director of Interreligious Affairs for the American Jewish Committee, and secretary for the International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations.
While there may be some among the Orthodox community who may be uncomfortable with the concept of women serving as clergy, Rori reports that she was generally well-received in St. Louis and was able to build many relationships both within the Orthodox and the wider communities.
Rori and Russel have recently moved back to New York City where Rori has been appointed the Senior Vice-President for Community Relations for the Jewish Council for Public affairs.
Three organization join forces to mount Mission to Israel in May
By BERNIE BELLAN In response to many requests received from members of Winnipeg’s Jewish community to organize a volunteer mission to Israel, for the first time ever three different organizations have joined together to organize just such a mission – from May 20-28.
Titled “HINENI 2024,” the mission is being mounted by the Jewish National Fund, Jewish Federation of Winnipeg, and Bridges for Peace.
The mission will include five days of intensive volunteering and visits to various sites in Israel. It will also include three meals a day and ground transportation.
There will be an information night at the Asper Campus on February 28 but, in advance of that information night, we contacted JNF Manitoba-Saskatchewan Executive Director David Greaves to ask whether he could provide some details about the planned mission prior to that information meeting and describe how it all came about.
Greaves said that both the JNF and the Federation were thinking of organizing missions in May, so it was only natural that they would combine efforts.
“The Federation has organizational experience, and they’ll be able to handle the registration process,” Greaves explained, while “the JNF will be able to handle the logistics on the ground,” such as arranging accommodation, transportation, and meals.
And Bridges for Peace was able to step up and negotiate some very good pricing for air fares for anyone who would want to fly on specific flights – details for which will be announced in the coming days. (Greaves noted that flights have not been included as part of the package as many individuals indicated that they wanted to make their own arrangements getting to Israel.)
Yet, unlike any other mission that the JNF has mounted in years past, Greaves wanted to make it clear that the May mission will be a “volunteer” mission, during which participants will be expected to “be on their feet four-five hours a day” engaging in tasks whose exact nature is still being formulated – in conjunction with various Israeli organizations.
“We’re looking at volunteering primarily in the south,” Greaves said, including picking fruit and vegetables. As of this moment, he added: “We’re still investigating various volunteer possibilities.”
Included in the mission tentatively, accordiing to Greaves, will be visits to the site of the Nova music festival, where 364 primarily young Israelis were massacred (along with 40 abducted), as well as visits with families of hostages and a visit with the mayor of Sderot.
As far as accommodation is concerned, Greaves wanted to make it clear that mission participants will not be staying in four or five star hotels.”Most likely they will be three star hotels,” he noted. And, when you take into account the cost of providing three meals a day along with bus transportation and other ancillary costs, Greaves suggested that the mission cost, which will be no more than $3,000 (exclusive of air fare), is quite reasonable, especially when you take into account typical costs associated with visiting Israel and the relatively low Canadian dollar. As well, Greaves said that couples travelling together will probably pay somewhat less per person – around $2500 per person, he suggested is likely.
I asked Greaves how many people they were hoping to have participate in the mission. He said that they’re looking at around 40. Although it would be great if there were a larger response, he added, the logistics of having to hire an additional bus would make it difficult to plan a mission with two buses unless the number of participants warranted that.
“If response is overwhelming, we’d get a second bus,” he added though.
I asked Greaves whether there are JNF missions of a similar nature being planned in other Canadian cities and he said there were – “in Toronto and Vancouver,” but he also wanted to emphasize that they are both being planned locally – unlike every other JNF mission, which has always been planned at the national level – until now.
In addition to the combined organizational efforts of the JNF, Jewish Federation, and Bridges for Peace, five Winnipeg congregations are also lending their support to the mission, helping to promote it among their respective congregants.
If you would like to obtain further information about the mission and are unable to attend the February 28 information evening, contact either David Greaves at the JNF at firstname.lastname@example.org or Abby Flackman at the Jewish Federation at email@example.com.