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Cheshbon Nefesh: Reflecting on Rosh Hashanah and the Start of the New School Year

Welcome to our new school blog!

I am pleased to launch this space where, together with other school leaders and faculty, I look forward to sharing thoughts and ideas about Jewish education, pedagogy, technology, social emotional learning, and much more – and the ways that this translates into educating our Bialik students to become future Jewish leaders.

As the new school year and Rosh Hashana coincide so closely this year, I’ve been thinking a lot about cheshbon nefesh. Literally, cheshbon nefesh can be translated as “arithmetic of the soul,” and refers to the kind of reflection that the High Holidays aim to elicit in us. By examining our lives – by “adding up” our virtues and good deeds, and “subtracting” our shortcomings and faults – we understand what we need to do to make our lives more meaningful, our relationships with family and friends more loving, and our contributions to the world more positive and impactful.

This taking stock of our lives has an obvious translation to school life. As we begin the new school year, we encourage our students to reflect on themselves as learners and to set goals that will improve both their academic progress as well as their social interactions with teachers and peers. As with the traditional cheshbon nefesh, we ask students to both reflect on the past and look forward to the future – using lessons from the former to help shape their plans and aspirations for the latter.

But cheshbon nefesh doesn’t end with the students. As the largest and growing Jewish day school in Toronto – we now number well over 1,100 students and counting! – Bialik takes the trust you have placed in us very seriously. To that end, we engage in ongoing reflection about curriculum, pedagogy, and school culture. This process is never more intense than at the beginning of a school year, and is expressed most clearly in the annual professional development plan that we have just launched.

Bialik - Benjamin Cohen - Cheshbon Nefesh: Reflecting on Rosh Hashanah and the Start of the New School Year

This year’s staff development will have three pathways:

Curriculum and Pedagogy

Our Directors of general and Jewish studies are leading meaningful work in multiple areas of our academic program:

Student Wellness

Bialik’s Branch Principals are leading the school in an ever-increased focus on student wellness. Toward this end, we invested significantly in an amazing Professional Development (PD) Day with Lynn Lyons, an internationally acclaimed psychotherapist, author, and speaker, who helps educators, children, and families manage anxiety disorders. Our teachers found the sessions fascinating and enlightening; the PD was an ideal opening to a year-long school-wide reflection on student wellness and how we can help our students develop self-awareness, grit, and empathy (SAGE).

A Community of Learners

We have come to believe that teachers need the opportunity to learn and expand their own personal and professional knowledge. We are offering elective learning tracks throughout the year that focus on key questions facing Canadian Jews as well as the wider society. Tracks include:

  • How Israel has changed over its 70+ years of independence and what the implications are for the relationship between Israel and Diaspora Jews
  • The most urgent environmental issues facing the world today and what Jewish tradition has to say about how we address global challenges
  • A focus on gender and sexual identity, and how we make Bialik an increasingly inclusive and empowering community for all students and staff
  • The impact of our understanding of how the brain learns on current pedagogical best practice

In each of these areas, teachers have the chance to expand their knowledge base and reflect in a meaningful way on professional identities and practices. This learning will have a significant impact on the nature of Bialik’s curriculum and culture.

Shana Tova!

The cheshbon nefesh that Bialik is undertaking is hard work, but it is also extremely exciting and rewarding. We are committed to providing the best educational experience possible for our students and creating a school culture that is welcoming and supportive of all learners and families. I am confident that as we continue to refine and expand our outstanding program, the benefits will be evident for all to see.

As we all mark the new year with our different traditions and celebrations, may we all gain insight into ourselves as family members, friends, students, teachers and professionals. And let me wish everyone a year of health and fulfillment.

Shana tova!

Benjamin Cohen
Head of School