Later today, the halls of the offices of the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) will be filled, likely for the first time, with Yiddish.
This afternoon, students from 25 schools across the district will take part in the TDSB’s inaugural Tikkun Olam Social Justice Fair before attending the beginning of this evening’s board meeting for senior staff and trustees, during which a group of students from Summit Heights Public School will perform the Yiddish ballad Oyfn Pripetshik.
The song will be sung as part of a memorial to former York Centre (Ward 5) trustee Howard Kaplan, who died in April, and whom the day’s fair is being dedicated to.
A committee comprising Jewish TDSB teachers, principals and administrators decided to organize the tikkun olam fair as a way of marking this year’s Jewish Heritage Month, an annual event recognized in Ontario in the month of May since the provincial legislature established it in 2012.
In past years, the TDSB has acknowledged the month with different initiatives, such as last year’s essay contest, which asked students to write about a Jewish figure who contributed to Canadian culture.
“This year, the committee came up with the idea of celebrating tikkun olam. It’s a long beloved Jewish concept from the Mishnah, but it’s also very universal, because to fix the world means social justice. We’re proud because a lot of our schools have a real focus on social justice,” said Shari Schwartz-Maltz, media relations and issues manager at the TDSB and one of the board’s Jewish Heritage Month committee members.
The fair will be the biggest Jewish Heritage Month event the TDSB has undertaken thus far, Schwartz-Maltz said, and their hope is to make an impact.
Further, she explained that because Kaplan passed away while the fair was being planned, the committee decided it would be fitting that it be a tribute to him.
“Howard was a staunch advocate for Jewish culture… He was a secular Jew who loved left-wing causes and Yiddish. He would’ve loved the social justice fair,” Schwartz-Maltz said.
From 5:30 to 7 p.m., some 75 students – primarily elementary students up to Grade 8 – from participating schools will be at booths displaying via poster boards and laptops the social justice-oriented projects they’ve been working on during the school year.
For example, Schwartz-Maltz said, Grade 4 students from Ranchdale Public School will present work involved in what they’ve called a “kindness project,” which eveolved out of studying Hana’s Suitcase, a book about the Holocaust.
Other displays will focus on student research and initiatives related to causes such as child labour, the environment, food banks, animal cruelty and waste reduction.
“People can walk around and look at all they’ve done, like at a science fair,” Schwartz-Maltz said.
She noted that the event is especially unique, because the 25 schools that chose to take part include some in areas of the city where there aren’t large Jewish populations.
“The schools range from Scarborough to Etobicoke and everywhere in between. Some of them have Jewish teachers or principals, and others don’t, but everyone bought into the idea of tikkun olam and liked it very much,” she said.
Trustee Gerri Gershon of Don Valley West (Ward 13) said students from Marc Garneau Collegiate Institute in the former East York will be catering the event with Jewish-style finger foods they’ll prepare, including latkes and bagels with cream cheese and lox.
The event will be attended by senior TDSB staff, trustees and parents of the children involved, but it’s also open to the public, Gershon said.
The board meeting that evening will begin with the 75 students singing O Canada, followed by Gershon speaking about the relevance of Jewish Heritage Month and St. Paul’s (Ward 11) Trustee Shelley Laskin talking about Kaplan and his legacy.