By Dr. Jonathan Gray
Sitting amongst some 275 people at the fifth anniversary celebration of one of Ottawa’s most successful and fast-growing Jewish institutions, my mind drifts back another decade or so. As a single man in my early twenties, I started to come to synagogue on Saturday mornings after avoiding the place since my Bar Mitzvah. I had decided that I wanted to get involved in the religion I grew up with, but had little idea how. Thankfully, a teenaged boy at the shul noticed I didn’t know what was going on there. He made an effort always to sit near me and help me become familiar with the service. He suggested user-friendly books to learn from and invited me back to his parents’ home for my first traditional Shabbat meal. Following high school this same young man pursued an engineering degree and, after a brief stint in that field, eventually left to work for NCSY, later earning an MBA with the aim of improving his skills towards a career in Jewish outreach. That boy was Bram Bregman, and together with Gavriel Scarowsky, he runs the incredibly successful Torah High program.
On June 14, 2011, interested community members, former and current students packed the main social hall at the Soloway JCC for the anniversary celebration. As Rabbi Leib Irons, Regional Director for NCSY Canada put it that evening: Torah High has shown huge growth since its inception. Rabbi Irons uses it as an example of a successful outreach program when he visits other Jewish communities in Canada. The numbers speak for themselves.
Expecting only about 25 students to sign up in its inaugural year, the founders were amazed when 52 Ottawa teens joined Torah High to earn extra high school credits while being stimulated by exciting discussions on Jewish topics. The program grew every year since then to a class size of 101 in 2010-2011.
After opening remarks from Bram Bregman there were greetings from Rabbi Bulka of Congregation Machzikei Hadas, Mitchell Bellman, the CEO of the Jewish Federation of Ottawa and Rabbi Leib Irons, NCSY Canada’s regional director. All had nothing but praise for the success of the program.
The Keynote speaker was Founder and Director of Education for Torah High Rabbi Yehuda Simes, whose quiet charisma has been instrumental to the growth of the organization as well as earning him the love and respect of all the students. He spoke about his experience following the tragic car accident last summer that left him a quadriplegic. Although Rabbi Simes emphasized that he and his family went through tremendous hardships as a result, he understands everything to be part of a Divine Plan designed to maximize our spiritual growth. G-d does not send us struggles without also giving us the tools we need to overcome them. Rabbi Simes’ healthcare workers were surprised by his positive outlook, since understandably such emotional resilience is rare in these circumstances. His attitude and unwavering faith has been a source of inspiration to others not only in the Torah High program but the broader community as well. This was made clear by the local and national media attention given to his case, and at the 5th anniversary event by the audience in their many questions and comments to him following his talk.
All past and present Torah High Students were honoured in an award ceremony. In addition, the winners of the Torah High Promotional Video Contest were congratulated and had an opportunity to screen their creations. Evoking much hilarity was Bram and Gavriel’s own production illustrating the dedication of the Torah High Teaching Staff. A Trivia game was a great way to entertain the students as well as educating the audience about Torah High. The most popular name among Torah High Students? Jordan. The students’ favourite candy bar? Hershey’s Cookies n’ Cream. There were no Hershey Bars available this evening, but attendees were treated to a sumptuous dessert reception to conclude the evening.
In his closing remarks, Bram Bregman spoke again about the importance of Jewish education. Torah High allows teens to have positive associations with Judaism. Learning takes place in a relaxed, teen-friendly environment with comfy couches, good food, thought-provoking discussions and a lively and dedicated group of teachers. By solidifying Jewish identity during these crucial, formative years, Torah High helps to create the Jewish Community for the next generation. As I think back to how I was helped along my Jewish journey by Bram Bregman so many years ago I look around at a room full of young people who will one day be able to look back and say the same thing.