Over the last few years, OJCS has had a Rabbi Simes Day of Learning as a tribute to the legacy of Rabbi Simes. The highlight for me is listening to former students recollect on the impression that Rabbi Simes had on them.
This year, we were privileged to hear from Brittany Silver. I know that I was moved by her words & I am sure that you will be too!
My name is Britany Silver, and I was a student at OJCS, formerly known as Hillel Academy, for 8 years from 1998 to 2006. I began in grade 1 and graduated after completing grade 8. In that time, I had the privilege of meeting many wonderful life-long friends, and teachers, one of whom was Rabbi Simes. My close friend Corinne (whom I met in grade 1 at Hillel) approached me a few weeks ago and asked if I would be interested in speaking with you today and sharing a little about my own experience as having Rabbi Simes as a teacher, and the long-lasting effect that it has had on my life. I’m honoured to have the opportunity to share my perspective on Rabbi Simes’ impact, as I feel very lucky to have known him. When I started to think about what I wanted to say, I quickly realized that there just aren’t any words that would do justice to the memory and impact he left behind, but I will certainly try. At 5 years old, I first started at Hillel Academy. It was my first exposure to Judaism outside of the celebrations and holidays that I held with my family. My first few years at Hillel were very formative for me and created the very foundation of my lifelong Jewish identity. We were entering grade 4 when we were told that a Rabbi from New York would be moving to Ottawa to teach at our school. This new Rabbi would bring knowledge and change the way we learn and think about Torah, and what it means to be “Jewish”. We expected a stern, serious, no-nonsense teacher, and were greatly surprised when in walked Rabbi Simes, the most unassuming and polite man you could ever meet. There were a few things that we learned about Rabbi Simes right away. He liked to write on the board, a lot, and he liked to reward us, or some would say bribe us, with chocolate macaroons if we participated in class. Rabbi Simes had a special way of teaching Torah. His passion was contagious. We didn’t just have lessons about the stories and values, we had discussions, we had debates. Every day he would encourage us to ask more questions, to debate, and to challenge him. He would get so excited teaching about the Mishna, saying “it’s generations of Rabbis disagreeing with, and debating each other!” Sometimes we would stay after class just so we could finish our discussion before we went home. After each discussion we would expect an amazing answer but, with guidance from Rabbi Simes we learned that when trying to answer one question, we’d always end up with 10 more questions. Our Jewish learning continued to evolve as we got older. Our conversations became more elaborate, and more complicated. It became clear through our learning, that a deep connection with Judaism isn’t taught, it comes from within. I distinctly remember a conversation that we had around Pesach, and I asked him, “Rabbi, am I really supposed to believe that the sea split in two?” He looked at me excitedly and said “Britany, think outside the box! Have you ever witnessed a storm so powerful, a tornado, an earthquake? Think of all the different possibilities!” His excitement in wanting me to think outside the box, made me excited to think outside the box. In grade 5, I had the privilege of being a student in Rabbi Simes’ class again. That year came with many memories. We always had an invite to celebrate holidays with Rabbi Simes and his family, we always had a sukkah to go to, always a shofar to hear, always a lulav and etrog to shake. That same year, Rabbi Simes invited our class to observe Shabbat with his family, opening their home to allow us the opportunity to experience how fun and relaxing Shabbat can truly be. In this short time, we saw Rabbi Simes as more than just a teacher, he was a husband, a father, and a friend. Even when my mom came to pick us up on Saturday night, she was invited to stay for Havdalah, and he ensured that we all had the opportunity to participate. One of the greatest qualities that Rabbi Simes had, was that it didn’t matter who he was speaking to, child or adult, student, or teacher, he always spoke with understanding, making sure that the person he was speaking to understood how much he cared about them. With this, he also took opportunities to make his students laugh. I was lucky enough to experience Rabbi Simes’ first (and probably last) time teaching French. He couldn’t even recite a full sentence in French with his American accent without breaking out in laughter. He helped us understand that it was not only okay to make mistakes – but important to make them, laugh at them, and learn from them. By now I was in grade 6, and I had started studying for my Bat Mitzvah. My parents signed me up for lessons and wanted to make sure I was as prepared as I could be. As part of that, they tasked me with writing a Dvar Torah on each week’s parsha to improve my writing skills and prepare myself to become a Jewish adult. I was to work on the report all week, and then submit it to Rabbi Simes for review and feedback, so he could let me know how I could improve. Well, let me tell you. The first week I handed Rabbi Simes my first parsha report, he looked at the report, looked at me, looked back at the report and said, “This is not the way to learn Torah, it should be fun, not forced!” I was so excited to go home and tell my parents that Rabbi Simes said that I didn’t have to do my homework. The years passed, and suddenly we were graduating grade 8. My connection to the Jewish community remained strong. I attended Torah High with some of my peers, meeting after school once a week to learn and laugh with Rabbi Simes and Bram Bregman. Torah High was essential to my continued learning as I got older. It kept me interested in what Judaism had to offer, and it fed my curious teenage mind. It was welcoming and fun, and never took itself too seriously. I graduated high school in June 2010, with high hopes for the future. Around the same time, we learned the news of Rabbi Simes. I think anyone who had ever known Rabbi Simes thought, how can this happen to such a kind and wonderful person? A few years later, my cousin Jordan, who was also a student of Rabbi Simes, called me to say that Rabbi Simes would be speaking at an event at the JCC, and asked if I wanted to go. Of course, I was eager to go. We listened to the Rabbi talk about his life, his experiences, and his lessons. He concluded his speech with the idea that we all have challenges that we face every day, his were no different, they were simply more visible. Despite everything that he had experienced, he was still empowering everyone around him. After the event had ended, members of the crowd approached Rabbi Simes to say hi. Jordan said to me, “Should we go and say hi to him?” I said, “Yes of course, but look at all the people talking to him! He’s had hundreds, maybe thousands of students over the years, I can’t imagine he’ll remember us”. As we approached him, his smile grew, and his eyes widened as he said “Jordan! Britany! How are you!?”. Of course, he remembered us. It was Rabbi Simes, after all. The energy and commitment that he put into his relationships with his students, in hindsight, it’s hard to imagine why I thought he wouldn’t remember us. It was clear in that moment that we not take for granted the exceptional opportunity that we were given, the unique experience he provided to us, helping us grow and shaping the way that we would experience the world. After I graduated from university, I chose to move to Israel, because I was ready to challenge myself. Rabbi Simes taught me that it was ok to challenge your own beliefs, to ask questions until you’re confident that you understand the issue at hand, and that a perfectly good answer to a question is “I don’t know, let’s think of the possibilities”. Through his teaching, I was ready to take on the responsibility of a Jewish adult, to commit to learning, experiencing, taking it all in, and becoming a better person. My time spent in Israel, challenging my beliefs, and asking questions, had a tremendous impact on my relationship with Judaism, and how I feel about being Jewish, even today. I have never been more proud to be Jewish. I am proud of the depth of learning that we commit to, I am proud of how we take care of each other as a community, I am proud to explain to others who ask, “What does it mean to be Jewish?”, and then to see their confusion when every Jewish person gives them a different answer. I currently have the privilege to teach at Jewish Sunday School every week. A privilege that I have had every year since moving back from Israel. My journey in exploring and confirming my Jewish identity has brought me to this very point in my life, where I feel it is an immense privilege to be able to share the fun, inquisitive, exciting experiences that I had, growing up with a teacher-like Rabbi Simes. The world is a better place because of the impact that Rabbi Simes had, and his legacy continues to inspire. This has been my unique experience, but there are hundreds of others, some similar and some different, that will all give you a different perspective of how great Rabbi Simes was. Thank you for your time and for allowing me to speak here today. I hope that if today teaches you anything at all, it is to keep an open mind, and always show kindness, understanding, and compassion. These are the main lessons Rabbi Simes shared with us not only in his teaching but in how he lived his life each and every day.
Brittany, you have made Rabbi Simes come alive in his thought attitude and love of Judaism. I know you were enriched by his teaching and his treatment if his students. You are so fortunate to have had him and his caring, thoughtful wisdom in your young life. Thank you for sharing.
What. Beautiful work and memories of Rabbi Simes. We miss and think of him often? Thank you for sharing!
beautiful! How are you doing Shaindel? We haven’t connected in a while! Any plans to visit this summer?????? ________________________________