Bronfman Jewish Experience Centre (BJEC)

In recognition of the unique composition of the Montreal Jewish community, it has had to develop its own models for supporting its schools, afternoon schools, Israel trips and camps. This was recognized as early as 1975 when a steering committee of the Allied Jewish Community Services (AJCS), the precursor of Federation CJA, recommended the creation of the Jewish Education Council of Greater Montreal (JEC).

The aims of the JEC were “to serve as a community body for strengthening Jewish education in Montreal. These objectives were to be achieved through collaboration, coordination of efforts, and consultation between members of the Council and its functional bodies. The Council included representatives from AJCS, afternoon congregational schools, the Association for the Advancement of Jewish Education (an umbrella body of Home and School Associations of the day schools), the Association of Jewish Day Schools, Canadian Jewish Congress, Canadian Zionist Federation, the rabbinate, and post-secondary Jewish educational bodies.

The Education Resource Centre (ERC) was established at the JEC as a service to the Jewish school community. Mr. Shlomo Shimon was the first director of the ERC when it opened its doors on the second floor of the Chevra Kadisha synagogue on Clanranald Avenue. Shlomo went on to become the Executive Director of the JEC in 1986.

The JEC was incorporated in 1992 and became the Bronfman Jewish Education Centre (BJEC) in 2000. BJEC, the JEC and the ERC were treasure troves and pedagogic leaders on the Montreal Jewish education scene. There, community members could find videos, records, texts and professional guidance of every type formal, experiential, for teachers and administrators of day schools and congregational schools.

The original team was made up of Shlomo Shimon, Batia Bettman, Sylvia Pinchuk and Sylvia Stippelman. They brought the community into the modern age of education. They introduced the Bloom Taxonomy, Instructional Objectives, Essential Elements of Effective Instruction and so much more. On the audiovisual side, they taught teachers how to use overhead projectors, slide projectors and guided them on how to make and present slide shows. Coordinating picture slides with audio tapes was a major step forward at the time and we witnessed with excitement when the Wolensack tape recorder had an automated electronic signal that advanced the slide from the sound track. Shlomo taught teachers how to write on slides so that they did not have to be limited to converting pictures into Kodak slides, but were able to write and create their own visual aids. The ERC library had thousands of Jewish educational books as well as books to help our general studies instructors.

When the Bronfman family endowed our sound studio, we were able to produce high-quality recordings to be used in our classrooms. The late Henry Beigel, Z” L was the meticulous technical advisor who took the greatest pride in every picture and every sound track that came out of his studio.

The JEC was always the “Laboratory” that brought into Montreal the finest professional development and our teachers were either up to date on everything that was new in the field of education or they were exposed to the most avant garde developments.

The JEC coordinated visits for our professionals to Jewish and secular educational conferences helping schools send their professionals to the Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD). Included with those visits were professional development and anniversary journeys to Israel to meet colleagues, chief Rabbis, the Jewish Agency and just to experience the feeling of the Land. The bus was our classroom and the hiking trails were the educational laboratories.

It was the BJEC vision that helped Montreal become a fixture on the world map of Jewish education with the creation of the Tal Sela Hebrew language curriculum. This effort included major resources from the Multiculturalism Ministry of the Canadian government. Ultimately Tal Sela grew into Ta LAM, which has graduated to become part of the Avi Chai Foundation.Ta LAM is presently evolving into iTaLAM, as it is now going digital. This curriculum, like its precursors, is being used by tens of thousands of students in countries the world over.

Before Shlomo retired from BJEC he had the foresight to bring onto the team Dr. Karen Gazith, a renowned educator and an expert in special education, who brought BJEC into the 20th century with the introduction of Differentiated Instruction, Understanding by Design and many other advances in pedagogy. Dr. Gazith fought tirelessly for the inclusion of students with special needs in our day schools. She was instrumental in encouraging schools to set up resource rooms so that such students could remain in Jewish schools. Before Dr. Gazith left BJEC, she worked together with the current Educational Consultant, Dr. Carly Rosenzweig to introduce Response to Intervention in our schools. This program can best be described as “better education for all students.”

Dr. Gazith also helped upgrade the system in addressing the needs of schools and teachers to meet the requirements of the Ministry of Education of Quebec with the licensing of teachers. Dr. Gazith was also a catalyst in arranging for teachers and administrators in our day schools to have access to an Educational Leadership certificate program through McGill University and the DSLTI (Day School Leadership Training Institute) program in New York.

In 1991, Shlomo Shimon created the Department of Living Judaism, which coordinated the March of the Living and Am Echad programs. Simon Bensimon became Director of the Department in 1994 and we added the Machanayim program for Camp programming staff, the CBB program and Am Segula – the École Maimonide program.

For a number of years, BJEC ran a family trip to Israel in December. Eventually, the Israel Experience Centre was created at BJEC. By that time the Israel Youth Program Centre at the Cavendish Mall was closed and the Zionist Federation was no longer a player in the community.

BIEC assumed responsibility for running Israel Experience programs in our community. At the time, these programs included a Grade 9 Israel trip for students enrolled in day schools, as well as the signature programs of March of the Living and Birthright. Under BIEC, Montreal was one of the communities that took the lead in providing follow-up programming for Birthright participants once they returned home.

Recently, BIEC has become part of the new GenMtl Department of Federation CJA.

BJEC was always more than children and more than day schools. Rosa Finestone, a retired Solomon Schechter Academy principal and highly respected educator, headed the Melton Adult Mini-School program. This program has now grown into the David Weissman Institute of Adult Learning. It is a credit to Rosa, and a source of joy, to see 25-30 adult learners squeeze into the BJEC classroom to learn.

Over the years, BJEC has been blessed with superior lay leaders many of whom were school presidents; some went on to become Federation CJA presidents. They had the vision to continually move BJEC from accomplishments to new horizons.

At present the Executive Director of BJEC is Dr. Shimshon Hamerman, the retired head of Solomon Schechter Academy. In his short time with BJEC, he has taken the agency in several new directions. BJEC helps to plan the Neguinafest – a high school music festival and is currently planning a system-wide simulation of the First Zionist Congress, a system-wide visit to the Chagall Exhibition for all elementary and high school students followed by a vernissage of our students’ works à la Chagall to be displayed at the Musée des beaux arts as well as in the Federation CJA lobby.

One of the most important undertakings of BJEC this year is raising the bar for French fluency and familiarization with Quebec culture. With the collaboration of the schools’ French Coordinators, all grades in the system will participate in activities to integrate our students into the French culture.

The BJEC Board of Directors has authorized an agenda that promises to bring BJEC to the forefront of Jewish education and identity development for all age groups in the community. In addition to the schools, BJEC is attempting to reach out to children who may not be in the day school system with experiential education programming. Similarly, BJEC is involved in providing Jewish educational programming for adults.