In the Media

Anyone who has spent a morning toting a toddler on errands or navigated a strained chat with a teen about technology overuse, has undoubtedly experienced the range of personality traits found among the Four Sons in the Passover haggadah: the Wise, the Wicked, the Indifferent and the Unaware. Passover is a time of deep introspection and reflection, about the world, our people and ourselves. Along with the seder rituals, the haggada songs, the dipping of the karpas, the crunch of matzah and the sting of maror, the story of the Four Sons offers a lesson about human spirit; we are invited to explore the qualities of wonder, wisdom and wicked that are as much part of the world as they are a part of each one of us, and most importantly, what message should be gleaned from this.

Through encouraging our children to ask questions, the most important feature of the seder night, we are teaching them that we can always understand more, discover more and become more. This reality empowers us to improve and grow, releasing us from a “fixed mindset” about our potential. The Four Sons narrative brings to the fore an important message that allows each of us to live life as fully actualized human beings: we are not defined by our environment or even our temperament. Our actions and the choices that we make are what reveal our true selves. Questioning, including questioning our daily practices, our basic beliefs and even ourselves, is the antidote to complacency and the tool to a self improvement that knows no bounds.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes about the importance of teaching our children to question: “Just as the Israelites are about to leave Egypt and begin their life as a free people under the sovereignty of G-d…hand on the memory of this moment to your children, says Moses. But do not do so in an authoritarian way. Encourage your children to ask, question, probe, investigate, analyze, explore. Liberty means freedom of the mind, not just of the body…It is only those who lack confidence, who have secret and suppressed doubts, who are afraid.”

The Seder is an experiential intergenerational Jewish learning experience that offers deep insight into what is expected of us as Jews and human beings: despite the devastating effects of human oppression that we experienced in Egypt, we have uncanny ability to garner the strength to overcome incredible obstacles, always looking forward towards self improvement and discovery. The story of the Four Sons is a reminder that the complexity of our character requires constant self reflection. Complacency is the greatest roadblock to personal development; questioning is the key to everlasting spiritual growth.

Tammy Keces M.A. is the principal of Irvine Hebrew Day School and a lead Certified Positive Discipline Trainer.
Published Jlife 2017

ASK YOUR CHILD  to describe the thrill of winning a quidditch match at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, or the challenge of roaming the harsh desert of Tatooine accompanied by a droid, you might hear a narration as vivid as an authentic memory. But how about having your child imagine the experience of putting a personal prayer note into the cracks of the ancient kotel (Western Wall), or of a weightless float in the Dead Sea? Do you hear a description with even a fraction of that clarity, if any at all?

This reality inspired us at Irvine Hebrew Day School to challenge ourselves with a most critical question: How do we give our children the gift of a rich, palpable Israel experience, one infused with passion, curiosity and inquiry, connecting young souls to our ancient homeland?

We celebrate the Israel experience daily with our children when we holistically and joyfully integrate Israel education into all that we teach, and offer opportunities to discover the many wonders of Israel, both ancient and modern. Through experiential learning including “traveling” the routes of our ancestors on an oversized map, discovering modern Israeli ingenuity through robotics or hydroponic systems or exploring the unique elements of Israeli Art through hands on creation, we can infuse our education with the essence of Israel in the most meaningful ways.

We at IHDS, thanks to the support from Jewish Community Foundation Orange County, have been building an Israel curriculum to accomplish this goal. Through our Israeli Art Masters program our students experience renowned Israeli artists by exploring the uniquely Israeli elements, both historical and contemporary; and inspired by the Israeli muse our students make their own creations, and will ultimately meet an Israeli artist we have studied to share our works with each other! Our Israel Education Institute, developed in a collaboration between IHDS and Temple Beth Sholom, and an Israeli STEAM curriculum is being developed through which our students engage in hands on activities that explore Israeli technology and creativity, connecting our students to modern day Israel as well as celebrating all that our people have accomplished.

Of course the most extraordinary “curriculum” of all, the Torah, when implemented in a way that highlights our historical relationship to the land and captures a child’s imagination, can bring Israel to life in the most powerful of ways. Learning Torah text and stories in a way that is both experiential and inquiry based, brings to life the places, people and events from the beginning of time, the stories of our ancestors through the Jewish exodus and journey to our homeland. Children who study Torah in this way fully experience the historical and spiritual link between the Jewish people and the present day Land of Israel.

So while our very young children might still imagine the thrill of riding a magical broomstick or strolling with C3PO, as they grow in a community that celebrates their intimate connection with centuries of our extraordinary history, perhaps the thrill of navigating the narrow streets and alleys of the Old City of Jerusalem will ultimately outshine all others.

Tammy Keces M.A. is the principal of Irvine Hebrew Day School and a lead Certified Positive Discipline Trainer. Published Jlife 2017

Whether it’s a lobby vending machine, movie theater concession or a mall coffee shop, food is so ubiquitous in our fortunate lives that our inability to muster up gratitude for it seems inevitable. Parents try to encourage their children to develop healthy relationships with food, but how do we teach appreciation when we are busy worrying about our children being picky eaters (the bread, cheese, noodles and chocolate diet) or consuming too much junk or fast food? Not to mention the worries over our children’s growing list of food allergies…

Put a bowl of crunchy fresh popcorn in front of a group five year olds and you will undoubtedly witness feverish grabbing by the handfuls without regard for the gift of food before us. Perhaps in an alternate universe you can witness this group of kindergarteners wait patiently while the popcorn is placed on the table and a discussion begins about where the corn kernels come from, how it is prepared and what bracha (blessing) to say before any child takes a single bite. This “alternate universe” is a snapshot of snack time each day at Irvine Hebrew Day School, where a community of young, mindful eaters experience together the Jewish approach to eating.

That moment before we place the first bite of food into our mouths and ask ourselves did it grow on a vine, a tree or in the earth, is the time that we can capture the awe of our wondrous bounty, leading us to a deeper connection to our earth, G-d and each other. We are also reminded that food is the fuel that nourishes our body, preventing us from getting sick and healing us when we do. Eating mindfully helps us develop an attitude of gratitude which we can experience many times each and every day.

Accompanying our eating with the mindful process of saying brachot before and after meals also allows us to reflect on how we are eating. When we eat whole or unprocessed foods we notice how simple our brachot are. The more processed our foods are, the more we ponder “what bracha do I say?,” giving us a chance to consider the quality of that which we eat.

Teaching our children to say brachot over food may be as important as teaching them to eat healthfully, or reminding them to stop and smell the roses… or better yet, to stop and smell the oranges, or appreciate the blueberry, its source and beauty. Considering the nutritional benefits of these sweet antioxidants, it really does warrant a moment of gratitude. The added benefits of a mindful connection with our food goes beyond what we typically think about when we consider nutrition.

If you are looking for a simple, accessible way to connect with G-d, perhaps start with a simple bracha, and take a healthy step towards a spiritual connection with the divine gift of food.

Tammy Keces M.A. is the principal of Irvine Hebrew Day School and a lead Certified Positive Discipline Trainer. Published in Jlife 2017.

A few years ago at one of my Parenting workshops, a mom admitted jokingly about her parenting blunder: “You should know, I’m a recovering over scheduler!” This eager and dedicated young mother explained how she found herself loading her son’s schedule with activities, and although her intention was to help him find a sense of belonging and purpose, she found that he was actually losing his sense of self. Realizing she needed to make a change, she began to reduce his load.

As it turns out, the one extracurricular activity she had not yet canceled was scheduled on Friday nights. Before enrolling in soccer, this used to be the time that she and her family would gather at her parents’ home for Shabbat dinner just in time to light the Shabbat candles, where he learned to say kiddush, the blessing over the challah, sing the most beautiful Shabbat melodies and enjoy his grandmother’s traditional Jewish recipes. Soccer practice on Friday evening meant losing this very formative and special experience. Ironically, in an attempt to give her son a sense of belonging and to foster his personal growth, she ended up removing him from the one activity that gave him the greatest sense of connection and purpose in life: experiencing his Jewish self.

This predicament of over scheduling in a quest to bring our children’s lives meaning is all too common today. Dr. Alvin Rosenfeld, the leading expert on overscheduled children, initiated a “National Family Night,” in which Americans were encouraged to set one night per year for their families only: No scheduled activities, work, sports activities or homework. Sound familiar? Imagine adding to this special “Family Night” a framework to connect spiritually, celebrate your religious individuality and Jewish heritage…and you have Shabbat. It seems we Jewish people are onto something!

As parents we intuitively recognize this need for our children to feel a sense of belonging, and we are right. But if we recognize the gift that has been bestowed upon us as Jewish people, rather than searching for novel (and sometimes forced) opportunities, we may find that it’s more attainable than we think. Alfred Adler, the Austrian psychiatrist who founded “Individual Psychology” recognized that we are all seeking a sense of belonging within a community, and this sense of community starts with a recognition and acceptance of the interconnectedness of all people. Ultimately, many come to realize that Jewish life, ritual and community is a gift that gives our children the sense of belonging and significance we have all been seeking, and is at our fingertips each and every day.

Tammy Keces M.A. is the principal of Irvine Hebrew Day School and a lead Certified Positive Discipline Trainer. Published Jlife 2016.

Can you imagine just how different our most beloved holiday might be if, instead of lighting candles for eight nights, we, say…ate bread for eight nights? Or burned eight nights of incense? It may seem like a bizarre hypothetical exercise, but actually, the Golden Menorah upon which the miracle of Hanukkah occurred stood in the same part of the Temple sanctuary as the Shulchan, a Golden table that held twelve loaves of bread, and the Mizbeach HaZahav, the golden incense altar. So really, had the the miracle of Hanukkah occurred during a different part of the Temple service, our beautiful Festival of Lights might have been the Festival of Loaves or the Festival of Scents! So what is the significance of the Hanukkiah, the Menorah, and what can we learn from the fact that the miracle specifically centered around the lights of the Temple service?

In the word of the Holy Kabbalist Rav Moshe Alshich, “The Menorah symbolizes Man who is like a lamp, ready to give light with the help of the Lord, through Torah and good works.” In other words, the man-sized, seven branched Golden candelabra that stood in the Holy Temple captures the same indomitable Jewish spirit that our ancestors showed in the face of religious persecution. It was with this spirit that the Maccabees took up arms when the Assyrian-Greek King, Antiochus, abolished fundamental Jewish practices such as the observance of Shabbat and Jewish Holidays, refusing to give up that part of us that feeds our Jewish souls and allows us to shine. It was with this spirit that they re-entered the defiled Holy Temple in Jerusalem and set to work restoring the daily service that was the beating heart of our ancient Jewish ancestors. And it was with this spirit that they faithfully filled the golden Menorah with the last jar of pure olive oil, refusing to balk at the apparent paucity of their spiritual resources.

As we light the Hannukah candles let’s take a moment to reflect on how we can ignite our own indomitable Jewish spirit this year. It may seem at times as though our Jewish practice has lapsed and that our spiritual resources are dwindling; but if the Hanukkah story has something to teach us it is that when we rededicate our hearts to serving G-d the results will be nothing short of miraculous.

Rabbi Amittai Steindler is the Jewish Studies Director and Educator at Irvine Hebrew Day School. Published in Jlife 2016

One of the greatest challenges facing Jewish educators is how to turn school Tefillah into an uplifting experience. Every day, my students convey, in one way or another, the desire to feel connected to their peers, and to something greater than themselves. While Tefillah can be the ideal time to cultivate connection with G-d, at times we have all found it tedious, or even alienating. As a solution, we at Irvine Hebrew Day School designed a Musical Tefillah* program, that has helped to infuse our school with the joy of spiritual connection.

Our practice of Musical Tefillah is rooted in the festivities that took place in the Holy Temple of Jerusalem during the festival of Sukkot. For six nights, from dusk until dawn, the generation’s leading scholars danced and made music in the Temple Courtyard. Pilgrims from all over Israel flooded the Temple complex to participate in the elevated rejoicing. Maimonides writes, in his Code of Jewish Law: “Flutes were sounded, and harps, lyres and cymbals were played. Anyone who could play an instrument, played it, anyone who could sing, sang. They danced, clapping hands and leaping, each one to the best of his ability.” (8:13)

While this week-long “spiritual rave” took place only during Temple times, Maimonides relates that in general, “The joy which a person derives from doing good deeds and from loving G-d…is a supreme form of divine worship.” (8:15) In other words, if approached with the right intention, dancing and making music before G-d is a spiritual service akin to communal prayer.

When our whole school gathers together for Musical Tefillah each Friday, smiles beam on our faces in anticipation. We have learned that by singing, playing and dancing as a community before G-d, our joy will give our prayers wings.

*Part of our Tzlilim Mesaprim (Sounds tell Stories) music program is funded in part by a JFFS Impact grant.

Rabbi Amittai Steindler is the Jewish Studies Director of Irvine Hebrew Day School, musician, avid gardener and father to two young children. Published in Jlife 2016.

As I picked up my 1st grader from Irvine Hebrew Day School, and asked him about his day, I anticipated the programmed 7-year old response: “Fine”, or better yet, “I can’t remember!”  Imagine my surprise when he shared, unfolding a paper with his own handwriting, “Today I persevered through a challenge, encouraged my classmates, found a creative solution to a problem and valued others’ opinions. It was a great day!”

The daily “cheshbon nefesh”, (literally “accounting of the soul”) or personal reflection checklist that our students use to reflect on their day at IHDS, demonstrates how each of us, at any age, experiences growth through self-awareness. Even as adults, we often hyperfocus on our missteps and shortcomings, failing to appreciate our many daily accomplishments. This personal reflection checklist encourages children to discover and celebrate those accomplishments that might otherwise fade into the background, such as listening respectfully to others, having a positive attitude, or being truthful. While we all do many of these things regularly without thought, how many of us take the time to reflect on their importance? As we come to appreciate our positive attributes through self-reflection, we become encouraged by our power to make a positive difference in the world every day. The “cheshbon nefesh” fosters the intrinsic motivation to be compassionate, diligent, respectful, creative, and face challenges with grace.

Although self-reflection is important every day, during this time of prescribed introspection we have a genuine opportunity for growth through personal accounting. Expanding our spiritual checklist to reflect on those deeds which we want to augment as well as that which we want to eliminate can prepare us for a truly transformative High Holiday season. An honest snapshot of our inner landscape has the greatest spiritual impact, leading us to new heights in 5777!

Karin Hepner Ph.D. is a co-founder of Irvine Hebrew Day School, molecular biologist and mom of five in Irvine. Published in Jlife

We all beam with pride when we consider our history of varied and extraordinary Jewish artistic talent, past and present: Franz Kafka, Gustav Mahler, Marc Chagall, Leonard Bernstein… and of course don’t forget Mel Brooks, Barbara Streisand and George Gershwin…the list seems endless!  Although, as parents, we are often bogged down in the mundane tasks of finding that missing left shoe, we must take the time to carefully consider a deeper question: what unique characteristics are found among these artists, and how do we curate the next generation of creative Jewish thinkers?

Remarkably, the traits with which these successful artists are endowed are also shared with our most accomplished scientists and entrepreneurs, including: innovativeness, creativity and perseverance. And, conveniently, educational research now shows that these universal traits are effectively fostered through arts education. Yet, although it is an accepted reality that success in the 21st century depends on our ability to be inventive, imaginative, expressive and resourceful (each one a skill fostered directly through the arts). Across the United States, arts education has been dealt a heavy blow, being drastically reduced, or even cut from public schools.

As I observe our own students discover their own creative voices, connect with each other through collaboration, and explore complex concepts with unyielding positivity, I am reminded of the essential need for the arts in a truly holistic education. This experience becomes even more powerful when it includes the exploration of Jewish concepts, texts and traditions. Irvine Hebrew Day School has taken an innovative approach to arts programming, weaving the arts into all aspects of education, including Jewish learning. Whether it be a multi-generational Jewish-themed drum circle exploring themes of Lag B’omer; an acoustical tefillah (prayer) session evoking personal expressions of appreciation; “Parsha Performance” dramatic arts exploring human behavior and the motivation behind biblical characters’ choices; or hands-on exploration of Israeli art masters and biblical architecture, our innovative education is an experiential one, using the arts to support all areas of growth and learning.

So, how can we continue to add to the long list of creative Jewish thinkers? It begins with an integrated, experiential arts program, which helps set the foundation for a truly holistic educational experience. Who knows, maybe the owner of the missing left sneaker has a place saved on that distinguished list?

Tammy Keces M.A. is the principal of Irvine Hebrew Day School and a lead Certified Positive Discipline Trainer. Published in Jlife 2016

Summertime conjures up joyful images of lemonade stands, splashing at the beach and family vacations. It can also stir up anxiety for parents, as we feel dependent on the structure of the school year to keep our children meaningfully engaged. If that’s how you’re feeling, then take a deep breath and let’s rethink those long summer days filled with downtime. Summer can be an opportunity to teach some of the most important lessons of all: life skills. The pace of the school year prevents us from having the time to teach our kids to tie their shoes, to make a sandwich or set the dinner table. Who has time to plant a vegetable garden while rushing from school to soccer practice to ballet, and somehow squeezing in dinner and homework in between?

But as things slow down over summer, remember that our children are full of curiosity and, what might be mundane for us, can open new worlds for our children. One of our students was so excited when he learned about the ideal conditions for plant growth, that he went home and aerated his family garden!  Engaging even our youngest children in household chores teaches social responsibility, builds confidence, independence and pride. That sense of mastery can carry them through the next school year, as they take pride in knowing how to identify recyclables, plan and prepare their own lunch, or share their chart showing how long it takes for different vegetables to grow. In fact, studies have shown that children who start chores at a young age have the greatest academic, social and professional success later in life.

Summer can be filled with rich, meaningful experiences and a time for building beautiful memories… and not all of them need to involve complex planning. Pull out some old sheets for a fort, explore together in an imaginary lego world, and for every “I can do it myself” two-year old, teach them about planting in suitable soil and consistent watering… Imagine how much you’ll save on a gardener!

Family Skill Building!
Here is a list of Age-Appropriate Activities: 

Ages 2-3

  • Put toys in toy box
  • Stack books on shelf
  • Set the table
  • Plant flowers and water the vegetable garden

Ages 4-7 

  • Feed pets
  • Water houseplants
  • Prepare simple snacks
  • Gather trash

Ages 8-12

  • Fold towels
  • Empty dishwasher
  • Match clean socks
  • Weed garden
  • Peel potatoes or carrots

Age 12 and Up 

  • Wash/ vacuum car
  • Shop for groceries with a list
  • Cook complete dinner or bake bread or cake
  • Do simple home repairs
  • Watch younger siblings

Tammy Keces M.A. is the principal of Irvine Hebrew Day School and a lead Certified Positive Discipline Trainer.

As parents we intuitively know that to raise happy children we can’t leave childhood to chance. We know that each year is precious, and this is reflected in the great investment we make in choosing the right schools. Finding that school, however, is no small feat. On her first day of preschool, our daughter (apparently lacking preverbal communication skills), bit a classmate and then announced resolutely that “this was my first and last day of preschool!” Fortunately, our little biter is now off to UCLA to study biology, but this leads me to reflect on how we navigate the sometimes bumpy road from chomping-preschooler to compassionate and respectful young adult; one who is now a self-directed learner, an analytical and creative thinker, and one who can confidently tackle life’s obstacles.

We invest incredible thought and finances into preschool, and the costs for our college-bound children are staggering. But what about the choices we make during those years in between? Although it is counter-intuitive, we often tend towards passive decision-making, despite the fact that the stakes are greatest between ages 5-18. In fact, it is during these years that the trajectory of their analytical skills, creativity and social emotional growth are deeply influenced by their environment. Choosing the right school during this time, perhaps more than any other, can have the greatest impact on our children’s future.

As we explore colleges we ask: “Will the environment support my daughter’s ability to flourish intellectually?” “Will my child feel a sense of belonging?” “Will his interests and uniqueness be celebrated and full potential be encouraged?” These are fundamental questions we ask when we are considering colleges, because we are looking for the greatest return on our investment; undoubtedly, we should be asking these very same questions as we begin elementary school, and throughout childhood.

Every year is a new beginning and as we reflect on the school year that is coming to an end and the possibilities for the year to come, let us ask ourselves if we are leaving childhood to chance.  _

Tammy Keces M.A. is the principal of Irvine Hebrew Day School and a lead Certified Positive Discipline Trainer. Published Jlife 2016.

As parents, how much time have we spent obsessing over sunscreen re-application, paid double for the organic grapes, or attempted veggie-concealing recipes? (I’m right there with you!) And, while each one of these is important, even we sunscreen-lathering, organic fruit-eating, veggie-hiding moms agree that there is much more that goes into creating healthy children.

Dr. Daniel Siegel of UCLA developed the Healthy Mind Platter, a depiction of optimal living during today’s “epidemic of overwhelm.” It’s no secret that our mental well being is at risk in a culture of fast-paced multi-tasking and information overload, preventing us from experiencing and appreciating life fully and in-the-moment; and our children, like us, pay the price.

The items on this “platter” include essentials of wellness that create deeper connections with others, better self-regulation, greater peace and overall happiness. Dr. Siegel points out that balance, the key ingredient for emotional well being, is not encouraged in our 21st century society: not in our schools, our workplaces or even in our homes. Our children return after a full day of school and, rather than having time to communicate and reflect, they are thrust into hours of additional schoolwork, only to start the draining cycle over the next day. In our professional lives, we are seldom encouraged to “leave work at work,” so we can fully connect with our families and return recharged the next day. Even at home, how often do we prioritize our mental well being, and walk away from the chores to go for a stroll beneath the stars?

There is no single prescription for emotional health; each individual needs something different, and these needs evolve. The key is to find a balanced, holistic approach to daily living.

So as we spray on the sunscreen, pack the organic lunch and shred the zucchini into microscopic bits, let’s be sure we are also sending them to the schools that support holistic growth, that we are creating sacred time for connection, and that we model for our children the importance of living a life of balance, focus and reflection.

Tammy Keces M.A. is the principle of Irvine Hebrew Day School and a Lead Certified Positive Discipline Trainer. Published in JLife 2016.


We have all heard the comical saying: “Ask two Jews, Get three opinions!” With over 100,000 Jews in Orange County today, imagine the number of opinions among us about what a Shabbat service should look like, how to conduct a Passover seder or the best bagel in town. We are all of the same tribe, yet it presents a mind-boggling challenge to identify the thread that could unite us as a people.

Our best clue, perhaps, comes from a quote from the Ethics of Our Fathers,

“Ben Zoma says: Who is wise? He who learns from all people.”

At Irvine Hebrew Day School we embrace this adage by guiding our children in the celebration of diversity which begins with learning from one another. Our children practice listening without judgement, asking respectful curiosity questions and solving differences cooperatively as a community. Beginning with our children, we are uniting Jewish families from all backgrounds, teaching them to rejoice in that which unites us and to embrace our differences. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks says: “We celebrate both our commonalities and differences, because if we had nothing in common we could not communicate, and if we had everything in common, we would have nothing to say.”

How does one celebrate Jewish diversity and create true Jewish unity? Just as musicians must learn music fundamentals to create complex harmony, Jewish people can be equipped with core Jewish knowledge as a unifying tool. Our traditions, values and teachings belong to each one of us, regardless of our differences; and as we delve into Jewish texts and learn more about our heritage, we stop focusing on the colors of the individual thread, but enjoy the tapestry as a whole.

To build unity and celebrate our uniqueness, let us teach our children that Jewish individuality is the force that strengthens us as a people.

Tammy Keces M.A. is the principal of Irvine Hebrew Day School and a lead Certified Positive Discipline Trainer. Published Jlife 2016.