New Brandeis official learned key lessons living on kibbutz

When Chaim Heller made aliyah in 1974, it was a declaration of his love for the state of Israel.

Today, as the new head of campus at Brandeis Hillel Day School in San Francisco, Heller still expresses a strong commitment to Zionism and an educational philosophy shaped by years spent on a kibbutz.

"A lot of who I am and what I am is a product of kibbutz," Heller said. "It was a formative experience both as a person and as an educator."

Heller moved to Israel and joined Kibbutz Shomrat in the western Galilee after graduating from the City University of New York. When he took a job as a community school teacher, Heller discovered that it was possible to use Judaic texts to enhance his students' understanding of secular as well as religious subjects.

"On kibbutz, it's possible to be Jewish not only in the way you teach Torah, but in the way you teach math," said Heller, who later earned a master's degree in elementary education from Haifa University. "There was no separation between Jewish and general studies."

Heller and his family returned to the United States in 1990 after he was offered a job as school director at Morasha, a Jewish day school in Aliso Viejo, Calif.

He joined the Brandeis staff in August. As the school's head of campus, Heller is part of a team responsible for creating and implementing curriculum.

To that end, he would like to see a meshing of Judaic and general studies incorporated into the Brandeis curriculum, he said.

Heller is also encouraging the school to enhance its sense of "intimacy and warmth" as a community — another positive aspect of his kibbutz experience that he would like to bring here. His goal is for Brandeis to maintain its strong academic direction while striving to create a spiritual community, he said.

"What can make Brandeis unique and special is that there clearly be a sense that this is a community that is bound together by spirituality and transcendence," he explained.

Already, Heller is impressed by what he sees in the classroom. "The teachers are not just punching in for their paychecks. These are teachers who really take the craft of teaching seriously.

"There is an atmosphere of inquiry and creativity — a willingness to challenge long term assumptions to see how they work."

Sue Levinson, the school's admissions and public relations director, said Heller's experience at Morasha and on kibbutz made him an attractive candidate to become of head of campus at Brandeis.

"He had a lot of educational knowledge, both in general studies and in Jewish studies," she said. "That combination was really a strong pull.

"The community here at Brandeis is really thrilled with his arrival and we're looking forward to what's to come," she added.

According to Heller, "Every person who comes to a school brings to it their passions and strengths, as well as their quirks. My goal is to bring as many of the strengths and as few as the quirks and foibles as possible."

There is one more thing that Heller brings to the school. His 12-year-old son, Amitai, joins him on campus as a seventh-grade student.