S.F. campus marks 40th year: At midlife, everything’s new again at Brandeis Hillel

Excitedly, she points out the shiny sink and water fountain and the large windows overlooking a quiet, outdoor area for work or play — just some of the many features in the new Brandeis Hillel Day School building.

The brown-haired teacher then heads out into the hallway, but not before taking a quick backward glance around the room like the proudest of mothers.

She makes her way across the wide, sun-lit corridor — silent, but for the occasional sound of a child’s chatter echoing off the walls — and heads into the staff kitchen.

“We are standing in the Ritz-Carlton of Jewish day schools,” she proclaims, brushing past a plate of sugar cookies and heading to the water cooler to fill her cup. Staff and students on the recently renovated San Francisco campus, she adds, “finally have the environment we deserved all along.”

Brandeis prepares this week to dedicate its new $10 million building, the first of three construction and expansion phases on the 1.9 acre campus at 655 Brotherhood Way.

The dedication, known in Hebrew as chanukat habayit, will be held on the Brotherhood Way campus at 5 p.m. Tuesday, and will include student and alumni speakers, an official blessing of the building and a reception. A wall will be unveiled that commemorates some 430 individuals, families and foundations responsible for raising more than $7.5 million toward the construction.

The event takes place as the kindergarten through eighth-grade day school in San Francisco celebrates its 40th year. The school’s Marin campus in San Rafael, meanwhile, is celebrating its 25th year.

For Danny Levy, whose 6-year-old son, Aaron, attends kindergarten in the new, 24,200-square-foot Noah’s ark-shaped building — with library, beit midrash (house of worship), conference room and offices — it seems like only yesterday when he, too, was going to Brandeis.

Things were much different, however, when Levy was a first- through sixth-grader at Brandeis in the 1970s. For one, the school was housed at Reform Congregation Sherith Israel. It didn’t move to the Brotherhood Way campus until 1983, when it began renting space from the United Jewish Community Centers, purchasing the 1.9-acre property for $1.8 million in 1995.

Brandeis Hillel, which resulted from the 1963 merger of two even smaller Jewish schools, was quite tiny. Levy’s classes never had more than 12 students and the entire school consisted of fewer than 30 kids. Now, each grade in San Francisco has two classes totaling around 40 students, and a grand total of 335 students — with around 550 on both campuses.

The foundation of Jewish identity and academic excellence instilled by the Brandeis Hillel Jewish Day School, however, “has remained the same,” he says.

So have some of the teachers.

As a small boy in the 1970s, Levy remembers listening to Ardath Kirchner, English-as-a-second-language coordinator at Brandeis, play the guitar during school prayer services. He said he would often wander into a room at Sherith Israel and find her preparing for a service. “It wouldn’t have been Brandeis without her.”

So perhaps it is not so surprising that during a tour of the building last week, Kirchner was found tuning her guitar in the beit midrash, a large but understated room with red-, blue- and yellow-tinted windows near the ceiling that bathe the room with color.

“It is very comforting to me that some of the same teachers that taught me so many decades ago will get to know my children as well,” says Levy, who also hopes to send his son Joshua, now 4-1/2, to Brandeis next year.

“The building,” he added, “is a testament to the success of the school. It’s not the building that makes the school. It’s the community that makes the school.”

While Stroe agrees, she says that many teachers feel “like the building was built for us.” Though seamlessly concealed by staff and administration, the lack of space on the Brotherhood Way campus, which accommodates not only Brandeis, but some JCC programs and Beth Israel-Judea classes, had been a major problem for many years.

Despite the addition of middle school classrooms and a library in 1994, classrooms and other rooms consistently had to be divided up. Steam rooms and storage spaces doubled for teacher’s lounges, four to five toilets served more than 300 people and meeting spaces were nonexistent — nothing like the “spiffy new digs” Stroe and others are working in now.

“It was sort of like being a gourmet cook and working out of a trailer,” remembers Stroe, who has taught at Brandeis since 1980. “Sure, you can cook on a hot plate and make things happen. But we were really stretching ourselves thin, pushing ourselves to the limits. ”

Hebrew and Jewish studies teachers who travel from class to class like Orit Solomon often found themselves in a bind. “There just was not enough space” for both Jewish studies and general studies teachers, said Solomon, who has taught at Brandeis for 18 years. Before the new building was completed, she had to lug her materials, including puppets and books and stereos, back and forth between classes, on and off the campus.

“Now everything is ready for me right here,” said Solomon, who teaches in the first and second grade. “It’s easier to integrate into the classroom and work together with the general studies teachers.”

Despite those former space constraints, Brandeis managed on both campuses to forge ahead as a leader in independent schooling, remaining highly competitive in the private-school market, says Rabbi Henry Shreibman, head of schools at Brandeis for the past 11 years.

With its success, the school expanded to serve middle-schoolers on the San Francisco campus 20 years ago. A middle school was opened a decade ago on the Marin site. That school was started by a small group of parents along with Rabbi Michael Barenbaum, spiritual leader of San Rafael Congregation Rodef Sholom, in 1978 with 40 students in kindergarten through fifth grade.

With both now serving students through the eighth grade, the schools have become models for more than 11 other day schools from Sacramento to Los Gatos, says Shreibman.

Eve Bernstein, co-chair of the capital campaign, agrees that students’ academics never suffered because of the cramped quarters. Still, says Bernstein, a mother of three Brandeis alumni in San Francisco, “it was a matter of watching the children thrive in this space that was never quite adequate.”

Among other things, she was frustrated that the Brotherhood Way school had no identifiable front entrance. Also, everywhere you went in the old buildings you could look up and see thick bunches of wires “trailing along the top boards of the ceiling” because of the additions of telephone lines and computer technology.

From 1998 to 1999, Bernstein watched her own son’s seventh-grade class walk to rented space at the Church of Christ — or “Brandeis West” as she says it was called — during the torrential rainstorms of El Niño. They had to walk to class through two parking lots wearing ponchos to protect themselves and their books.

“That’s when I first got really motivated personally,” says Bernstein. “I said, ‘We have to build. We have to find room on this campus so our kids can all be together.'”

Additional classrooms, a cafeteria and a performing-arts complex are yet to appear on the San Francisco campus, primarily because the school needs to raise $10 million to $12 million to complete them, according to Shreibman.

With the completed renovation, school officials expect enrollment to grow by 20 percent. Each new classroom is between 900 and 1,200 square feet. The classrooms are connected by personal office spaces, with private phone lines and desks for the teachers.

White boards in the classrooms slide open and closed, with storage space behind them — one side is for Brandeis Hillel Day School and the other is for Beth Israel-Judea, which often holds weekend classes at the school.

Because of all the windows in the building, the school can almost always be lit by the sun, even on cloudy days, says Shreibman, who notes that through every window in the building “you can see green, or a child on the playground.”

Just as he walks to a window, a stream of children begins filtering in from the playground and a buzz of laughter grows loud around Shreibman.

A kindergartner presses her face up against the outside of the window. Touching her flattened nose with his finger, Shreibman adds playfully, “Or, a dirty nose.”