Mervyn Danker’s office was quiet during his last Monday on the job. He wasn’t there.
It’s not that he was slacking off — just the opposite, actually. Nearly every day at work, the head of the Ronald C. Wornick Jewish Day School in Foster City stands next to the school’s security guard and greets parents and children as they arrive.
Danker will be taking that hospitality with him when he leaves the day school next week to become the director of the American Jewish Committee’s Northern California Region, where he’ll replace Ernie Weiner.
While the veteran Weiner is “irreplaceable,” in the words of Mark Bostick, board president of AJCommittee’s local chapter, “Mervyn had a lot of qualities we were looking for,” Bostick added.
Bostick said he expects Danker to be a perfect fit with AJCommittee, an international think tank and advocacy organization.
“He’s charismatic, a gem of a man, cherished and respected by his students, teachers and board alike,” Bostick said. “He’s well-rounded and well-suited for the intellectual and wide-ranging international AJCommittee projects, as well as for the community development and programming in the Bay Area.”
But until Danker packs up his books and walks out the door June 13, it’s business as usual at the school he’s cared for for the past 11 years — especially his morning routine.
As a diminutive boy with freckles and an oversized blue kippah walked through the school’s gate, Danker asked, “Are you feeling better this morning, Ari?”
A mother handed him an invitation to her daughter’s dance performance; Danker smiled, nodded and thanked her for thinking of him.
Three third-graders approached their tall principal, handing him the stapled pages of their classroom newspaper. They bubbled with excitement. Danker raved about their efforts and assured them he would make an announcement about their journalistic endeavor at the school’s morning assembly.
Danker knows the names of all 260 students, as well as their parents’ and siblings’ names. He also keeps tabs on every student’s birthday, occasionally delivering a colorful birthday card to the classroom.
This thoughtfulness means so much to the students that when the school’s board began looking for Danker’s successor, “the kids wanted to know if the new head of school would remember their birthdays, too,” said Michele Nemschoff, mother of a fourth- and sixth-grader and member of the school’s board for four years.
When Danker begins working at the AJCommittee in August, the new head of school at Wornick will be Susan Weintrob, currently the head of a Jewish day school in Brooklyn, N.Y.
“I think I’ve contributed what I can to Jewish education,” Danker said. He said he wanted to “time it right,” so that his career change inspired “people to ask me ‘Why?’ instead of ‘When?'”
Danker grew up in Cape Town, South Africa. He has worked as the head of Jewish schools for 30 years — in Port Elizabeth, South Africa; Perth, Australia; West Hartford, Conn.; and, since 1997, in Foster City at Wornick.
Danker has overseen tremendous growth at Wornick. When he began 11 years ago, 59 students were enrolled in kindergarten through fifth grade and the school shared space in a public school building.
Since then, the school has added a middle school and has moved into a new, permanent home on the North Peninsula Jewish Campus. Attendance has climbed to 260 students, and is still growing.
“But you can’t evaluate a school based solely on its growth,” Danker said. “There has to be quality, too.”
Danker has pushed for “values-based culture” at the school, one where respect, decency, tolerance and kindness is considered just as important as literature, science, math, Judaic studies and Israel.
His 35-member teaching staff has worked closely with Danker to develop a thriving Israel education program that empowers students to be ambassadors of Israel.
Danker was not looking to leave the school until he learned Weiner was retiring after 37 years at the S.F. chapter of the AJCommittee, one of 32 satellite offices nationwide. Danker had long admired the AJCommittee’s efforts to combat anti-Semitism, promote pluralism, support Israel and strengthen Jewish life at home and abroad, and was intrigued at the prospect of working with an organization with such a global focus.
However, Danker will begin his new job by focusing his attention locally, using his affability as a tool to increase AJC’s visibility among the Jewish and general community, and the secular media.
“Everyone knows about AIPAC and the ADL [Anti-Defamation League], but not as many know about AJC and what we do,” he said.
“It’s a people’s game,” he added. “How you engage, stretch out your hand, communicate with people” is important.
He wants to start by building visibility on the Peninsula — by having booths at Jewish cultural festivals and organizing roundtable discussions with Jews and Israelis in Silicon Valley’s high-tech industry.
“I’m honored to replace someone like Ernie Weiner,” Danker said. “I have huge shoes to fill.”