New South Peninsula principal thinks like a scientist

After a decade of leadership from Rabbi Avi Schochet, South Peninsula Hebrew Day School is starting the school year with a different headmaster.

David Kulka, formerly a middle-school science teacher and associate headmaster at the school, will serve as its interim headmaster for the next year. He will work with the board to find a permanent replacement for the Sunnyvale school of 250 students.

David Kulka

“In a way, it’s like becoming the father of the family, the family being the school,” Kulka said of the change.

Kulka began working in Jewish education 12 years ago, when he joined the staff of SPHDS. “My Jewish education has been here,” he said.

As a Jewish educator, yes. But as a Jew, that began 64 years ago, when he was born in San Francisco to parents who had fled the Nazis in 1940. “What really trickled down from my father was a Zionist view,” said Kulka, who lives in Hillsborough with his wife, Nancy, who is also employed at SPHDS.

Kulka’s father was born in Czechoslovakia and working in Vienna as a physician when the Nazis came to power. Kulka’s mother was a nurse.

In 1938, his father was sent to Theresienstadt; he was released the following year. Kulka’s parents got married and fled to London to meet relatives.

Shortly after moving to San Francisco, the family joined Congregation Beth Sholom. Kulka was educated at the Conservative synagogue’s religious school until he was 16.

“My parents weren’t very religious,” he said. Because his father spent a year in a concentration camp, “he questioned religion and questioned God. But we did attend Shabbat services and always celebrated the holidays at home.”

Kulka attended San Francisco’s public schools and studied biology at University of San Francisco. “I originally thought I would become a doctor like my father,” he said. But his heart wasn’t in medicine. He realized he loved teaching.

His first teaching job, “like any good Jewish boy, was at a Catholic school,” he said, laughing.

After about eight years of teaching or working as a principal in Catholic schools, Kulka left to work in the family business, a children’s coat store in San Francisco owned by his uncle.

When they closed up shop in 1999, Kulka returned to education, this time to teach in a Jewish school.

“In the Jewish day school, and particularly [here at SPHDS], religion is not this separate topic,” he said of the contrast with Catholic schools. “Here it’s like you’ve got to live it every day and every minute.”

He will miss being in the classroom on a daily basis, he said, but is looking forward to helping the school maintain its high standards and to “make it more accessible for all members of the Jewish religion.”

As he does so, he will lean on his science background. “As a scientist, we have to look at the overall picture and be aware of everything around us,” he said. “You also have to be very pragmatic, very methodical. That will guide me in leading the school this year.”

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.