Peg Sandel grew up questioning religion, but it wasn’t until she was a freshman at a Christian college that she decided to convert to Judaism and make Jewish learning her career.
“It’s definitely not your typical story,” Sandel said. “I went to my philosophy professor when I was 18 and asked, ‘How do we know these things about religion?’ He told me to stop asking questions because they would hurt my faith. After that, I transferred to U.C. Santa Barbara and began exploring Judaism.”
That freshman-year interaction was the catalyst for Sandel’s spiritual journey, her conversion and her lifelong engagement with Jewish learning.
Now that journey is taking a new turn. On July 15, the 45-year-old Berkeley resident took over as head of campus at Brandeis Hillel Day School in San Rafael after 10 years at Jewish Community High School of the Bay in San Francisco.
In her new role, Sandel will lead BHDS through a major transition, as the Marin campus breaks with its San Francisco counterpart to become independent in the 2015-16 academic year.
“It is tremendously exciting to me,” Sandel said after the first day of school this week. “I look forward to making BHDS a real hub of cutting-edge student learning and a gathering place for families in Marin.”
Sandel, who grew up in Southern California, studied in Israel and moved to the Bay Area in the early ’90s for graduate school. After earning a doctorate in Jewish studies from U.C. Berkeley and the Graduate Theological Union, she taught adult Jewish education at Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley, lectured at San Francisco State University and joined JCHS in San Francisco in 2004.
She started as a classroom teacher and worked her way up to chair of Jewish studies, eventually becoming dean of Jewish studies and Hebrew.
“The school was very young when I started,” Sandel said. “I really helped to shape the Jewish studies program to reflect the pluralistic community and give kids the tangible experience of Jewish learning.”
During the transition at BHDS, Donald Zimring will remain head of school for both campuses; once the Marin campus becomes fully independent next year, Sandel’s title will change from head of campus to head of school.
Marty Friedman, vice president of the BHDS board, said Sandel’s leadership will be critical through the transitional period. Eventually each campus will have its own separate board, Friedman said.
“We are thrilled. For us to be a stand-alone school, we need a partner as head of school with wisdom and expertise. Peg nailed it on every metric. Her presence here is inspirational.”
While Sandel is excited about the move toward independence, she said there is a lot of work ahead. “Our first step is looking at mission clarification. We need to build that into a healthy strategy going forward.”
Sandel said there will also be logistical issues to consider, such as whether eighth-graders from both campuses will continue to travel together on class trips.
The Marin campus of BDHS opened in San Rafael in 1978 and shares space with the Osher Marin JCC and Congregation Rodef Sholom. Enrollment this year is about 160 students