Brandeis schools in S.F., Marin go their separate ways

Three weeks ago, when students showed up for the first day of school at the Brandeis School of San Francisco and Brandeis Marin in San Rafael, for the first time in 37 years they were attending two schools, not one.

This school year marks the beginning of a new independent era for both Jewish K-8 schools, which previously were two campuses of the Brandeis Hillel Day School.

“The atmosphere and the feeling around campus is incredibly positive,” said Peg Sandel, head of school at Brandeis Marin. “It’s an incredibly exciting time.”

Brandeis Hillel Day School dates back to 1963, when a group of families led by Rabbi Saul White of Congregation Beth Sholom in San Francisco joined forces to create a Jewish community day school. In 1978, BHDS opened a second campus in San Rafael. A single board and administration governed both schools, and students from both campuses joined together for shared programs, such as a sixth-grade science trip to Walker Creek Ranch in Petaluma and an eighth-grade trip to Israel.

But in 2013, driven by a belief that Marin County needed a Jewish school tailored for the local community, a group of community and school leaders formed the Marin Working Group with the blessing of the BHDS board. After several months of the study, the group, led by former BHDS board president Marc Dollinger, recommended that the campuses split into two independent schools. The board approved the plan unanimously in January 2014.

“The two campuses were operating in wildly different markets,” Dollinger explained.

In San Francisco, parents have more concerns about the public schools and thus applied to BHDS in greater numbers, he said. In Marin, with a smaller Jewish population and a reputation for strong public schools, the Jewish day school needed to find a way to stand out in the strong public school landscape.

Students at Brandeis Marin photo/brandeis marin-jay blakesberg

Going independent would allow each school to create its own operating and marketing plans and align its philosophy and educational approach with the local community.

The parents of the 157 students at the new Brandeis Marin — which has a new logo and website (www.brandeismarin.org) to go with its new name —  have enthusiastically embraced the school’s new identity, Sandel said. During last year’s annual campaign, there was 100 percent participation among families, and the school has plans to eventually expand to 200 students. On the first day of school on Aug. 25, students, teachers and parents gathered to share their hopes for the coming year, blow the shofar and say the Shehechiyanu.

“Our mission is sharper and clearer; it’s homegrown,” Sandel said. One new initiative will be a program in technology, coding and robotics that will use Jewish ethics to assess the challenges and opportunities of innovation.

“Science teaches you how to take things apart; Judaism teaches you how to put things together,” Sandel said. “We’re teaching the rigorous academics [as well as] how to put things together in a way that adds meaning and purpose to one’s learning and one’s life. That’s very Marin.”

Families at the 386-student Brandeis School of San Francisco are similarly excited about the opportunity for reinvention, said Dan Glass, the new head of school who recently relocated from Los Angeles. “There’s a really high level of enthusiasm and engagement, and people are jazzed,” he said.

Though the Brandeis School of San Francisco (www.sfbrandeis.org) is still in the process of rebranding, a fundraiser auction a few months ago raised nearly twice as much as expected.

The two schools likely will continue to jointly sing the national anthem at a Giants game, an annual tradition. But there is no other joint programming planned. “It’s a time of intense newness,” Glass said.

Drew Himmelstein
Drew Himmelstein

Drew Himmelstein is a J. parenting columnist and former staff writer. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two sons.