Chief bottle-washer charting course for Sonoma day school

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When Eric Keitel makes a commitment, he does it with gusto — backing talk with supportive action, even if it requires some sacrifice.

The San Francisco resident made such a commitment in 1993, when he gave up a successful practice as a podiatrist to commence a career as an educator.

This fall, Keitel's career path takes another twist with his new job as director of the fledgling Jewish Day School of Sonoma County.

He has carefully charted his course.

"I was motivated to change when I enrolled my son in a Jewish day school in 1989," Keitel says. "It reawakened in me a lifelong dream to be a teacher and enabled me to integrate my love for Judaism with a strong desire to be an educator."

Prior to joining the school in Santa Rosa, Keitel was a teacher and the director of family education at San Francisco's Brandeis Hillel Day School, with 300 students and a large staff.

That's a far cry from his new job where, the day of his Bulletin interview, Keitel had just completed planting flowers at the school. "I'm chief bottle-washer," he says — quite contentedly — of his multifaceted role.

The opportunity to make his mark building a small school into something noteworthy offers a different kind of compensation.

"I'm enthralled with the chance of intimacy, to really have an impact here," Keitel says of his small student body and three full-time teachers. "I will see them grow over the years and connect with them."

Founded in 1993 with just six students, the day school has 28 students split between a joint kindergarten-first grade and a second-grade class. The goal is to add a new grade yearly until sixth grade, after which students will move on to middle school.

For Keitel, success in his job requires imparting the school's philosophy of tzedakah (charity), tikkun olam (healing the world), and gimilut chasadim (acts of lovingkindness).

He does.

"These three themes are infused throughout the curriculum," Keitel says. "I see them as inherently Jewish values that can be shared by all Jews regardless of affiliation or organized movement."

That attitude appealed to the school's board of directors, which hired Keitel.

"Eric has made a solid commitment to Jewish education, having given up his podiatry practice for the far less lucrative field of education," says Alan Steier, the board president. "We looked at candidates for the job from as far away as New York, but Eric's philosophy is consistent with our community, which is diverse."

The school has students from Conservative, Reform and unaffiliated families, and Keitel aims to bring them together to create a community. To do this, Keitel began his job by strengthening ties between the school and community groups. He met with rabbis, agency heads and other local Jewish leaders to create partnerships that will help the school grow. Some of the programs created through those partnerships are already coming to fruition.

Second-grade students will spend one Shabbat a month at Santa Rosa's Shalom Home, a board-and-care facility for Jewish seniors. Many young people today live far from grandparents, and vice versa: The monthly visits should benefit both generations, Keitel says.

To strengthen family community, the school developed the Family Education Project in concert with the S.F.-based Bureau of Jewish Education. Families will meet on Shabbat and share special projects that they prepare at home during the week. They'll also get together for a family math program, and hopefully will travel to Israel next summer to strengthen international Jewish community ties.

In addition, friends of Keitel who are now teaching at Israel's Kibbutz Hazorea will have their students write in English to the Sonoma students, who will reply in Hebrew.

Such extracurricular programs are icing on the school's academic and Judaic studies curriculum. With 10 Macs in the computer lab; music, arts and crafts; and a language arts program using both whole language and phonics, the school is set to respond to individual student needs.

It has implemented a new Hebraic Jewish studies program, Tal Am, that only one other Bay Area school is using. A grant from the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation made this possible.

So, does Keitel have any second thoughts or regrets about his current path in life?

"I have never regretted the decision [to be an educator]," Keitel says. "I feel that I've been able to make a real impact on Jewish children and families over the past five years."