New dean readies Contra Costa day school for fall 2000

Two years ago, Dean Goldfein was carving a successful career path — in Catholic education.

As dean of students for Sacred Heart Preparatory in Atherton, the San Francisco native felt "very comfortable."

But one day the American Jewish history enthusiast and former bar mitzvah boy had a change of heart.

"It was great for the short term," he said of his job, "but not when I looked down the line. I wanted to continue working in a setting like [Sacred Heart]. The natural transition seemed to be Jewish day school."

Goldfein, a U.C. Berkeley graduate with a master's from the University of Virginia, didn't attend Jewish day school while growing up — but he seems to be making up for lost time.

Last month, the 34-year-old was named head of school at the Contra Costa Jewish Day School set to open in August 2001. This appointment follows a two-year stint as director of faculty team assessment at Brandeis Hillel Day School in San Francisco, where he is a member of Reform Congregation Emanu-El.

As the first faculty member to be named to the Contra Costa school, Goldfein has his hands full.

"I'm setting up the nuts and bolts of the school and getting to know the community," he said, adding with a laugh: "I have faculty meetings all the time — with myself."

In actuality, Goldfein is working with a full board of directors consisting of community leaders from several professional fields and an advisory council made up of rabbis from every single central Contra Costa County congregation.

All together, more than 40 volunteers meet regularly to work on various aspects of the school, from marketing to finding a site.

"This group of people are committed to making this happen and you can feel it when you're with them," said Goldfein. "We don't open until 2001, but when we do, the work they'll have done to prepare will have been going on for 2-1/2 years. We're not going to open without an excellent program in place."

Support for the school also has come in monetary form.

In June, the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education granted the school a prestigious four-year, $225,000 matching grant. The school also received a $10,000 start-up grant from the Jewish Community Foundation, administered by the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay.

But Goldfein said he still has his work cut out for him. Convincing parents of the virtues and advantages of Jewish day school isn't always an easy task.

"For most Contra Costa parents, this is their first introduction to the Jewish day school world," he said. "They have a fear that this type of school model will shove Judaism down their children's throats. But that's not what Jewish day school is all about."

Goldfein said the school — initially set to serve about 40 students in kindergarten through second grade –would provide a solid educational base while also exposing students to the historical, spiritual and secular aspects of Jewish life.

"That way when they graduate…they'll be prepared for [public] school and for forging their own Jewish life," he said. "It's not indoctrination, it's education."

The school also will integrate strong arts and music components.

"Jewish day school balances aspects which help to develop a whole child," said Goldfein. "Education for character, creativity and academic achievement go hand in hand."

The curriculum is beginning to take form and opening day is less than a year away. The school, however, still has one major hurdle to cross: "We don't have a site yet," said Goldfein.

"Finding a site is our main priority right now," he emphasized. He said a couple of possible sites have been located but declined to identify them specifically. "We're in very serious location negotiations," he said.

Goldfein, who currently zigzags between one of the board member's offices and desk space in the Contra Costa Jewish Community Center in Walnut Creek, isn't even a tad bit concerned about the nonexistent site.

When he arrives at his San Francisco home each night, he greets wife Tamira, a scientist at UCSF, with a worry-free countenance.

"It's very normal that we still haven't nailed down a location," he said. "I know the site will happen."

And when it does, Goldfein said it would hopefully be in a location accessible to the growing Jewish community it's intended to serve — in or around Walnut Creek — and where he soon plans to relocate.

The need for a day school is there, he added. Studies by the school's board show that in the central part of the county, more than 1,800 households are affiliated with synagogues and an untold number are unaffiliated.

"Jewish community day schools do a great job of building Jewish community across the affiliated and non-affiliated community," said Goldfein. "Hopefully, this will be like the hub on their Jewish community wheel."