Globetrotting rabbi heads Sunnyvale school

Born in Cape Town, South Africa, and educated in Israel, Canada and the United States, Rabbi Avi Schochet has traveled round the globe. Now the headmaster at South Peninsula Hebrew Day School in Sunnyvale, he gets to stay put while the rest of the world travels to him.

The globetrotting rabbi was a natural choice as headmaster for a school priding itself on a student body hailing from a wide array of nations and varying Jewish backgrounds.

"We've got children from San Carlos to San Jose, from Israel, Iraq, Iran and several kids from the former Soviet Union," said David LeVine, a past president of the school and currently a member of its executive and master plan committees. "It definitely helps to have a mindset that encompasses the needs of people from other cultures."

Since assuming the SPHDS headmaster position over the summer, Schochet has maintained an open-door policy; he's always willing to listen.

"Parents can call me and walk in at any time. Well, almost at that, not quite," he said chuckling, his crisp accent revealing his South African origin. "I speak more Hebrew than English on campus. We have a very high ratio of Israeli parents and I try to make them feel welcome."

Schochet said that working with 300-odd students ranging from preschool to eighth grade and hailing from myriad backgrounds makes for "a very, very interesting mix." It is far different from his last position in Toronto, watching over "a pretty homogenous-type school population."

"I expected the job to be a challenge, and it has been a challenge," he said. "But not 'challenge' as a euphemism for 'difficulty.'" Instead, he sees his task as "a mission to create a kind of bridge. As far as the kids are concerned, that bridge has always been there. The kids have always got on. So I worked on establishing relations with the parents as well."

Schochet figures to have time to cement the relationships he's inaugurated. The rabbi served as headmaster for more than a decade at each of the last two schools where he worked and has signed a three-year contract with the SPHDS. That stands in stark contrast to the one-and-done stints of the school's last few headmasters.

"He's level-headed, a mensch," said LeVine. "He and his wife, Rena, have made the commitment to be here for the long haul."

Given a workable time frame, Schochet has big plans for the SPHDS. The headmaster would like to undertake some "serious building," adding a computer lab, arts building and revamped library.

"Where we are geographically is right on [highways] 85 and 208, right in the middle of the valley," said Schochet. "What I'd like to do is create the school as the Jewish center in the valley. What we'd like is to draw on the vast Jewish population existing in this valley that is totally untapped. Call it an outreach to the Jewish community."

Finally, Schochet seems to be succeeding as headmaster of the South Bay school because he possesses a trait one hopes would be inherent in all men and women of his vocation — a love of children.

"I would say he's a warm, friendly, considerate person and very caring toward the kids," said Barbara Spielman, who has seen her share of headmasters in her 21 years as SPHDS' special projects coordinator. "He's even taken some of the kids home if extended day care has ended and the kids' parents haven't picked them up yet.

"He's quiet and low-key, but that belies the fact that he's very passionate."

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.