$100,000 grant helps Chabad of S.F. get headmaster

At 27, one might guess there would be misgivings voiced about Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein's tender age before he was tapped for the position of headmaster at Chabad's fledgling day school in San Francisco.

Well, not really. It is Chabad were talking about.

"Listen, a lot of people were concerned — Chabad usually [gives these jobs] at 23 maybe 24. So even though he's 27, I don't think he's too old for it," said school co-coordinator and acting principal Rabbi Yisrael Rice with a chuckle.

"We like to start off with younger people who have young blood, vigor and vision," he added, this time seriously. "This is really going to be an organization that [Goldstein] is going to build; he's coming in at ground level.

"The school's fresh and he's fresh as well," said Rice of Ohr Menachem Yeshiva Day School's new headmaster. "You know, that's something that's going to work to his favor and our favor."

Over the past 16 years, Chabad has run a cheder (yeshiva for elementary school kids) that criss-crossed the bay from Orinda to Berkeley to Palo Alto. In August 2000, it merged with Hinda Langer's Shalom preschool to become Ohr Manachem. Langer, the school's other coordinator, will continue to run the preschool.

Now it's housed on grounds rented from Congregation Chevra Thilim on 26th Street, where Chabad representatives are hoping that Ohr Manachem, unlike its predecessors, will be a stable presence.

With that in mind, Rabbi Boruch Shlomo Cunin, the L.A.-based California director of Chabad activities, granted the school a two-year, $100,000 fellowship in order to underwrite the salary for a headmaster. Now Chabad had to hire one — which turned out to be not so rapid or easy a task.

"The caliber of person we were looking for was someone who, quite honestly, under our breaths, we were questioning whether the person existed," Rice recalled. "We wanted someone who had a good sense of education, really possessed a feeling for children, had maturity and the ability to deal with parents, board members and fund-raising."

After interviewing quite a few potential headmasters, a panel of Bay Area Chabad rabbis — including Rice and Langer's husband, Rabbi Yosef Langer of Chabad of S.F. — finally came to an agreement on Goldstein earlier this month.

Goldstein currently lives in Brooklyn, where he's the principal of secular studies at the United Lubavitcher Yeshivas elementary school. A native of Montreal and graduate of the Rabbinical College of Canada, Goldstein mulled over the San Francisco job offer for several months before deciding to leave his Crown Heights home of the past three years.

The opportunity to build a yeshiva from the ground up finally won him over.

"It was a unique opportunity, much different from the other things I was pursuing," Goldstein said. "It's different establishing a school. You can take it from the start, grow with it and make it something outstanding, different and spectacular."

Ohr Menachem currently serves roughly 45 students between kindergarten and seventh grade, with an additional 20 young children attending the Shalom preschool. Yet Yosef Langer is hoping to work out a long-term lease with Chevra Thilim, which would allow for the erection of a new school building and possibly increase school attendance exponentially.

"Like most Chabadniks, he wants to go out and serve the Jewish community," said Langer, one of the school rabbis. "I think the challenge of developing a yeshiva day school in San Francisco was something he was interested in tackling."

Goldstein has high hopes for his future students.

"As we all know, children are the future of the world, and the main thing is to educate them in a manner addressing, No. 1, their behavior," he said. "In day-to-day activities they should have respect for other human beings and all of God's creations.

"On the matter of education, we'd like to focus on bringing each child — and we know all children are different — to achieve their maximum capacity for academics," Goldstein continued. "As they get older and move onto high school, it's important they be among the best students. And, likewise, if they choose to go to college, they should not be at the level of entry but from the higher caliber of students."

Rice says he hopes Goldstein will be ready to take Ohr Menachem's reins by Passover.

"In Hebrew, there's a saying: 'When you move, your luck also changes, but for the better,'" said Goldstein. "Not, God forbid, that luck has been bad, but there's always room for improvement. Hopefully, with everyone's blessing, so it will be when we get there."

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.