Youthful new day school head thinks outside the box

When Oakland Hebrew Day School was selecting its new head of campus, Mark Shinar taught a lesson to the fourth-graders during the interview process.

"They were so impressed that they wrote him a rap song, which they performed when he was hired," said board member Joan Diengott. "My middle school son said Shinar was his first choice."

Shinar took the helm at the Oakland school in July, replacing Rabbi Elie Tuchman, who served for seven years. Shinar formerly taught eighth-grade language arts and fifth-grade general studies at SAR Academy, a yeshiva in the Bronx.

The new director is not the only big change at OHDS. A new school building on Redwood Road will also greet 115 students in grades K-8 come September.

Diengott, who is also the architect of the school's new structure, said Shinar's approach melds well with that of the institution.

"We have a diverse and interesting population, and that's what makes it great," she said. "People in our community come from such varied backgrounds. With Mark's youthfulness, his love of education and teaching, and his charisma, we felt that he'd have the ability to attract a wide range of families."

Diengott and another board member, Catharine Shachat, said the search committee reviewed more than 20 applications from November through February, and several "really serious" candidates emerged from the list. Rabbi Judah Dardik of Beth Jacob Congregation in Oakland brought Shinar's name to the forefront.

Shinar is only 27 and has been married for 2-1/2 years, but his educational training and his experience at SAR made him the perfect fit, according to Diengott and Shachat.

"What stood out about Mark, "said Shachat, "was his commitment to educational excellence and his focus on the whole child, especially his emphasis on midot, Jewish values."

Added Diengott, "Mark brings a kind of energy and vision that is totally infectious. He's only been an employee for a short time, but he's already such a team player."

Shinar honed his collaborative skills amid the open classrooms without walls at SAR Academy. "The essence of SAR promotes collegiality so the teachers are not isolated," said Shinar, who has a bachelor's degree in English literature, with a minor in speech and drama and sociology from Yeshiva University, and an master's in educational administration-private school leadership from Columbia University. "And the collaborative curriculum design allows students to have a more-flexible learning environment. Instead of frontal and didactic lessons, the atmosphere is open and child-focused. There is always the hum of learning," he said.

While Shinar would not "tear down the walls" of OHDS' new facility, he does plan to utilize the SAR model in his new educational home.

"The openness has metaphorical meaning," he added. "It means there's no hiding. Then people in the school community will take a stronger sense of responsibility…We can focus on individualized learning and dynamic and newer ways to create out-of-the-box education."

What OHDS also offers Jewish students in the Bay Area is "a way to synthesize a modern Jewish education for people who may not practice that at home," said Shinar, who in his spare time enjoys the theater and museums, and has published poems and short stories.

OHDS mixes modern Orthodox beliefs and practices with a strong and integrated general and Jewish studies curriculum. "We want to teach and spark kids," said Shinar, "by offering a comprehensive curriculum in Jewish and general studies as well as sports, arts and computers, so we can address the needs of all students to grow and succeed."

Shinar said a major part of that growth and success is teaching about Israel. "Israel is central to our educational mission. We teach Jewish history, including Zionism, and the centrality of Israel to the Jewish people as a whole. I think the establishment of the state of Israel is one of the most critical Jewish experiences of the 20th century."

Beyond pedagogy and the specifics of the curriculum, though, Shinar sees Jewish literacy and cultural literacy as OHDS' primary goals. "I want students to be as comfortable reading Hebrew in Israel as in reading English in Oakland. Whatever it is, it's about being part of something greater — the Jewish people as a whole."

Steven Friedman

Steven Friedman is a freelance writer.