Boston educator picked to head Oakland day school

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The abundant warmth of the community at Oakland Hebrew Day School was what most struck Rabbi Yehudah Potok during his job interview to lead the Modern Orthodox school.

“I had kids coming up to me in the hallway asking, ‘Are you going to be our next head of school?’” he said, chuckling. “They were so proud of OHDS and wanted to share that with me. I’m originally a New Yorker, so to find a school that was so welcoming, so friendly — that drew me to this area of the country.”

Rabbi Yehudah Potok

Potok, 33, was offered and accepted the job, which he began June 8. He succeeds Mark Shinar, who served the school for six years.

Potok moved from Boston, where he worked as dean of faculty and academic director at the 750-student Prozdor Hebrew High School in Newton, Mass. Working with high school students was amazing, he said, the way their minds wrapped around complex ideas and how they delved deeply into their lessons.

But once he and his wife, Shira Loewenstein, had their son (Adiel, now 2 1⁄2 years old), Potok realized he wanted to work with elementary-age children.

“With younger students, you get all of these ‘aha’ moments, and there’s a real thirst for discovering the world around them,” he said. “I’m very much looking forward to being a part of that at OHDS.”

The K-8 school, which has 173 students, conducted an extensive national search for its next head of school, interviewing dozens by phone and three in person.

Elissa Kittner, co-president of the school’s board of directors, said Potok stood out as enthusiastic and passionate, and his vision was in line with the school’s mission to educate the whole child and maintain a balanced general and Judaic studies curriculum that also connects students to Israel.

“He is very excited by the diversity of our students, parents and faculty, and the creativity and rigor of our education,” Kittner said. “And his references were absolutely stellar. Everyone told us that we were so lucky to be getting him.”

Potok wasn’t looking for a new job, but a board member recommended him, and once he got to know the OHDS community, he couldn’t say no.

A pianist and guitarist, he was drawn to the school’s strong arts program, which is something he hopes to expand.

He also was impressed by the Hebrew and Israel curriculum, how the school links Judaic studies and secular studies, and the way that both integrate the arts.

“I’d like to have even more curricular integration, so that kids understand how what they’re learning about themselves Jewishly helps inform the world around them, and vice versa,” he said.

He also would like the school to expand its technology curriculum.“I’d love to see the use of technology in the classroom grow,” he said. “When students go out into the world, technology will be a big thing, and we need to prepare them for that by developing a program that provides kids with a sense of how technology is integrated into general life and also in the classroom.”

Potok grew up in a “traditional Conservative” home in New York and attended Orthodox day schools as a child. His father was a Conservative rabbi, and his uncle was author Chaim Potok.

While studying sociology and medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, Yehudah Potok became more religious, and after graduation moved to Israel and received his ordination.

But he remained most interested in pluralistic Jewish education. He began his teaching career at the Abraham Joshua Heschel Middle School in New York and later worked as the assistant director at Camp Yavneh, a nondenominational Jewish overnight camp.

“What I like about pluralism is the fact that people can share ideas, that there’s a sense of openness about engaging others,” Potok said. “Having a multitude of people who don’t think the same is a good thing.”

Potok, Loewenstein and their son live in Berkeley and have already become active members of Congregation Beth Israel, a Modern Orthodox congregation. Loewenstein will be a fifth-grade teacher at Contra Costa Jewish Day School.

“I’m very excited about this new journey,” Potok said.

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.