Brandeis Hillel campuses in Marin and S.F. agree to split

The San Francisco and Marin campuses of Brandeis Hillel Day School have decided to end their formal relationship and split into two independent schools.

The board of trustees announced last week that the campuses would separate fully by the 2015-2016 school year, following more than a year of transition.

Brandeis Hillel Day School on Brotherhood Way in San Francisco photo/courtesy bhds

The unanimous decision by the BHDS board on Jan. 28 came after several months of consideration with a group of community and school leaders in Marin, called the Marin Working Group.

“The underlying issue is that the two campuses operate in two different markets,” explained Marc Dollinger, a former BHDS parent and board chair and the organizer of the Marin Working Group. “Marin has strong public schools and weaker Jewish identity, while San Francisco has weak public schools and more Jews.”

According to Dollinger, who is a professor of Jewish studies at San Francisco State University, it became apparent in recent years that running everything through the central office in San Francisco was no longer beneficial. “Marin needs to be independent in terms of teachers’ salary market, setting tuition levels and the educational style of Jewish content,” he said.

The BHDS leadership believes the change will enable each school to better meet the specific needs of its students and communities.

Donald Zimring, head of school overseeing both campuses since summer 2012, said they “have evolved to two different places, and one structure does not fit both of them. The current model is not sustainable in the long term. We’re dealing with two different competitive landscapes.”

BHDS, a pluralistic K-8 Jewish day school, was founded in San Francisco in 1963 and opened its second campus in San Rafael in 1978. The San Francisco campus, located on Brotherhood Way, has 390 students; the Marin campus, part of the Osher Marin JCC complex, has 174. There are 82 staff and faculty members in San Francisco and 35 in Marin. The administration is shared.

Concern among parents about administrative changes in Marin last year spurred Dollinger and nine other community leaders to forge a new vision for the North Bay campus — one they believe will bring in more students and more donations.

Donald Zimring

“Having two schools will unlock more philanthropic potential by creating closer relationships between donor and school,” Dollinger said. It also will allow the Marin school to expand enrollment by competing in its own market, he said.

Heather Erez, mother of a second-grader at the Marin campus, had a feeling change was coming, but she was surprised by the announcement of the split. “But I think it’s a fantastic decision,” she said. “We’ve gone through a huge transition at Brandeis in terms of staff and administration [that] made us think about what is good for our school.”

Daniel Marks has a daughter in third grade on the San Francisco campus. Although he was aware of the discussions leading up to the board vote, he also was surprised to hear the Marin campus would become an independent school.

However, Marks doesn’t think the change will have a significant effect on his daughter’s educational experience.

“Unfortunately, I have not had much contact with the Marin campus. I’m sorry about that, because I hear it is very nice and has good facilities,” Marks shared. “So it is hard for me to assess how the two campuses have affected each other.”

For obvious reasons, the future status of the Marin campus has been of more interest to Marin families and community members. “The activities of the Marin Working Group were known openly on both campuses, but it’s understandably been a more distant issue for the San Francisco community,” said BHDS board chair Karen Kaufman Perlman.

She emphasized that the decision to split the schools was made with the greater good of the Bay Area’s Jewish youth in mind, and that both would continue to offer educational programs strong on academics and Jewish values.

Joint programs between the two campuses, such as the eighth-grade Israel trip, a Sukkot visit to Yosemite every three years and Yom Ha’Atzmaut celebrations, conceivably could continue after the campuses are separated if they so choose, said Dollinger.

He said tuition will be determined by the board of each new independent school, and that both schools will have the right to retain the name Brandeis Hillel.

The Brandeis board has appointed a Marin governance subcommittee to oversee the transition. A new head of campus for Marin is being recruited to begin work this coming summer. The person hired is expected to transition into the role of the Marin campus’ first head of school a year later.

“I don’t anticipate parents and kids will experience any difference during the transition period,” Zimring said. “Of course, there will be structural changes made to the administration, which will make for more nimble decision making.”

“We believe that creating two schools will allow each of the campuses to thrive,” said Perlman. “We all feel very good with this.”

“It’s great for everyone,” echoed Dollinger. “There’s nothing of divisiveness in this decision.”

Renee Ghert-Zand
Renee Ghert-Zand

Renee Ghert-Zand is a Jerusalem-based freelance journalist. She made aliyah from Palo Alto with her family in June 2014.