L’Chaim!by Alanna Berman July 31, 2012
By Alanna Berman
Things will be a little different of the campus of San Diego Jewish Academy this school year. That’s because SDJA has hired its new head of school and executive director, who started his new position last month following the retirement of Larry Acheatel, who held the position at SDJA for 12 years.
Chaim Heller, former head of school at Brandeis Hillel Day School in the San Francisco area, has been tapped for the job. After 17 years with the K-8 pluralistic Jewish day school (as both head of school for campuses in Marin County and San Francisco beginning in 2005, and before that as head of the San Francisco campus beginning in 1995), Heller brings with him years of expertise in building strong Jewish communities through day school education.
“Like many Jewish professionals working in the community, I was looking for the next challenge, and there were many things [at SDJA] that I found very appealing,” he says of his choice to come to San Diego. “I enjoyed the size and the centrality of the school and the community. There is a real sense of a San Diego Jewish identity and a real desire to connect and belong…and the Jewish Academy itself is nationally known for blending academic excellence with a strong Jewish culture.”
Originally from Brooklyn, N.Y., Heller was very active in Jewish youth movements and pro-Israel campus groups growing up. After graduating with a degree in drama from City University of New York, Heller moved to Israel and lived on a kibbutz, where he met his wife, Michal, and where they subsequently raised their two children. In Israel, Heller also served in the Israel Defense Forces, wrote for The Jerusalem Post and taught in a classroom. He holds a master’s degree in educational administration and a master’s certification in elementary education.
“One of the things I’m hoping to bring to the community is the idea of radical kindness,” Heller says of a program he successfully integrated at BHDS. “The idea is that people at SDJA model, as they do naturally, in all interactions, the kindest, gentlest possible way so that everyone feels valued and appreciated as a member of the community.”
During his tenure at BHDS, Heller grew enrollment at the San Francisco campus to capacity, up from about 50 percent, and helped both campuses grow to their highest enrollment levels ever. Heller hopes to bring new families to SDJA though a similar approach, making everyone feel welcomed and appreciated, regardless of affiliation.
“The changes and the diversity of Jewish experiences and the influence that one Jewish community has on another, within the larger community, is very exciting,” he says, “and I’m passionate about building Jewish life and connecting to people [through the SDJA community].”
For more information, visit www.sdja.com.