By Jessica Hanewinckel
Few people can claim as their professional and personal mentor the guru, the master, the most preeminent expert in his field. And few people are as fortunate, in that regard, as Rabbi Josef Fradkin, head of school at Chabad Hebrew Academy in Scripps Ranch. The guru, in this case, is Bruce Powell, and the field, education. The two met four years ago, Rabbi Fradkin recalls, when the rabbi was on the board at CHA and seeking a professional consultation, on behalf of the school, on how to take CHA to the next level academically.
“I’m really fortunate to have such a mentor in my personal and professional life,” Rabbi Fradkin says of Powell, a visionary leader in the movement to develop Jewish day schools across the country, and the current head of school at New Community Jewish High School in the San Fernando Valley, the nation’s third-largest Jewish day school. “He’s been really formative, and very seldom in life do you have that chance to learn from a master. You could go spend time at Harvard and get your masters in educational leadership, but unless you really hear it from the fount and learn it and live it and see it, [you’re not learning from the best].”
The mentorship began as a consultation, says Rabbi Fradkin, who was formerly CHA’s development director. Rabbi Fradkin had contacted Powell to assist CHA with growth and development, transitioning from a traditional Jewish day school environment (with 50 percent Judaic studies and 50 percent general) to one more geared toward an independent college preparatory atmosphere, with a one-third/two-thirds ratio in favor of general studies and a strong integration of general and Judaic studies.
“It was a whole way of looking at things,” Rabbi Fradkin says of ways Powell assisted the school in its transition, “and how the core subjects are always approached and engaged through cross-curricular instruction.”
Another of Powell’s tasks during his time consulting at CHA was to streamline its hierarchy and organizational structure. Part of that was to help CHA in its search for a new head of school. Though Rabbi Fradkin says he wasn’t looking for a job at the time (“I did have a background in education and development, but not to this extent whatsoever, so I would have never even thought of it if this preeminent sage of Jewish education wouldn’t have taken me under his wing,” he says), Powell strongly urged the board to consider him and even vouched for Rabbi Fradkin and offered to mentor him in the transition.
“I found in [Rabbi Fradkin] a tremendous healthy curiosity about the absolute best practices,” Powell says. “They wanted to run an outstanding school no matter what. It would be under Chabad auspices, but they wanted a high-functioning, excellent, 21st century Jewish nursery-eighth grade school. He was bound and determined to get that, and I saw his passion, his vision and his enthusiasm, and I said, ‘Well this is great; we can work together.’ And we have for several years now.”
Obviously, knowing Rabbi Fradkin’s title at CHA today, he got the job. That was when his personal mentorship with Powell really began.
“He actually did hold my hand for the first year almost on a daily basis,” Rabbi Fradkin says. “He was very involved initially in mentoring me in my headship.”
Along the way, Rabbi Fradkin says, Powell really taught him not just the logistics of running a school, but of the bigger picture of the whole endeavor.
“It’s about finding those resources that take the student beyond the textbook, beyond the general day-to-day grind of what they’d expect at another school,” Rabbi Fradkin says. “So it’s all the extras they get here that [Powell] has really shown me how to infuse, where the student has a greater grasp and is able to adapt in environments they might not have recognized before simply because they’re able to see the bigger picture now.”
These days, Powell and Rabbi Fradkin continue to work together for the continual betterment of CHA, Rabbi Fradkin traveling up to Powell’s school in the L.A. area, and Powell sending his staff to CHA.
“It’s a constant exchange,” says Rabbi Fradkin, who adds that he feels their relationship has developed more into one of collegial interaction by two professionals. “To me, it’s much greater than a consultation. It’s just having a mentor figure at all times to be able to find resources.”
Adds Powell, “We remain friends. Every time he has a question, he calls me and asks me, and you know, we now schmooze as colleagues.”
Still, Rabbi Fradkin gives all the credit to Powell.
“I like to think that I’ve always been [a novel] thinker, but he’s certainly shown me how to engage in a professional way within my headship,” Rabbi Fadkin explains. “I would say everything I do comes from [Powell]. The way of looking at Judaic moral and ethical teaching not simply as a textual subject but as an integrated, ethical way of life that can be taught in everything from writing to math and science. That’s key. That’s what drives me, and that’s what drives our school and our teachers on a daily basis. I think [Powell’s] focus of really understanding the broader picture of why Jewish education matters in the world of schooling [has affected CHA and my headship of it].”
And, in his own humbleness, Powell gives the credit right back to the rabbi:
“I saw a very smart, very passionate, very talented young colleague who clearly had the vision, knew how to tell the story and had the touch,” Powell says. “Maybe he was born with it, maybe he was raised to it, I don’t know, but he had it. So to guide someone like that, to mentor someone like that, is both joyful and frankly very easy.”
Master of His Domain
Bruce Powell’s Life in Education
Jewish education visionary Bruce Powell summarizes the goal of his life’s work as encouraging his consulting clients — usually educators and school administrators themselves — to tell a story.
“The ability to tell a compelling, interesting and inspirational story about Jewish education and then develop the educational and administrative structures to execute the story, is the whole thing,” he says. “It’s important not just for our individuals and our community, but for the United States. It’s important because our story is part of the story of America, and the key here is contribution. What contribution will our students make, our students who have these outstanding Jewish educations? What contribution will they make to themselves, their community and to America?”
Powell may encourage his clients and their students to find their own story to tell through their schools, but Powell’s own journey through all facets of education is a story unto itself. Powell, a Los Angeles native, earned his B.A. in English literature and history from UCLA, his M.A. in education and his lifetime teaching credential from Cal State Northridge, and his Ph.D. in philosophy of education and Jewish studies from USC. In 1960, before he even finished his own education, he began a 52-year-and-counting sojourn at Simi Valley’s Brandeis-Bardin Institute, which he considers his philosophical home. Following a time teaching English in the public schools of the inner city, Powell fully immersed himself in Jewish education. His years as an educator in Jewish environments are many and varied: a synagogue Hebrew school teacher; a counselor and director at Camp Alonim; director at the Brandeis Collegiate Institute; and the founding general studies principal at Yeshiva University High School of Los Angeles, among other things. In total, he says, he’s been in education for 42 years and in Jewish day school education for 33 years.
Powell’s time at YULA really began his involvement in the founding of Jewish day schools, either directly or indirectly. With YULA, he admits, he just happened to be in the right place at the right time (you could say it was “etsba Hashem, the finger of God, that pushed me in that direction”). After 13 years there, Powell received his first invitation to play a direct role in the founding of a new Jewish day school. That school would become Milken Community High School, which is today the largest religious, co-ed, college prep school nationwide. Powell was its first president and headmaster. Again, nine years later, having by that time established his own consulting firm, Jewish School Management, and helping to establish 23 more Jewish day schools across the U.S., Milken was at capacity and being forced to turn kids away. Would he help to establish yet another Jewish day school, this one in the San Fernando Valley? He did, and today he remains the headmaster of that school, New Community Jewish High School, or “New Jew.”
“This school is really what I call a cold start. This was from nothing,” Powell says. “We opened with 40 kids, and we grew it to 400 in 7 years. We’re now the third largest Jewish community high school in the country.”
At this time, Powell has played a role in the establishment of about 26 start-up Jewish high schools.
“I’m proud to say I was the founding consultant on a lot of these schools, and it’s been quite a journey,” recalls Powell, who has also done some minor consulting at San Diego Jewish Academy and Southern California Yeshiva High School in San Diego. “Honestly, I can’t say I planned the journey, I think that would be hubristic to say that. All I really wanted to do [initially] was teach English.”
Powell may have started out just teaching English, but this lifelong educator, winner of countless awards for his work, husband of 37 years, father of four and grandfather of four, has worked in the field in so many diverse ways for so long because, he says, he loves it.
“People ask me often if I plan to retire,” he says. “And I’m not sure what I’m retiring to. This is my life’s work. This is what I do. It’s who I am.”