At Melvin J. Berman Hebrew Academy in Rockville, the biggest change this school year is at the top.
Rabbi Yossi Kastan is taking over as head of the Modern Orthodox school, and while he said he will spend this first year acclimating to the new position rather than making big changes, he’s eager to jump into what he called the “committed” Jewish community. Across the Washington area, day schools are beginning the school year with changes large and small.
Born in Israel, Kastan grew up in New York and Florida. He holds a master’s degree in teaching and learning and a Ph.D. in educational leadership from Nova Southeastern University in South Florida.
He comes to Berman from Brauser Maimonides Academy in Hollywood, Fla., where he was head of school since 2013. Kastan’s predecessor at Berman, Joshua Levisohn, has taken a consulting position at EduCannon, an educational consulting firm composed of former Jewish day school leaders.
And Kastan said the new position is an opportunity for him professionally, as well as for his family to take advantage of what Washington has to offer. He and his wife, Kara, have four young children.
“To be able to raise kids in a community like this — I’ve been in awe of everyone that I’ve been meeting. Just amazing, amazing, nice warm people who are committed to their Jewish life. Committed to Torah. It’s incredible,” Kastan said. “I also want my kids to be able to live in a place where they can have city life with culture and everything the city has to offer, but then also to be able to see nature and go on hikes and do the outdoors things I want to do.”
He’s also something of an amateur filmmaker. As part of his doctoral dissertation, he made a film about bullying called “One Last Shot” that’s been screened at the New York City International Film Festival and the New York City Winter Film Awards.
And he studied theater in high school and college, which he says informs his emphasis on arts education wherever he goes.
“We continue to call these things extracurricular and they’re not. The arts really give our kids so many things and so many skills,” he said. “I attribute my public-speaking skills and my confidence to stand up in front of a room and present myself, my ability to walk into a networking event — I attribute that a lot to my theater training. And we want that for our children, we know that success is not just about what they can retain or show us on a test, but also how confident they are.”
Kastan said Berman Academy is reviewing its Tanach education, but he doesn’t want to implement big changes off the bat. Kastan said this is the first time he will be heading a school that runs all the way through 12th grade, giving him a chance to help craft a K-12 educational vision.
“It’s really difficult, almost impossible, to really plan out an educational system to meet that vision that ends in eighth grade,” Kastan said. “You really need the high school that brings those kids all the way to college admission. Professionally, it’s a great opportunity to build a coherent, cohesive system.”
Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School
At Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, Rabbi Mitchel Malkus, the head of school, is talking a lot about professional development.
This year, the school will launch a center for STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) education in Jewish learning environments. The center will bring in educators and students, both from the school and beyond, to hash out innovative ideas for STEM education, he said.
“We’ve been getting phone calls from other schools, camps, synagogue schools and after-school programs asking about our program here,” Malkus said.” So we want to be able to share that out in the broader community, where we’re connecting professionals either thinking about STEM or doing STEM activities.”
This year, the school is also hoping to strengthen its families’ connection to the Washington region, Malkus said.
The lower school will be taking part in “Enrichment 360,” in which parents receive a book to read with their child each month. The family then participates in an activity in the Washington area connected to what the child is learning in the classroom.
“The idea is that Washington is a really rich and diverse community, and we feel it’s waiting to be explored by our students and families,” Malkus said. “There’s a tremendous amount to do and see, but how does that fit into the studies they’re learning every day in school? We’re trying to provide that [connection] to families.”
Gesher Jewish Day School
At Gesher Jewish Day School in Fairfax, the new Gan Katan will offer 4-year-olds play-based learning that infuses Hebrew “throughout every aspect of the day,” according to the school’s website. To build a connection between the school’s pre-kindergarten and older grades, each 4-year-old will be paired with “buddies” from other levels.
The pre-K will have a full-day schedule, with a student-teacher ratio of eight to one. Busses will be available along the school’s newly expanded routes that aim to cut down travel time to the school from Northern Virginia’s denser areas in Arlington and Alexandria.
Milton Gottesman Jewish Day School
Students and teachers kicked off the school year at Milton Gottesman Jewish Day School in Washington in their new facility. A year of construction that temporarily moved the second through sixth grades to Grace Episcopal Church in Silver Spring has ended, and the finished product is a renovated and expanded campus, with room for two additional grades, seventh and eighth. The school expanded to seventh grade this year.
Head of School Naomi Reem said the expansion and renovation has added more space for work and play. There are two new science labs (one for the elementary school and another for the middle school), a new workshop, a regulation-sized gym and a playground.
“It’s gorgeous,” Reem said of the renovated North campus. When you walk in it’s a whole new building.”
Reem said the new and renovated space is a symbol of the school’s commitment to the District of Columbia, adding that the school benefits from its location.
“Our enrollment numbers are up 15 percent. We have 394 students,” Reem said. “We’re surrounded by the renaissance of the District from the perspective of Jewish life. And the fact that we’re in D.C. isn’t just a geographical point. We really want to make use of all the resources in the city.”
The Torah School of Greater Washington and Yeshiva of Greater Washington did not respond to multiple requests to participate in this article.