As a parent, few things are more important than the choice of where to send one’s child to school; and few factors have more impact on a school than the educational and leadership philosophy of its top administrator. With the announcement of Rabbi Dr. Yossi Kastan as the future head of school at Berman Hebrew Academy in Rockville, Maryland, many are interested in learning more about the educator who will take the helm at the end of the 2017-2018 school year.
“I believe we can set high expectations for children while still celebrating their childhood,” said Rabbi Dr. Kastan, who has served as head of school at Brauser Maimonides Academy in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, for the past five years. “We can provide children with a rigorous educational program while still providing them time to explore their own curiosity and creativity, to develop their own interests, and to connect with their friends and family.”
“We want to raise students that are knowledgeable, but a higher priority should be placed on developing students that are mindful and wholehearted,” he said.
Rabbi Dr. Kastan, 37, was born in Israel. His family moved to New York when he was 7 and to Florida at age 14. He will be coming to the Greater Washington community from Hollywood, Florida, with his wife Kara and their four children, two girls and two boys: Anaelle (9), Netanel (7), Lielle (5), and Gavriel (2).
Rabbi Dr. Kastan has a bachelor’s degree in business, a master’s in teaching, and a Ph.D. in educational leadership. While working on his dissertation on educational technology, he created Student Impact Films, a cutting-edge filmmaking program geared towards engaging students in Jewish values. One of the films, "One Last Shot," which deals with the timely issue of bullying, was screened at five film festivals.
He will miss “the tremendous faculty and staff I was blessed to work with and learn from” at Brauser Maimonides Academy, but Rabbi Dr. Kastan is looking forward to developing relationships with Berman’s faculty and staff, lay leadership, community members, and students.
One of the draws of the position for Rabbi Dr. Kastan was the opportunity to lead a school that runs from preschool through 12th grade (his current school is kindergarten through eighth grade). “Having the full educational continuum allows you to fully develop and implement an educational vision and culture all the way through for the students,” he said. He was also impressed by Berman’s reputation, “not just for the academics, but for the middot (character traits) that the students exemplify in school and even once they graduate and go on to higher education.”
Berman and the Greater Washington community are “very lucky to have Rabbi Dr. Kastan,” said Alan Berger of Hollywood, Florida. Director of Passover Grand Getaways (advertised in this issue), Berger previously featured Rabbi Dr. Kastan as a scholar in residence. “He is a great guy, full of energy, and very bright. It is sad that we are losing him, but he will be a great addition to the community,” Berger said.
Rabbi Dr. Kastan was involved with government-subsidized scholarship programs during his time in Florida and said he was aware of the Greater Washington community’s interest in easing the burden of day school education (see: “Tackling Tuition, Parts 1-3” in the August and September issues of Kol HaBirah). He said he would work to “tackle” this issue in his role as head of school at Berman.
Increasing enrollment, which some Jewish Federation representatives and school officials in the Greater Washington area and Baltimore have previously cited as more critical to the future of Jewish day school education than reducing the cost of tuition, is an area where Rabbi Dr. Kastan has an impressive track record.
Hannah Olson, chief donor relations officer and director of marketing at Berman, said that enrollment at Brauser Maimonides Academy during Rabbi Dr. Kastan’s five years as head of school increased by 35 percent, with the addition of 125 new students. Olson gave the credit to Rabbi Dr. Kastan, based on the feedback received during the head of school search process. “At first, they came slowly and steadily, but about halfway through his tenure people started flocking to the school,” she said.
Rabbi Dr. Kastan himself humbly attributed this growth to several factors. “First, we hired a great faculty and staff,” he said. “Second, we articulated a clear vision and culture that we were all excited about and it was contagious when we talked about our school.”
“Third, we recruited families that really believed in our mission and vision and were enthusiastic enough to tell other families about the magic in our school. I strongly believe that people want to be inspired and want their children to feel inspired as well. When you have a vision that you really believe in, and everyone is talking about it and working toward it, amazing things happen,” he concluded.
Under the leadership of Dr. Joshua Levisohn, Berman’s head of school of over a decade, Berman has stabilized its finances, raised the quality of education, and drawn together different parts of the Orthodox community, said Olson. Thanks to Dr. Levisohn’s efforts, she said, Berman doesn’t face the looming question of whether it can make it from year to year, which many other day schools struggle with.
It is from this strong and stable place that Rabbi Dr. Kastan will continue the school’s journey forward.
By Rachel Kohn and Meshulam Ungar
Rachel Kohn is editor in chief of Kol HaBirah.
Meshulam Ungar is a junior at Berman Hebrew Academy in Rockville, Maryland.