Bruce Powell - 2007 Award Recipient
Dr. Bruce Powell believes that his passion for Jewish life began with his mother’s challah. When he was twelve, his parents, Bea and Jim Powell, attended a beginners’ weekend retreat at what was then called the Brandeis Institute (now the Brandeis Bardin Campus of the American Jewish University). They returned home committed to celebrating Jewish life in their home, beginning with the baking of a fresh challah each Friday afternoon.
In the summer of 1960, Bruce first attended Camp Alonim, where the challah from home blossomed into a fully articulated Jewish living experience. There he heard the words of Shlomo Bardin, envisioning a residential preparatory Jewish high school on the Brandeis Bardin Campus. Bruce was fascinated. This vision grew into what would become his life’s work; in essence, he has spent his entire adult professional life exploring what a Jewish high school could be.
After graduating from UCLA with degrees in English and history, Bruce earned his teaching credential and taught in the Los Angeles City Schools for three years. During this period, he worked on his doctorate in education at the University of Southern California, where one of his advisors suggested he study in Israel. He and his wife, Debby, packed up and spent a year in Israel at Hebrew Union College learning Jewish texts and discovering the roots of Shlomo Bardin’s vision for Jewish education.
Upon returning to Los Angeles, Bruce continued to teach in the public schools while writing his dissertation on the educational vision of the Brandeis-Bardin Institute. In 1979, Bruce answered an ad from Yeshiva University of Los Angeles High School, where they were seeking a general studies principal. Bruce remained there for thirteen years, learning his craft and earning the bonus of attending 125 weddings of former students. In 1992, Bruce was invited to become the first Headmaster of what was to become the Milken Community High School, and in 2000, left Milken to become the founding Head of School of the New Community Jewish High School. In 1998, Bruce met Dr. James Hyman, founder of the Day School Leadership Training Institute at the Jewish Theological Seminary, and Rabbi Josh Elkin, head of the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education. Those meetings helped to launch his national consulting career and were instrumental in the founding of Jewish School Management, an independent consulting company dedicated to the creation, development, and management of Jewish schools in North America.
Bruce and Debby continue to live in the home his mother-in-law suggested they purchase in 1977. They have raised four children in that Jewish home, sending all to Jewish day schools through twelfth grade, and teaching all four how to bake challah. Their first grandchild will learn to braid the challah on his third birthday.
On June 30, 2018, Bruce officially stepped down from the Headship of de Toledo High School after 18 years of school creation, 1150 graduates, and leading the school toward excellence in culture, Jewish alums, academics, arts, and athletics. He now works 20 hours per week on coaching new Heads of School and developing a national program for Jewish School sustainability and excellence.
From Dr. Bruce Powell’s Statements of Motivation and Purpose:
“On a warm Southern California weekend in February of 1960, my parents met Dr. Shlomo Bardin at the Brandeis Institute in Simi Valley, California. During that 48 hours, Jewish life for the Powell family changed forever, as my mother was inspired to return to some level of Jewish practice, and my parents decided to send me to Camp Alonim at the Brandeis Institute.
“That month at camp was like stepping back into the Garden of Eden. My eyes were opened to a Jewish life I had never imagined. Dr. Bardin explained to us that the purpose of Jewish existence could be found in the second paragraph of the Aleinu, where it says: litakeyn olam b’malchut shadai (to fix the world in the kingdom of God). It had never occurred to me that Judaism had a purpose beyond competition with Christmas. I was also without a clue about what he meant by all these grand visions. What did it mean ‘to fix’ the world?
“My motivation for transmitting Judaism, Jewish life, and Jewish values continues to emanate from those moments in 1960 that energized my future. Today, my motivation includes trying to create those same moments for our students, moments that will lead them to purpose, and meaning, and the blessings of a sacred life. The seeds of real leadership and political courage reside among young Jews who possess a sophisticated understanding of how history, Judaism, science, and culture interact and interconnect. In Jewish high schools, these students develop the ability to articulate and formulate unique metaphors and language where the lens of Jewish values transforms knowledge to wisdom, rights to obligations, and superficial notions of beauty to the understanding of the beauty of every human being’s sacred soul.
“My future work seems to be clear: continue to develop the excellence and enrollment of my current high school, and work with local and national community leadership to build massive cash endowments that will help to stabilize tuition costs and provide financial aid for any Jewish family who wishes to attend a Jewish day elementary or high school. As a corollary to this work, my deepest passion at present is to work with Federations and Foundations to create a ‘Birthrate Project,’ where the third or fourth child in any Jewish family already sending its kids to day school or camp may attend a Jewish day school or Jewish camp tuition free. We have a serious Jewish birthrate crisis in America, and this idea may contribute, in part, to a solution for those families who choose not to have a third or fourth child because of the high cost of Jewish life.”
From his Letters of Nomination and Support:
“As the founding Head of New Jewish Community High School, Dr. Powell gave our core group the necessary professional background required to build a school from scratch. He started by setting the ground work for governance and established the working relationship between the Board of Trustees and the Head of School. Together we developed a business plan, wrote the by-laws, discussed the school’s educational and religious policies, set up a five year budget and raised the necessary funds required to open the school.
“The most fascinating thing for me to learn from him was the way he interacted with the people around him. While I knew he was kind and respectful of the adults he worked with, it wasn’t until the students arrived on campus that I realized his gift to this community is the manner in which he treated our children. He empowers, motivates, engages with them, and, by doing so, he teaches them. He coined the school’s motto: Not everyone can be an ‘A’ student, but everyone can be an ‘A’ human being. At our school’s first graduation, everyone watched with blurred, teary-eyed vision as 47 ‘A’ human beings culminated their fouryear sacred journey at New Community Jewish High School.”
Past President, New Community Jewish High School
“Bruce is an inspiring mentor—both at the Day School Leadership Training Institute and within his own staff. He has a history of hiring and developing young talent—teachers, rabbis, managers of all types—and guiding them into increasingly challenging roles. He has taken a lead in filling the leadership void created by expanding numbers of day schools and the higher demands placed on heads of schools by school communities. Bruce cultivates the whole person, not just the professional side. He is a superb personal and professional role model for colleagues and acolytes, lighting up a room or discussion with his sage presence, wit, and deep knowledge of our field. He has founded several day high schools, successfully moved them to stability, and never flags or tires in his efforts to do more. His commitment to the Jewish educational mission of these schools is paramount in all he builds and manages.”
Rabbi Steven M. Brown, Ed.D.
Dean, William Davidson Graduate
School of Jewish Education
Director, Melton Research Center for
Jewish Education, JTS
“I have known Dr. Powell for almost thirty years and engaged him as the founding general studies principal of Yeshivah University of Los Angeles High School in 1979. Dr. Powell successfully developed the full general studies curriculum and put together one of the outstanding educational faculties in Los Angeles. I worked with him closely for many years and found him to be an educator of high moral repute and an innovator in every sense of the word. He was beloved by faculty and students alike, many of whom continue to be in touch with him decades after their graduations.”
Rabbi Marvin Hier
Founder and Dean, Simon Wiesenthal Center
“Dr. Powell has served and continues to serve as mentor to any number of neophyte teachers and administrators. He has been formally associated with the University of Judaism for more than twenty years where he teaches our sequence in the administration of Jewish schools, an integral part of our Master’s Degree in Jewish Education that prepares students for careers as teachers and administrators. The evaluations of Dr. Powell’s courses have consistently been very positive. He shows a keen interest in the students and continues to remain in contact with them long after the course is over.
“In my long experience in the Jewish community, I have rarely met one individual who has contributed so much to the growth of so many institutions.”
Dr. Robert Wexler
President, University of Judaism