December 11, 2018

Bruce Powell: Teaching Kindness is as Important as Academics

At de Toledo High School’s annual Shabbaton and campfire, Bruce Powell passes the flame to their new head of school, Mark Shpall. Photo by Shannon Leith

For Jewish educator Bruce Powell, the keys to teaching and creating well-rounded Jewish children include modeling good values and kindness, and ensuring they receive a good Jewish education. 

“In a Jewish environment, ideally you’re going to be learning not just skills to be part of the Jewish community [but how] to continue to make contributions to the Jewish community through a Jewish values lens,” Powell told the Journal in a phone interview. 

However, he was quick to point out that a good education does not necessarily make you a moral and ethical human being. “Knowledge without values is very dangerous,” he said. “Values without deep knowledge is weak. But the combination of the two form a great character and a great education.”

Powell acknowledged that although Jewish students can receive a good secular education in public school and undertake Jewish studies and learn Jewish values elsewhere, a Jewish day school can give them the best of both worlds. 

“Certain [schools] in the more right-wing Orthodox community will not be as robust [in secular studies], but the Jewish education will be spectacular,” he said. “If you can learn Talmud, you can probably go to Harvard Law School and you’ll be fine.”

Since the late 1970s, Powell has helped create 26 schools in North America, working with Orthodox and non-Orthodox institutions. In Los Angeles, he founded and ran Yeshiva University of Los Angeles High School, Milken Community High School, and de Toledo High School — formerly New Community Jewish High School. 

Powell stepped down from his position at de Toledo at the end of the 2017–18 school year in June to focus on his Jewish-education consulting and coaching business, Jewish School Management, which he founded in 1998. 

Powell, 70, grew up in Los Angeles and received his bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees at Southern California universities. He has spent the past 41 years living in the same home in Woodland Hills with his wife, Debby, where they raised their four children, all of whom attended Jewish day schools.

 “Knowledge without values is very dangerous.”  

— Bruce Powell

While Powell was raised Reform, he said he embraces different styles and nuances of Judaism. “I affiliate [with] two Conservative shuls, but I have tremendous love and affection and affinity for the Reform and Orthodox [movements],” he said. 

“My life vision is about Jewish education, Jewish peoplehood and the Jewish community,” he added. “Anything I can do for anybody who’s doing good stuff along those lines, I’ll do.”

Powell said his education philosophy is to replace the word “accommodate” with “embrace.” 

“If you’re coming to my home and you tell me you’re a vegetarian, I accommodate you,” he said by way of explanation. “You’re the other, [but] if I’m going to really embrace you, I’m going plan a meal that looks the same. And nobody [will know] which one is meat and which one is vegetarian.”

The concept, he said, extends to education. If each person is created in the image of God, they each have different gifts, whether they be artistic, athletic, or the ability to learn in a different way. It’s important, he said, to look at each child and embrace them, rather than accommodate them, so they feel like part of the extended family and not “the other.”

“God called the world into existence with words,” he said. “We can do that also. How we use our words. Which words we use. What those words mean. This is a philosophy of education that I think is very powerful and very Jewish.”

At de Toledo, Powell said, Advanced Placement kindness is of equal if not more importance than Advanced Placement academics. “Everyone is enrolled in Advanced Placement kindness and everyone is expected to get a 5 — the top score — when they graduate,” he said. “Because everybody is capable of being kind.”

The focus for parents, teachers and the community should be not just on kindness but character and dignity too, he said. “Typically, when a child comes home from school, what does the parent ask? ‘How was your day? What did you learn today?’ How many of us ask, ‘Did you do a mitzvah today? Were you kind to anybody today? Did you invite somebody to sit with you at lunch today?’ What would happen if we [started] to ask those questions? That’s one way of teaching kindness [and] the way teachers do it is by modeling it.”

To ensure teachers do just that, Powell said de Toledo teachers are required to embrace four criteria: know their subject, know how to teach that subject, have a sense of humor and think teenagers are funny.

The latter two are important, Powell said, because when a student says, ‘You’re so mean, you gave me a bad grade,’ a teacher can respond with something along the lines of, ‘No, I actually love you and I want you to get a great grade. We’re going to work on this together.’ 

“Treating that child as being created in the image of God — working with them, smiling and having a good sense of humor — changes the whole dynamic,” he said. “It’s so simple. Yet, it can be so complicated.”

“We all have a lot of work to do as a community to raise up our children on a good path,” he said. “It may be hard work, but this is a start.”

This story appeared in the 2018 Education Guide edition of the paper.