Jewish high school names its inaugural principal

Before he realized it, the new principal of the Jewish Community High School of the Bay uttered a line crooned countless times by Tony Bennett.

"You know, I always left my heart in San Francisco," said Ed Harwitz, a 37-year-old rabbi who beat out roughly 20 other candidates to become the start-up Jewish high school's first principal. "I wasn't even thinking of the song, but it's really true. The first position I formally held within the Jewish community was at the Bureau of Jewish Education in 1987."

Since then, he's spent much of his time in Southern California. "I always thought it'd be nice to come back to the Bay Area," he added. "It's kind of beshert that the opportunity would arise with a wonderful institution like the Jewish Community High School."

Members of the local community had their first opportunity to meet the principal at Sunday's JCHS open house at Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon. Roughly 300 "parents, students, community leaders and rabbis" showed up to greet Harwitz, participate in demonstration classes and schmooze," according to Jan Reicher, a vice president of the board of governors and chair of the school's marketing committee.

"It was monumental, it takes us to a whole new level," she added. "It shows we are here, we are real and we are not a dream."

Harwitz, who is currently director of student affairs and rabbi for the Milken Community High School in Los Angeles, actually reached an agreement with the JCHS in early December. But, in an arrangement with Milken High, his name was not revealed to the public until the first of the year.

Harwitz will officially assume his duties on July 1. He will work directly with Tom Lorch, the JCHS head of school and top administrator. The two have already met several times to plot curriculum and teaching strategy. The JCHS, situated in a temporary site on land owned by and adjacent to Kol Shofar, plans to open its doors to between 40 and 45 ninth- and 10th-graders in the fall.

School administrators and members of the board of governors say they're ecstatic about landing Harwitz, whom they describe as a "dream candidate and a dream hire."

"Ed is far and above what I think our expectations were to even find in somebody," said Reicher. "He's so energetic and charismatic, with an incredible rapport with students and people in general."

Harwitz — who will also head the JCHS Judaic studies program and serve as school rabbi — first came to the school's attention via Rabbi Pinchas Giller, who has formerly served Berkeley's Orthodox Congregation Beth Israel.

Giller is an instructor in rabbinic studies at the University of Judaism in Bel Air, where he worked with and befriended Harwitz at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. Harwitz later took his current position at Milken High, which is practically across the street from the university, and the two remained friends.

JCHS co-founder and board president Noah Alper, a congregant at Beth Israel, heard about Harwitz through his former rabbi.

"He said, 'I've got the guy for you!'" recalled Alper. "It was a really glowing recommendation."

And it was not the last. Alper said that Donniel Hartman, the director of education at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, described Harwitz as "the strongest candidate in North America."

Alper, for his part, is impressed with Harwitz's faith in the power of Jewish texts, and his ability to instruct students hailing from a wide degree of Jewish affiliations.

"He's a serious Judaic thinker and has a real investment in transdenominational learning and working with kids of different backgrounds," Alper said of the Philadelphia-born rabbi. "He's real energetic, just in general an exciting, innovative educator."

Harwitz — who received a master of arts in Hebrew letters from the University of Judaism and his rabbinic ordination from the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City — sees his role as a combination principal, head of Jewish studies and rabbi as fulfilling a longtime dream.

"Serving as a pastor as well as being the leading Jewish educator in the high school, that's ultimately what I've always wanted from my rabbinate," said Harwitz. "What I really love doing as a rabbi is being able to teach. There's no greater honor in being a rabbi than doing that."

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Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.