A day of firsts: 22 kids nosh, pray, pose as JCHS opens

It is the first day of school for the Jewish Community High School of the Bay, and 22 students, packed like sardines, are posing with their teachers for a class of 2005 photograph.

“I need you guys touching,” the photographer implores several times, trying to fit the group neatly into the frame of her camera. Time stands still as the 14-year-olds, staff and faculty — eyes squinting in the blaring summer sun — freeze for the camera.

A baby squeals. The school principal, Rabbi Edward Harwitz, fearing he’ll come out looking like Quasimodo, tells the baby jokingly, “I know exactly how you feel.”

Somehow the photographer manages to capture the image, and the group, led by Harwitz, who also is director of Judaic studies, and head of school Larry Fischer, quietly files into its temporary home at Tiburon’s Congregation Kol Shofar.

But this is more than just a typical first-day-of-school photograph. This is more than just a typical first day of school.

Monday’s opening of JCHS, the only non-Orthodox Jewish high school in the Bay Area, has been a highly anticipated event for the local Jewish community.

The recent announcement that the New York-based Keren Keshet foundation will provide free tuition for the first three classes has heightened the excitement.

A large crowd of parents and local Jewish community professionals attend the opening-day ceremony featuring two tefillah (prayer) services, a Continental breakfast of bagels and fruit, and welcoming speeches.

During one of the services, an enthusiastic, tallit-clad man takes a short break from davening and vigorously shakes Fischer’s hand. “Mazel tov! Mazel tov!” exclaims the parent to a visibly ecstatic Fischer.

“We all believe in Jewish education,” says parent and founding board member Miriam Butrimovitz. “Otherwise we wouldn’t be here.”

The students, many but not all of whom are graduates of other Jewish day schools, echo their parents’ point of view. They also add their own reasons for coming to JCHS.

Elie Sherman of San Rafael, for instance, cites the experience of “being in the first class” as a motivating factor.

Graham Rubin of San Francisco, on the other hand, has never had any formal Jewish training or education and is “looking forward to learning.”

Inside their new school the students sit around three large round tables. Some are sprawled on the floor, as Fischer — an animated man with a Cheshire cat smile — personally welcomes them to JCHS.

“Today and every day,” he says, “we have the opportunity to be not only the best high school we can be, but the best community we can be.”

Next Fischer introduces them to the school faculty: eight teachers of subjects ranging from biblical literature and performing arts to mathematics and science.

Like the students and parents, the teachers have their own reasons for wanting to be a part of the high school, which joins San Francisco’s Hebrew Academy as the second Bay Area Jewish high school. A third school, Kehillah Jewish High School, is scheduled to open on the Peninsula next fall.

Spanish and Hebrew teacher Kara Jacobson, who moved to the Bay Area to work at JCHS, attended Jewish day schools in Wisconsin through eighth grade. “I really want to give back to the Jewish community what I got from them,” she says.

Dana Goldberg, the school’s athletic director and assistant director of admissions, is eager to connect Judaism with’ “a holistic approach to the mind, body and soul” through activities like yoga and self-defense.

Although the students seem a bit timid as they make their own introductions, Fischer is certain it will pass.

“They’re only tentative,” he explains, “because they’re ninth-graders. This is their first day of high school.”

In fact, the students grow increasingly exuberant as Harwitz and Fischer hand out their class schedules. All immediately begin comparing and contrasting their lists, excitedly noting who is in what class with whom.

Shirlee Ezra of Berkeley expresses some relief. “I thought it would be stricter than this,” she says.

The students and teachers disperse to their classrooms and Harwitz, who will lead a course on rabbinic literature, says these 22 pioneering students will have tremendous opportunities to “determine the culture” of their school.

“The social life at this school — in terms of student activities, government, dances — will be centered around them,” he said. “They will be at the center of response and input.”

Finally Fischer, assured that everything is running smoothly, has a chance to take a long-deserved break — although only for 10 minutes. He sits down at a table and reveals what it took for JCHS to get to this day, citing “faith from the parents of students and the students themselves.

“Now it’s our responsibility to be deserving of their faith and trust — to do the best we can to offer a strong curriculum and to be good to one other.”