The Jewish Community High School of the Bay is poised to move into its permanent San Francisco campus next year but Larry Fischer won't be here to see it.
Fischer, the JCHS' popular head of school, surprised faculty, board members and students in February by announcing that he will step down from his post in July, at the conclusion of the school's first year.
"I think people are disappointed he's leaving because they're very fond of him," said Noah Alper, the school's president of the board. "The board had just offered him a three-year contract; we were pleased with his work. He took a bit of time to think about it and decided it wasn't something he could continue with."
Fischer cited personal reasons for his decision to leave the post he took over from Tom Lorch in April 2001. Fischer and his wife, Martha, plan to return to Connecticut, where they had lived for several decades.
After bandying about the idea of launching a search for a new head of school, the school board instead opted to promote the principal, Rabbi Ed Harwitz, to the position.
"This was a personal decision I came to with my family after mulling it over for a while. I'm so pleased the school is where it's at, and I'm delighted Eddie Harwitz will be the head of school," said Fischer, who lobbied for Harwitz to fill his position. "It is something I've been thinking about for a while, and the timing was right for me to return" to Connecticut.
Harwitz described himself as "excited and honored" at the promotion, but said he will miss working with Fischer.
"I'm very sorry to see Larry go. He did an outstanding job as head of school and I know the faculty and board of directors feel the same way. Larry loves the school, and his love and affection is reciprocated. But, at the same time, you've got to respect an individual who makes a personal decision for himself and his family," said the 38-year-old rabbi.
"I know the board wanted him to stay on and the faculty wanted him to stay on, but Larry came to a personal decision about what's best for his life. I respect his privacy."
Alper also gave Fischer high marks for his leadership during JCHS' fledgling year at its temporary home in Tiburon.
"Opening up a brand-new school is a huge, multifaceted challenge. There are a million balls you're juggling in the air, not the least of which was Sept. 11 and making the student body and the parents feel comfortable at a new school during tempestuous times," he said.
"As board chairman, I received zero calls from parents with problems. The kids were happy, teachers were happy, enrollment for next year is stellar, so all the vital signs are tremendous."
Alper, for his part, foresaw a time in the future when the 57-year-old Fischer would step down in favor of Harwitz, but hadn't anticipated that time would be now. The smoothness of the transition is reassuring for many at JCHS.
"Larry's been a wonderful leader and has contributed so much to the school, so of course we're sorry to see him go. But we also have so much confidence in Rabbi Harwitz," said Kara Jacobson, a Hebrew and Spanish teacher at the school. "There was a sense that Rabbi Harwitz would grow into this position in the future, but the opportunity came at this time."
The JCHS board has yet to determine if it will fill its vacancy with a new principal or with several positions such as Dean of Academic Affairs and Dean of Student Affairs.
Fischer said he has "a lot of options" to follow up in Connecticut, where he worked as vice principal of Simsbury High School for 19 years before coming out of semi-retirement to take the JCHS job.
"When I came on in April, the school hadn't started yet, and people only knew of us in theory," he said. "Not I, but we — Eddie, the students, the faculty and I — showed that JCHS is what we said it would be. We're an outstanding academic institution in both Judaic and general studies and we are growing and growing."