The law of return

After more than 10 years away, Rabbi Howard Ruben is returning to the Bay Area — and he’s delighted.

Following an extensive national search, the Jewish Community High School of the Bay in San Francisco selected Ruben as its new head of school. Ruben replaces Rabbi Sheldon Dorph, who has been interim director since 2005.

Although Ruben officially doesn’t start until January, he has been on the job for two weeks, primarily to familiarize himself with the students, faculty, families and administrators who make up the JCHS community.

Ruben most recently worked for nine years as the senior rabbi at Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple in a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio, a Reform congregation with 1,800 families. He also served on the boards of the Jewish Community Relations Council and j. (then the Jewish Bulletin of Northern California) and held several leadership positions at Peninsula Temple Beth El in San Mateo.

This mix was what appealed to the JCHS search committee. “He has had a wealth of experience in the Jewish community, and we thought all of those different experiences were a tremendous asset,” said Brian Kaye, former president of the board and head of the search committee.

“He’s also an incredibly quick study. If he didn’t know something, the next time we’d talk to him, he’d have done all this research and had a tremendous knowledge. He’s eager to learn.”

Because he wants students and staff to view him as approachable, he plans to spend the next three months talking and listening. “You can’t take a vision off the shelf of what a Jewish high school should look like,” Ruben said.

He talks a lot about vision — how to develop a personal vision for the school and how to develop a collective vision that everyone, from parents to students to staff, wants to work toward.

But Ruben declined to be specific because he wholeheartedly believes that his only goals in this early transition period are “listening and learning, then leading.”

He is particularly impressed by the school’s diversity and enthusiasm. During his many interviews, he was excited to hear that when three students had scheduling conflicts with a Talmud class, the school arranged for an extra section just for them. “The school community didn’t want to make the students’ schedule a barrier to learning,” he said.

Ruben did his undergraduate work at U.C. Berkeley and earned a law degree from U.C. Hastings College of the Law. Being a lawyer was “great intellectually, but it wasn’t fulfilling me spiritually,” he said.

Despite volunteering as a lay leader and taking on pro bono work, “law wasn’t enabling me to help build a Jewish community,” he said.

So Ruben shifted gears and went off to Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. After being ordained, he worked as the director for Cincinnati’s Bureau of Jewish Education.

“Education has always been a significant focus of my rabbinate because it’s where personal growth and development and communal growth and change takes place,” Ruben said.

His work with Jewish teens dates back to the 1970s and ’80s, when he served as the assistant director of Camp Swig Institute in Saratoga. His children, a son and daughter who are twins and now in college, attended Jewish day school through middle school.

He considers himself a “proud product” of the Reform movement. But as a kippah-wearing, tefillah-wrapping Reform rabbi, he’s also excited to work in a pluralistic Jewish environment, he said.

Toward the end of the interview, he carefully explained that above the ark in a synagogue, it is common to find written in Hebrew, “know before whom you stand.”

“That refers to God, but it also means serving families and students who are a part of our community,” he said. “It’s really important to me to get to know people, parents, students, faculty so I know the people before whom I stand.”

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.