Despite any Martin Sheen-related quips that could suggest otherwise, David Harrison, board president of Beth El Congregation of Baltimore, doesn’t let his position or title go to his head.
“I love to make ‘West Wing’ jokes about my being president, but as much as I love to do that, it’ll be time to stop when two years is over and we’ll have a new president coming in,” Harrison said. “I do it all the time. I talk about Air Force One dropping me off on the parking lot, just to be funny.”
Harrison has served as board president since May, and is also president of Harrison Communications, a public relations agency.
A resident of Pikesville, Harrison and his wife Elise have two children, Emma, 23, and Ethan, 21.
Harrison grew up in the Baltimore area and had his bar mitzvah at Temple Oheb Shalom. After receiving a dual degree in English language and literature and liberal arts and business from the University of Maryland, College Park, Harrison worked as a journalist for about a decade, writing for publications like The Baltimore Business Journal and American Banker.
“I’ve always enjoyed writing,” Harrison said. “I remember in high school we were shown the movie, ‘All the President’s Men,’ and I was kind of hooked from that point on in the power that one can exercise through journalism. So I was either going to be a reporter or a stand-up comedian, and I chose a little more stable life as a reporter.”
In 1999, he chose to switch to public relations. He said he had more respect for the field than some other journalists, and that it offered more career options. He founded Harrison Communications in 2007, which commonly works for not-for-profit organizations.
Harrison joined Beth El around seven or eight years ago, he said. When asked what appealed to him about the synagogue, he spoke of its clergy, and of their wisdom, their dedication to Conservative Judaism and how relatable they are as human beings.
“I feel like I know them as people, I know them as parents, I know them as fans of music and pop culture, in addition to knowing them as clergy members,” Harrison said. “And I think that’s true for all of the members, I don’t think it’s true just for me. I just think it’s the way they present themselves.”
Harrison became involved with Beth El’s board after his work with the shul’s “Live! From Beth El” committee, which organized fundraisers that provided things like new computers for staff throughout the building, and the outdoor Weil Mandel Pavilion. This led to him getting to know the synagogue’s president at the time, Denise Franz, and to an invitation to join the board in 2017.
This past May, Harrison was elected to a two-year term as board president in a congregation-wide election.
“When presented with the opportunity, I was honored by it, humbled by it and eager to do it,” Harrison said.
One of Harrison’s favorite aspects of the role include being part of what he called “the truly excellent team” of Rabbis Steven Schwartz and Dana Saroken, Cantors Thom King and Melanie Blatt and Executive Director Ben Wachstein.
Harrison’s responsibilities as president include leading the board’s meetings, setting its agenda, maintaining an inclusive culture and creating a vision for Beth El, particularly in regards to what the future will look like after the pandemic.
“We’ve already thought the pandemic ended, I think, a couple of different times, but it really hasn’t,” Harrison said. “And how do we congregate, how do we gather, how do we meet, how can we figure all this out. We’re at a point of change in how we live, in how we work and how we practice religion, and I mean that on a global scale, not just at Beth El. And that’s challenging, and it’s exciting.”
Before and after accepting the role of president, Harrison was warned that the job was thankless, difficult and that he would regret doing it, he said.
“It’s not thankless, I don’t regret it, and yes, it’s difficult, but I find it to be one of the most rewarding things that I’ve done in my life,” Harrison said.