Israeli-born circuit judge makes his own luck

 Jalal Harb attended college in Michigan, working his way through school as a waiter

By Jason Geary
The Ledger

BARTOW, Fla. (AP) — If someone asks how he became a circuit judge, Jalal Harb laughs and credits luck. However, friends, family and colleagues say the 56-year-old Lakeland man and father of two sons makes his own luck through hard work.

He moved to a new country, learned a new language, earned a law degree, raised a family and worked his way up as a prosecutor handling murder cases.

State Attorney Jerry Hill recalled hiring Harb fresh out of law school. He watched Harb tackle increasingly harder cases — from misdemeanors and small-time thefts to sexual assaults and homicides.

Hill described Harb as a “very humble” man who “finds it difficult to give himself the credit he deserves.”

“My daddy used to say, ‘Son, the harder you work, the luckier you get,’” Hill said. “I think that is exactly what applies to Jalal . There is a whole lot more than luck involved. He takes nothing for granted.”

Jalal Ahmad Harb was born Dec. 14, 1956, in Nazareth, Israel.

His middle-class parents, Ahmad and Khaireh Harb, raised nine children, four daughters and five sons. Jalal Harb was “right smack in the middle.”

In such a large family, he was accustomed to hand-me-downs from his siblings and learning to “share everything.”

His father was a driving instructor and his mother took care of the children and household. Together, they raised a close-knit family and focused on education and hard work.

“Cheating was not tolerated,” he said. “Getting in trouble was not an option. Trying your best was the only thing expected out of you.”

He credits his parents with being the most inspirational people in his life. His mother died in 2000, and his father continues to live in Nazareth.

As a child, Jalal Harb learned to speak Arabic and Hebrew.

“We grew up with having very good friends who were just like family, and they were Jewish,” he said.

In his early teens, Harb spent his school breaks working on farms or low-level construction jobs.

In high school, he decided to go into the hospitality industry. He eventually worked as a bartender at a hotel near the Sea of Galilee and a waiter at a hotel near the Red Sea.

“We catered to many U.N. diplomats and peace forces that would stay there or have meetings at the hotel,” he said. “I got to see some big shots at times. That’s where I started learning English.”

Although he speaks fondly of his childhood, Harb said he moved to the United States to escape the tension of his native country.

“I didn’t feel I was free to say things that I wanted to say,” he said. “I grew up at a time where because of politics and security issues that newspapers were censored. You would get a newspaper article where things were deleted. I remember getting mail where it was opened.”

He said he had respect and admiration for the U.S. Constitution and its principles, and he decided to travel to America.

Harb attended college in Michigan and worked his way through school as a waiter at a Denny’s restaurant.

He didn’t have money to take formal English classes so he kept a well-worn dictionary nearby. Classmates shared notes with him. Professors were patient and spoke with him after class.

“It was very tough,” he said. “But it paid off. I liked what I was learning. My classmates took a couple minutes to read a page. For me, it was an hour. I looked up every word that I did not understand. There was no such thing as a shortcut.”

Harb received his bachelor’s degree in 1984 from Michigan State University, studying international relations and social science. He received his law degree from Thomas M. Cooley Law School in 1987.

He and his wife, Ola, were married on Sept. 27, 1989. They have two sons, Nabil, 21, and Rami, 18.

Ola Harb, 48, described her husband as a loving and gentle man and a great father. She said they take walks in the neighborhood a few times a week so they can spend quality time together and talk.

She said he also enjoys working outside, tending to his lemon, orange, tangerine, grapefruit and pomelo trees.

“He just spends hours out there weeding, trimming and working on his garden,” she said.

Jalal Harb said his desire for a warm climate is what brought him to Florida from Michigan.

He had heard about an opening at the State Attorney’s Office in Bartow and got the job in 1988.

Harb prosecuted increasingly difficult cases, including local murder cases, throughout the late 1990s.

“Not only is he very thorough, but he’s got a personality that endears him to people,” Hill said. “It was easy for him to talk with victims and their families. It was easy for him to communicate with witnesses. They immediately perceive him as genuine and caring.”

Wayne Durden worked with Harb as an assistant state attorney. The two struck a friendship that continues to this day. Now, they’re fellow circuit judges.

Durden called Harb’s life a great example of the “American dream personified.”

“To master English as a third language and put it to use with such success is remarkable to me,” Durden said.

He admires Harb’s “down-to-earth” and patient attitude. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen him lose his temper or composure,” Durden said.

In 2001, Harb went to work as a prosecutor at the State Attorney’s Office in Hillsborough County, but continued to live in Polk County.

He was recognized in 2010 as the state’s outstanding prosecutor by the Florida Prosecuting Attorney’s Association.

He rejoined Hill’s office in late 2012, and planned to continue handling murder cases. His plans drastically shifted.

Circuit Judge Karla Foreman Wright died last year, leaving a vacancy on the local bench. Gov. Rick Scott appointed Harb to fill the spot in January.

Harb said he submitted an application for the judicial post as a way to evolve his legal career.

“It’s a continuation of this journey,” Harb said. “I thought that it’s another challenge.”

He said his time spent as a prosecutor has been good training for his new job.

A prosecutor must neutrally judge the strengths and weaknesses of each case received from law enforcement agencies, he said.

“You look at not only whether they have enough (evidence),” Harb said. “Is there a crime? Is this the person who did the crime? Is this something we can prove in the court of law? Is there a likelihood of success? There were times when you say, ‘No, you don’t have it.’”

Harb said he must keep an eye on himself so he doesn’t jump to any quick conclusions or make assumptions.

“I try to keep an open mind and not quickly judge a case or an issue or a person,” he said.

He currently is assigned to preside over family law cases — something he hasn’t studied since law school. He’s been spending lots of time researching and getting familiar with the new legal territory.

“You’ve got to explore,” Harb said. “If you stop exploring, life gets boring. Obviously, I’m learning, and I’m enjoying that.”