Josh Harris, managing partner of the Washington Commanders, managing partner of the Philadelphia 76ers and co-managing partner of the New Jersey Devils, at a Commanders game. Credit: Courtesy of the Washington Commanders.
Josh Harris, managing partner of the Washington Commanders, managing partner of the Philadelphia 76ers and co-managing partner of the New Jersey Devils, at a Commanders game. Credit: Courtesy of the Washington Commanders.

Josh Harris and a commanding sports career

The managing partner of the Washington Commanders talks about Jewish identity, Israel and making sports a “shared community experience.”

For some people, being involved in professional sports is a dream come true. For Josh Harris, it’s a way for him to effectuate positive change and make other people’s dreams come true by transforming sports into “a shared community experience.”

Harris is one of the most powerful people in professional sports. He became the managing partner of the Washington Commanders after leading a successful effort to buy the team for $6.05 billion in 2023.

In addition, Harris is the managing partner of the Philadelphia 76ers and the co-managing partner of the New Jersey Devils, which makes Harris a formidable player in the NFL, NBA and NHL. His involvement in the sports arena extends across the Atlantic as well, as Harris is also the general partner of the Crystal Palace Football Club in the English Premier League.

His love of sports stems from his childhood experiences, which led him to pursue a path that propelled him to the pinnacle of the professional sports world.

Harris grew up in Chevy Chase, Md., not far from Washington, D.C. Both sets of his grandparents came to the United States in the early 20th century from the Russian territories. His mother attended Temple University, and his father went to the University of Pennsylvania.

“They were both the first in their generation and their families to go to college,” Harris proudly noted.

“I grew up as an upper-middle-class kid,” said Harris, who went to Rollingwood Elementary School and then attended Leland Junior High School, describing his upbringing as “pretty normal.”

For Harris, wrestling played a pivotal role in his life. He recalled a time when wrestling became more important to him than his studies.

“When I wasn’t doing so well in school—I was more focused on wrestling—and my grades were down, my parents were smart enough to yank me out of public school going into 10th grade, and I went to The Field School [in Washington, D.C.] from 10th through 12th grade.”

“Sports ended up having a big impact on me in terms of my experience wrestling, where I was not doing very well at school, but there’s nothing like having to go out on a mat one-on-one with another human being who’s trying to physically dominate you to sharpen your desire to work hard and dig in,” he said.

“I was very competitive and started preparing for wrestling—and working, lifting and running—and started doing well in wrestling. And that really changed my life trajectory because I started applying that to school,” he said.

Harris’s renewed focus on academics earned him admission to Penn.

“I had never heard of the Wharton School, but I took an economics class and the next thing you know, I transferred into Wharton. I was lucky enough to find my calling early, which was investing, and I ended up on Wall Street and achieved a lot of financial success. And that gave me the opportunity to get involved in sports.”

Josh Harris
Josh and Marjorie Harris, and their family. Credit: Courtesy of the Washington Commanders.

‘I feel deeply blessed’

While wrestling played an important part in Harris’s personal development, his Judaism also played a big part in making him the person and leader he would ultimately become.

“I was bar mitzvahed at Washington Hebrew Congregation; we were Reform Jews,” Harris said. In the summer between 10th and 11th grade, Harris went on a trip to Israel with NFTY (North American Federation for Temple Youth), in conjunction with the Reform Jewish Youth Movement. He worked at Kibbutz Yahel for three weeks picking pears, but also traveled around the country and got to experience Israel in a significant, meaningful way.

“My family is deeply connected to Israel. And I’ve gotten more religious as I’ve gotten older. I study with a rabbi, and it’s something that’s really important to me. And obviously, when I look at my life, going from my parents, who had been the first in their generations and in their families to go to college, and now, all of a sudden, to have the blessing of immense financial success and then the ability to be involved with the teams that I rooted for growing up or in college, I feel deeply blessed,” he explained. “It’s made me really take a step back and try to engage in making the world a better place and having an impact.”

The Jewish tenet of tikkun olam—using acts of kindness to help repair the world—is something that resonates with Harris and his wife, Marjorie, and drives their philanthropic endeavors in a significant way.

“As a Jewish American, I really care about the State of Israel and its ability to thrive. We’ve gotten deeply engaged in it, and it’s a community that I’m a part of. Over the years, people have made immense sacrifices to have Israel be a homeland for Jews, but also for all people, and make it a thriving democracy. And my job is to support it and help the people that are there,” he said.

The Harris family has gotten deeply involved in several initiatives in Israel, including establishing a basketball league called the 48ers, which Harris noted “is a takeoff on the 76ers, but it’s also the year that Israel was founded,” referring to the formation of the modern-day nation in 1948.

Josh Harris
Harris and family with the 48ers. Credit: Courtesy of Harris Philanthropies.

The 48ers, which Harris said has more than 25 teams and initially began as a program for Ethiopian Jews, now serves “people that are less fortunate and aren’t necessarily ready to serve in the military.” The basketball league provides young Israeli boys and girls with a means through which they can work hard and develop life skills and physical abilities to get ready for service in the Israel Defense Forces.

The Harrises also sponsor archaeological digs in Israel. “They bring the Bible to life—where you get to literally, whether it be the City of David or the Western Wall—dig up first Temple artifacts that show that a lot of the stories that you and I heard about when we went to Sunday school are true … there is real archaeological data and remnants that prove out that Solomon really existed and that David really existed, and people before that.”

‘All of us need to do our part to support Israel’

The events of Oct. 7 impacted the lives of Israelis in a multitude of ways that before that fateful day would have seemed unthinkable, and it affected Jews and other people around the world. For this family, the current situation in Israel serves as a call to action.

“Given the tragic events that have occurred, we’ve ramped up our giving in terms of supporting a lot of the people that have been affected in a very tragic way by this horrible conflict,” Harris said. “The biggest thing we’re doing is called ‘The Day After Fund,’ which is something we’re doing with a series of families, and the president of Israel and the first lady, in terms of helping people rebuild their lives—a lot of people’s lives have been shattered.”

Harris ruminated on the responsibility he feels to give back, help others and strengthen communities, particularly as a Jewish American who cares greatly about the well-being of the State of Israel.

“I think when you’re a member of a community and you’re fortunate, it’s your obligation, it’s your job, to try to pay it forward. And if people hadn’t done that for me, I wouldn’t be where I am. And so, it’s what fulfills me and what makes me get up in the morning,” he said.

Harris continued, saying “I feel like you’re on Earth for a small amount of time, and your job is to leave it better than where it started. And so that’s what my job is, and I really am taken with the communities that I’m a part of. And certainly, being Jewish, you’re part of the community, and all of us need to do our part to support Israel, and obviously, there’s a lot of people that are supporting it with their lives. And so, I need to support it by helping people rebuild.”

Josh Harris
Displaying “Stand Up to Jewish Hate” sneakers. Photo by Daniel Schwartz.

While discussing his Jewish identity, Harris addressed antisemitism and the importance of people maintaining their Jewish pride.

“Obviously, we’re living in a dangerous time in terms of the rise in antisemitism, but it’s really the rise of hate of all kinds.

“If you look at history, antisemitism increases when other forms of hate increase as well. … As Jews, we’re a small minority of the people in the world and I think it’s important for us to support each other visibly and to speak out against hate of all kinds. … I think that’s the best way to possibly counteract some of the tougher things that are going on. I hope that I can influence people to do that, by example.”

‘Meeting fans is such an invigorating experience’

In that same vein, Harris spoke proudly about the Jewish Heritage events that each of his teams organizes every year.

“I like the idea of celebrating all people that want to be recognized. That’s what sports are for—you can bring groups together. … We use the teams for positive convening and celebration for all forms of expression and religion and cultural things. And so, obviously, being Jewish and proud of the Jewish people, I think that we go out of our way, whether it be celebrating Chanukah or Jewish Heritage Night across all the teams, and I like to get personally involved in it and be visible, and I really enjoy doing Chanukah with people in the city.”

Josh Harris
Harris lights the Chanukah candles alongside Rabbi Menachem Schmidt, co-director of the Lubavitch House of Philadelphia. Photo by Aaron Troodler.

“Spending time in our stadiums and arenas and meeting fans is such an invigorating experience for me and reminds me why it’s so important to connect with the communities where our teams play. I really get a kick out of just wandering around the stadium or the arena and shaking hands and being part of that community—both the community in Philly and the community in Washington—but also the Jewish community. It’s something that I really derive a tremendous amount of positive energy from,” he added.

In addition to being an owner of several sports franchises, Harris is also a huge sports fan and is quick to link milestones in his life to significant sporting events that corresponded to them on the calendar.

“I grew up in the Washington area, so I was a fan of all the Washington sports teams, but at that point, Washington football was dominant. … Some of my earliest memories had to do with Washington football.”

Harris recalls watching Super Bowl VII in 1973 when the Washington football team squared off against the Miami Dolphins. He remembers vividly how the Dolphins’ Garo Yepremian had his kick blocked and the Redskins’ Mike Bass returned it for a touchdown (although Washington ended up losing, 14-7).

“For me, Billy Kilmer, Sonny Jurgensen, the ‘Over-the-Hill Gang’ [the Washington team of the early 1970s] into John Riggins, ‘The Hogs’ [the nickname given to the Washington offensive line during the 1980s and early 1990s], Joe Gibbs, Darrell Green, and Art Monk, all of that was really part of my psyche growing up. It was deeply ingrained in me.”

“In my senior year in high school, Washington football won the title—that was the famous 27-17 game against the Dolphins where Riggins broke that tackle,” Harris said, referring to Super Bowl XVII, when Washington running back John Riggins scored on a fourth and one with 10 minutes left in the game and helped propel Washington to its first NFL championship since 1942.

“I got to witness the parade, and as you know, Washington was a deeply divided city at that point, and I got to see sports bringing everyone together,” Harris said as he recalled the aftermath of the 1983 Super Bowl victory.

His exuberance about sports was equally evident as he talked about his beloved 76ers.

“I went up to Philly and the Sixers won the title,” Harris said, referring to the Sixers’ 1983 NBA championship. “It was Dr. J [Julius Erving], Moses Malone, Maurice Cheeks and Andrew Toney.”

Josh Harris
Harris and Joel Embiid, reigning NBA MVP and star center for the Philadelphia 76ers. Credit: Courtesy of the Philadelphia 76ers.

As he reflected on this year’s Sixers squad, Harris focused on the two-month absence of reigning NBA MVP and Sixers star Joel Embiid due to a knee injury.

“We had our fastest start since the [Allen] Iverson years, and then Joel was making another MVP run and was dominating, and then he got injured. … When you lose the league MVP, it’s hard,” Harris said, noting that the Sixers are a dangerous team with Embiid in the lineup.

Not only is Harris a big sports fan, but he’s someone who views sports as an opportunity to inspire people and touch the lives of others, and he recognizes that he needs to lead by example.

“In terms of sports, I look at it as a great responsibility. … Your job as an owner is to be a steward for a city. If you make it about yourself, it doesn’t work. Your job is to win championships and to put your all into doing that, and to help the city. … You have an enormous megaphone and an enormous platform. … You’re an example to people, so how you act is under a microscope,” he said.

“I think that the cities really want you to behave in a righteous way, in a way that sets an example of how to have a big, positive impact on the world. And then you need to engage with the cities and create memories, like memories that I had. Obviously, winning is the biggest thing, but then how did fans feel when they’re in the stadium? How do you treat them? The thing about a sports team is everyone—from the person you meet in the parking lot, the person that’s serving you the hotdog or checking your ticket to the players have an impact on your experience. So, you’re basically inviting people into your house for two hours, three hours, and your job is to create amazing memories and positive experiences.”

Josh Harris
From left: Josh Harris; Nick Nurse, coach of the Philadelphia 76ers; and Daryl Morey, general manager of the Philadelphia 76ers. Credit: Courtesy of the Philadelphia 76ers.

The Harrises created Harris Philanthropies a decade ago, which focuses on youth and community development, and helping kids has become a primary emphasis of their charitable efforts.

“Your job is to help the community and help those people that are less fortunate,” Harris said. “And obviously, sports has a tremendous impact on kids. Kids love sports. … You can use sports to help them achieve better lives, whether it be keeping them safe, whether it be education, or life skills, or any number of things. And so, that’s a big element of what we use the teams for as well. Each team has a foundation and does a lot of things in the city.”

Harris is admittedly self-aware when it comes to the roller coaster of emotions that he and the fans experience depending on the teams’ successes and failures.

“When the Commanders win, the city of Washington is excited. When the Sixers win, the city of Philly is excited. I’m affected by it deeply. I’m not very fun to be around when we lose. I’ve learned how to manage it. I just don’t talk to a lot of people, which is not fair to my family. I think that unfortunately, winning or losing really matters. And then beyond that, how you treat people [is important].”

Despite the success he’s had in life, on Wall Street and in professional sports, Harris counts his blessings and doesn’t take his experiences for granted.

“It’s pretty incredible now to be able to look back and be a part of these storied franchises from an ownership point of view and I think it’s a great responsibility. Obviously, it really changed my life.”

Josh Harris
Harris with members of the Washington Commanders. Credit: Courtesy of the Washington Commanders.

“I think it’s amazingly fun,” he continued. “You’re around amazing athletes, the best in the world at what they do. And they’re all unique—they’re unique people. … They put themselves through amazing agony to be really good at something. And you get to experience all that and compete at the ripe old age of 59—right now, that’s my age—and so it’s super-fun, but it’s also an awesome responsibility, and I sweat it.

“I think about it. I wake up in the middle of the night. And we have an enormous amount to do in Washington around finding a new stadium, around fixing the team, fixing how we engage with the community. And every day there’s just an enormous amount to do, but it’s a labor of love for me.”

This story originally appeared in the Washington Jewish Week.

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