April 3, 2003
School Provides anAntidote to Grief
Even 56 years later, Irving Gelman recalls precisely the day of his U.S. arrival and exactly the contents of his pockets: April 19, 1947, and $5.60.
The date marked a miraculous fresh start for a man whose generosity would later ignite dramatic changes within Orange County's Jewish community.
For years the scenes preceding that day summoned nightmares too painful and horrible to talk about: Gelman and his wife, Rochelle, a pair of love-struck, unmarried teenagers in 1941, managed to escape mass executions that claimed their extended families and half of Ukraine's Jewish population of 1.5 million people.
Their hiding place was a dirt hole inside a peasant farmer's barn shared with Gelman's parents and sister. Bone chilling in winter and asphyxiating in summer, their 14 months in a solitary hell was perpetually dark and oxygen-deprived but never discovered. Twice a day, the trapdoor would open, and the farm couple would dispense boiled potatoes and black bread, which enabled them to survive.
The 1941 German invasion of the former Soviet Union is seen by many Holocaust scholars as the first implementation of "the final solution."
"This is the first place where Jews are being killed for being Jews," said Peter Blake, senior historian of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.
To ensure that those who died from his hometown of Hosht are not forgotten, last summer the Gelmans, Irving, 79, and Rochelle, 78, returned to western Ukraine. They dedicated a privately funded Holocaust monument cut from local stone that is the only visible sign of where 18,000 people were slaughtered.
While memorials have been erected elsewhere in Ukraine, Gelman grieved that nothing marked the Hosht killing ground, now dappled by forest. He bought the land. A fence will be erected soon and a groundskeeper hired to maintain the site as a graveyard.
"I felt a moral obligation," said Gelman, who recited "Kaddish," the prayer for the dead. About 45 descendants of other Hosht survivors, now living in Israel, joined them. So did Nina, the 55-year-old daughter of the farmers who hid the Gelmans, but is still fearful about revealing her surname. The Gelmans have sent her money monthly for several years.
"In my conscience, I gave my respect to my townspeople," Gelman said.
Following their grown children to California, the Gelmans liquidated a successful sportswear business 18 years ago and relocated from New Jersey to Irvine. For a second time, the couple was pushed to a psychological precipice, this time by the death of their 38-year-old daughter, Naomi Gelman Weiss, who died from a brain tumor and breast cancer in 1989.
"It finished us off," Gelman said. "I figured I had had enough, if that's how I was being treated by God."
Serendipitously, Gelman answered a plea from a struggling Jewish day school in Anaheim. It would prove a satisfying antidote for a grieving father.
The subject was already dear to Gelman, because he had provided support and financial aid to two other Jewish schools in New Jersey. For his help, though, Gelman demanded the school move to a central location, change its name and disaffiliate with any single Jewish movement.
"They had no choice," he said.
In 1997, 37 students started at the school he named Tarbut V'Torah Community Day School, then housed at what is currently the Jewish Federation campus in Costa Mesa. Even as school enrollment was soaring, Gelman was scrambling to bankroll a more suitable campus.
He turned to the local Jewish Federation, which agreed to mail a solicitation for the school to the 14,000 on its mailing list. He netted $1,431.
He turned to East Coast friends and raised $3 million in three months. Gelman and an anonymous donor cobbled together $18 million for the initial building, now an elementary school, helped by a 10-acre contribution of land from Broadcom co-founder Henry Samueli.
In the fall of 1997, Tarbut opened at its present Irvine location with 326 students. A separate high school opened last fall. The combined enrollment now exceeds 500.
The school is the nucleus of what is envisioned as the community's Jewish campus. Fundraising is continuing for the final piece, a large community building to house Jewish agencies. Named as a memorial to his daughter, Tarbut, which means culture, is a link to its founder's past. As youth, both the Gelmans attended Tarbut schools that flourished throughout Europe.
Students take to Gelman, who lives three miles from the campus and is a frequent visitor. Short and round, he still speaks with a European accent. Students call him "poppa."
"Tarbut was my baby," said Gelman, who stuck to his vision for a school, despite opposing arguments over funding an athletic facility from former Federation executives. "You need to build a community; that won't come from a gym," he said.
Like a proud parent, Gelman can tick off Tarbut's attributes, such as offering seven levels of Hebrew. But the school has yet to crack the code on retaining elementary students, a problem facing many Jewish high schools. Some claim the school does too little to promote community service by students; others gripe over its admission policy.
Even so, Gelman realizes the school's longevity is tied to the financial support of the local Jewish community. And he is troubled by what he sees as the area's skewed priorities: self-indulgence ahead of charity. The area's economic affluence and insularity shows up in the community's status-conscious materialism, Gelman said. "The level of giving here is disgraceful," he said.
But he is optimistic that the school will be supported by the community.
"This school's made a change for the entire Orange County," Gelman said. "It's creating a center of Jewish culture; it's the nucleus of a Jewish neighborhood."
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