October 14, 2009
The Rabbi of Love
I met Rabbi Yitzhak Dovid Grossman three weeks ago in a beautiful apartment across from the Western Wall. We stood at the window and looked out at some 5,000 kids preparing to say the penitential Selichot service. He turned and spoke his first words to me: “Is that not the scene of the Mashiach?!”
Here was one of Israel’s most revered rabbis — someone who’s reported to have turned down the honor of being Israel’s chief rabbi twice — asking, rhetorically, if this youthful, dynamic prayer were not a vision of what Jerusalem would look like when the Messiah arrived.
I’d heard a lot about Rav Grossman. He founded Migdal Ohr, Israel’s largest and most innovative orphanage, and I’d even, sight unseen, hosted two events to raise awareness for the Oct. 20 Maccabi Tel Aviv/LA Clippers game at Staples Center, as a unique fundraiser for Migdal Ohr. But nothing could have prepared me for what he was like in person. Everyone who told me about him — regardless of where they stood politically or religiously — went on and on about what a tzadik, a righteous man, he is, about how incredible his work is, about how he’s succeeded in matching an out-of-this world vision of helping orphaned and troubled youth with an uncanny ability to build a 65-acre campus (think UCLA for a sense of its size) to provide a full range of educational and round-the-clock support services for nearly 7,000 troubled and/or orphaned youth, from six months to 18 years old.
But there was one other word I had heard, and it was this one that struck me the most, as I watched him in that apartment, as I walked with him to the Kotel and watched him lead and inspire those 5,000 young people, and, two days later, as I had the honor of touring the Migdal Ohr campus with him. What Rav Grossman really represents is love. Love in its purest form. A commitment to helping everyone, a genuine care for those less fortunate.
Watching Rav Grossman in that apartment, on his way to and from the Kotel — where he was mobbed by young and old, religious and secular, alike — and walking across the incredible campus he’s been able to build in Migdal HaEmek, provided me with the opportunity to be in the presence of someone who really does operate on an entirely different plane, where true commitment to caring about others transcends all. Migdal Ohr and its founder are proof that one man’s vision, along with a dedicated team of on-campus workers, many of whom are alumni of the program, and a network of supporters around the globe, really can change the world. And just in case we needed some third-party validation of Rav Grossman’s importance beyond his stature in Israel, where he’s received The Israel Prize, the country’s highest civilian honor, just this week, in our own City of Angels, The Caring Institute — an organization inspired by the example of Mother Teresa — presented its International Humanitarian of the Year award to the rabbi in a ceremony at the Westin Bonaventure along with the other recipients, Gen. Colin Powell and the Dalai Lama.
I’m driven by the belief that bridges should be built among all people on opposite ends of even the most divisive issues, and I’ve applied that approach to the disheartening issue of certain Jews questioning each other’s Jewishness. I couldn’t help but ask Rav Grossman, therefore, during our first meeting, how it is that, as one of the most renowned Orthodox rabbis in the world, he seemed to operate from a position that everyone is equal in his eyes. He wasted no time in answering me, first by asking, rhetorically, who it is that defines “Who is a Jew?” He asked me to give him my own definition and then immediately validated it by saying, “OK, this is the answer.” He then went on to say that he “never finds a more religious Jew,” than any of those thousands of kids he was looking at, spread across the huge plaza in front of us.
“Look at how they pray,” he said. Many “don’t have a kippah and do not go to religious schools.” What they shared, though, was a “feeling,” an “energy.” “Look at them dance,” he said. “Every Jew has something inside,” he continued, as he quoted part of the daily prayers, landing on neshamah, the word for “soul.” “Every soul is pure,” he said, before pointing to a light bulb in the ceiling above us, explaining that if you were to paint it black, you would not be changing the purity of that light, even if you might be covering its external body.
It was a simple yet beautiful way to capture the rabbi’s sense of purity and love while giving expression to a lifetime spent in the pursuit of transforming even the most troubled child into someone who sees — and expresses — the love that rests deeply in each soul. In the context of all of that, the rabbi then described how each and every one of us is an “ambassador,” charged with doing whatever we can to make this world a better place.
It was a magical moment, hearing such a simple and insightful teaching from such a gifted rabbi while sitting in that holy city, overlooking the Kotel and that incredible scene of thousands and thousands of young people.
There’s another point that needs to be made, though:
Lost in the all the well-deserved accolades Rav Grossman continues to receive, and in the hoopla surrounding what promises to be a great baketball game, is a simple truth: this is the Israel we love. Migdal Ohr is the Israel we as American Jews have always bought into, the best example of the best promise of Zionism: that in our own land, in our own way, we will find ways to build and improve a society, to lift the poor out of poverty, to educate even the most neglected children, to temper the cruelties of life with the kindness of faith — even if it means moving orphans from halfway across the globe to do that.
So many of us like to focus on the cool and cutting-edge aspects of Israel: on the beautiful models, the accomplished filmmakers and the wildly successful high-tech innovators. All of that is remarkable and worth promoting, but at the end of the day, show me a developed nation without a high-tech sector and hot young artists. Migdal Ohr shows what happens when a nation’s conscience is matched by its ingenuity. It is a distinctly Jewish contribution to the Jewish state, and it’s a model for such institutions worldwide. It’s not just a light unto the nations, it’s a shining light. l
Dan Adler is a Los Angeles-based entrepreneur.