November 16, 2006
‘Disco Rabbi’ asks L.A. to help Israel’s poor
He was a tall, lean man with a long white beard and side locks; he wore a black hat and coat and was introduced as Rabbi Yitzchak Dovid Grossman.
Grossman is part social innovator, part scholar, part showman, part saint to his admirers -- and a world-class hugger and kisser.
He had come to establish a Los Angeles beachhead for Migdal Ohr, his remarkable institution for some 7,000 boys and girls in what was once one of the poorest and most crime-ridden areas of Israel.
The 60-year old rabbi was raised in Batei Warsha, as ultra-Orthodox as the adjoining Mea Shearim quarter of Jerusalem, and had been expected to follow in the footsteps of his distinguished father as a Torah sage and author.
But in the late 1960s, after the Six-Day War, his eyes turned beyond his insulated enclave to the outside world and alighted on Migdal Ha'Emek in the lower Galilee, south of Nazareth.
The area was home to shabby reception camps for new and poor immigrants from 30 countries; schools and jobs were scarce, and many teenagers, with fathers in jail, had turned to drugs, alcohol and crime.
Grossman intended to stay for a few months to see if he could help the area's boys and girls, but, as he told the story, he could find them only in discos.
"The first time I walked into a disco, the people thought that someone had died and that I was trying to round up a minyan," Grossman recalled with relish. Thereafter he was dubbed the "Disco Rabbi."
Gradually, the boys and girls opened up to the exuberant rabbi, and they talked about their fears and hopes for perhaps the first time in their lives. Grossman listened and started visiting their fathers in jail.
In 1974, he started Migdal Ohr (Tower of Light) in an apartment, doubling as school and dormitory, for 18 boys from broken homes.
Today, the apartment has expanded into a sprawling campus with 18 schools for some 7,000 youngsters, seven day-care centers, and dorms for 2,000.
Grossman is in charge of 800 teachers and social workers -- of whom 75 percent are Migdal Ohr graduates -- and a kitchen, which turns out 10,000 meals a day for students and needy neighborhood families.
Also under his watch are community social activities, spiritual guidance, adult education courses and prisoner rehabilitation programs.
The statistics, however, don't catch Grossman's persona and individual touch, or his way of scattering anecdotes like confetti.
For instance, there was the time a young woman came to him and said she had become engaged but that she had never told her fiancée that her father was in jail.
Now the fiancée's parents were coming for a formal visit to inquire about her background and, she asked, what should she do?
"Don't worry," Grossman quoted himself, "have them come to my office." When the parents duly arrived, Grossman stood up and congratulated them on his very own daughter joining their family.
The parents were too overawed by the rabbinical presence and authority to probe any further.
A more recent story, told with vivid gestures and practiced polish, centers on last summer's fighting in Lebanon. The students had been evacuated to escape Hezbollah rocket attacks, and Grossman invited 700 paratroop reservists bivouacked nearby to stay in the dorms until they were deployed northward.
The men lacked protective vests against shrapnel and kneepads, so Grossman went out and bought $10,000 worth of equipment for the unit.
Before the paratroopers moved up to the frontlines, he told them that not one of their number would be killed or injured. A month later, all the men returned and showed up unharmed but dirty, tired and hungry at 2 a.m.
"To the swimming pool," was Grossman's first command, and then he rounded up cooks, and even musicians. Everyone partied until 7 a.m., with the rabbi making sure that he had hugged and kissed every single soldier.
In Los Angeles, Grossman also spoke at Orthodox synagogues and schools, but his main purpose was to energize formation of a West Coast support group to complement the existing New York organization. Entertainment executive Thomas K. Barad and attorney Eric J. Feig are spearheading the local effort.
Migdal Ohr operates on an annual budget of $25 million, of which 70 percent comes from the Israeli government and 30 percent through private donations.
"There are now 400,000 kids in Israel living under the poverty line, and they and thousands of others are at risk," Grossman said. "But as the need increases, the government is cutting back on subsidies. So we must rely more on private help."
An adherent of the Karlin Lelov Chasidic dynasty, Grossman is recognized in fractious Israel as a unifying figure for his good works, outreaching spirit and bridging views.
"The mixing of politics and religion is the tragedy of our country," said Grossman, who was awarded the state's highest honor, the Israel Prize, for lifetime achievement in 2004. He said he had been offered the post as chief rabbi of Israel, and urged to run for the Knesset, but declined both.
Not above a bit of name-dropping, Grossman noted that he was close friends with former prime ministers Shimon Peres, Benjamin Netanyahu and Ariel Sharon, and was called to the latter's bedside immediately after he was felled by a stroke.
No sooner had Grossman finished his talk to warm applause, when he led his audience in "Hineh MaTov Uma Na'im," or "How good and pleasant is it for brothers and sisters to sit together."
For information about Migdal Ohr, visit www.migdalohrusa.org. or contact Executive Vice President Robert Katz, 1560 Broadway, Suite 510, New York, N.Y. 10036,(212) 397-3700 or e-mail email@example.com.