Teaneck–Rabbi Yitzchok Dovid Grossman, a sixth generation Yerushalmi, came to Teaneck’s Doghouse this week and, in light of the tragedy in Har Nof, told JLBC a story. His great-grandmother, who lived in Jerusalem when it was in Mandate Palestine, was killed after a fight broke out in the Old City between Jews and Arabs. She was shot in the head by her Arab next-door neighbor, father of the child she tended and head of the family for whom she grocery shopped. She was just 48 years old.
Rabbi Grossman is the Israel Prize winning rabbi who has saved tens of thousands of Jewish children in Israel from fates worse than one could imagine through his efforts at Migdal Ohr, the Tower of Light. He founded the organization by talking to kids in the clubs and discos where they would hang out and talk them into joining him for a Shabbat meal.
At the end of a two-week North American fundraising tour, he spent an afternoon in Teaneck with students and faculty at the Torah Academy of Bergen County (TABC), and spoke at a private fundraiser at the Teaneck Doghouse. He gave JLBC some of his time to chat between the two events, and in explaining his family’s personal tragedy, helped shed further light on the breadth, depth and the ingrained history of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
“This was before Israel became a state, so it couldn’t be ‘because you take land,’ or ‘because you sent us out,’ At that time, this was not the case. Why kill her [your neighbor, your friend]? You see that they have this hatred. It’s very hard to overcome. It’s a very big problem.”
Rabbi Grossman blamed his great-grandmother’s murder on the same kind of incitement that led to last week’s grisly terrorist attack in Har Nof. “Every Jew, his/her heart is broken to see what happened: The attack in the synagogue, when they killed the holy people in the light of day. I don’t know if someone has a solution, because the problem is so big,” he said.
“These Arabs are Israelis, they’re not from Saudi Arabia or Lebanon or Iran. And they are in every corner and every place; they are working in every school, hospital and hotel. On one hand, there are Arabs that are not involved in terrorism, but you have others that are involved. [It is] hard to understand who is this, who is that,” he said.
“What we need to do is not to give up hope. We have to make Israel stronger and stronger, so that the children will be happy there. And this is the only practical answer we can give. The only thing we can do is to help build Israel inside and outside,” he said.
Indeed, helping build Israel from the inside, by making children and young adults happy and healthy contributing members of society, is what Rabbi Grossman has been doing for more than 40 years.
He left Jerusalem in 1968, where he felt he was ‘preaching to the choir,’ and moved to Migdal Ha’Emek, a development town established in 1953 designed to accommodate Jewish immigrants from North Africa. It grew so fast that there was a shortage of jobs and educational options, and was overtaken by crime and violence. He went there and began speaking to kids one by one. He went into discos and brought them to his Shabbos table. He learned with them in the forest, before he had a beit midrash. He helped orphans, runaways and kids whose parents had kicked them out. Things started to change, and the town began to clean up. In 1969, just one year after his arrival in Migdal Ha’Emek, he was unanimously elected to the position of Chief Rabbi, with lifetime tenure. He was 23 years old.
Over time, Migdal Ohr has grown into one of Israel’s largest non-profit organizations, with 900 employees, 80% of whom are Migdal Ohr graduates. Seeking to provide homes and top-tier educations, both religious and secular, to at-risk children, Migdal Ohr serves 12,000 Jewish children and young adults across Israel every year, through three educational campuses and 160 youth clubs. They provide free essential services including housing, clothing, medical care, counseling, food and education.
Rabbi Grossman remains Migdal Ha’Emek’s chief rabbi, where he draws a salary. It is said that he draws no salary from Migdal Ohr, that his work is voluntary. He was the recipient of the 2004 Israel Prize, and is also the recipient of this year’s Presidential Medal of Distinction, awarded to him by former President Shimon Peres.
While much of the funding for today’s $24 million annual budget comes from the Israeli government, a little more than 30% of the funding required must be raised. Rabbi Grossman’s trip to Mexico, Canada and our region was to help raise the needed funds.
“I have many friends in Teaneck. I first came to Teaneck [more than] 30 years ago. It’s been a long time since I was here. I came to explain what Migdal Ohr is. I want them to understand that Migdal Ohr is saving thousands of kids. Everybody who has a feeling for Israel must understand that to help Migdal Ohr is to help Israel, because Migdal Ohr is today the center–for all over Israel–for kids that need a home,” he said. “Orphans, people with problems with family, parents in jail, and the same thing that everyone understands, the problems with kids when they get into drugs, crime. This can destroy Israel inside.”
Grossman wanted it mentioned that the first founders of the American Friends of Migdal Ohr were from our area. Jack z’l and Belle z’l Rosenbaum, originally from Weehawken, came to Israel in 1970 and were so impressed with Grossman’s work that they brought him to America the next year, to introduce him to their friends and acquaintances, and familiarize them with the work he was doing. He went home with $30,000 in seed money and got to work. (Jack’s brother Aaron was the founder of the Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey.) Over the next four decades, the Rosenbaums continued fundraising for Migdal Ohr, and in fact dedicated the Beit Midrash on their main campus as well as donated a special personal collection of 1,000 mezuzahs that are displayed in the room. Belle, who was an expert in antique and Judaic art, wrote a book about mezuzahs called Upon Thy Doorposts. Belle passed away in June of this year.
“So people here [in Teaneck] have a special feeling for Israel,” said Grossman. “I can explain to them, and they can sit here, and be in Israel, through Migdal Ohr.” Also, while the offices of the the American Friends of Migdal Ohr are in Manhattan, its executive vice president is Norman Gildin, a 30-year Teaneck resident.
“Today in Israel, Migdal Ohr is the main place to save children no one wants. We pay their tuition, they receive clothing and medical care. We never ask who will pay. We take them in. There is not a bigger mitzvah,” he said.
During Grossman’s visit to TABC, he spoke to the group of boys and faculty members for 45 minutes, sharing with them words of Torah, speaking with them of the recent terror attack in Israel, and telling them about the work of Migdal Ohr. “When I finished speaking, everyone stood up and danced, it was like Simchas Torah, they became so excited. The kids were so inspired to see what we are doing,” he said.
“Rabbi Grossman shared an important message with our students,” said Rabbi Yosef Adler, TABC’s principal. “When Klal Yisrael experiences a tragedy, it is incumbent upon each one of us to engage in self-introspection and identify one area in which we can connect with God in a more powerful manner. He concluded his presentation with the singing of Am Yisrael Chai and was enthusiastically joined by hundreds of students in song and dance,” Adler told JLBC.
“Rav Grossman spoke enthusiastically to us about the power of unity, the need for it at this time, and about potential courses of action to strengthen our own commitment to Judaism while helping the medinah,” said Aaron Eckstein, a TABC senior.
Grossman added that in recent years, he has worked to take on and assist ‘off the derech’ teenagers, those Israelis from religious homes who have rejected religiosity and have in many cases begun living on the streets, some addicted to drugs and other involved in petty crime. Migdal Ohr decided to work with these special kids in a different way. “Right now we are building a new village, a Jewish village, for religious boys who left Judaism,” he said.
“You find them in Ben Yehuda Street, in many places. I pick them up and I tell them, ‘you will build your home.’ Zoharim, a youth village near Bet Shemesh, has a carpentry shop where the boys learn to physically build their own homes, and then they can choose to work there, or study agriculture or electronics.”
In two years, most get their bagrut (graduation certificate) and go to the army. The village provides emergency living accommodations for at-risk youth in modern boarding school conditions. Migdal Ohr is also in the process of saving girls who are in trouble. “We have a big problem with the girls. When they have no money they go with Arabs. They [Arabs] take the Israelis and they give them big money and they leave [Judaism]. This is the work for Migdal Ohr to take them back,” he said.
At the Doghouse, he noted happily that he wouldn’t have to come back on Friday afternoon to empty the place and take the kids home. “I’m glad a place like this exists. It’s good, you are closed for Shabbos!”
To learn more or to donate to Rabbi Grossman’s Migdal Ohr, visit http://www.migdalohrusa.org.
By Elizabeth Kratz