By Michael OrbachIssue of October 16 / 2009/ 29 Tishrei 5770After witnessing the Six Day War, Rabbi Yitzchak Dovid Grossman, a seventh generation Yerushalmi (Jerusalem resident) figured there were enough chasidim in Meah Shearim. He asked the Israeli government what he could to do help the young country, and where was the worst possible place in Israel where he could go to help. Migdal Ha'Emek, he was told, a town to the south of Haifa. Rabbi Grossman and his new wife picked up their young daughter and took the bus to Migdal Ha'Emek.
Once there, he saw poverty — burned out homes, lines of beggars — and he asked some elderly men who were playing backgammon where he could find the local shul or yeshiva. They laughed at him and pointed to a nearby disco. So, Rabbi Grossman, dressed in his customary black hat and long black coat, went to the disco.
"I was very naive," Rabbi Grossman recalled, "In Meah Shearim they don't have discos. I thought it could've been a beis medrash."
He befriended the teenagers there and for his efforts was dubbed ‘the Disco Rabbi’ by Israeli television, in 1970, and the moniker stuck, though it doesn't do justice to Rabbi Grossman's accomplishments.
In the disco, Rabbi Grossman discovered that most of the teens there lived alone while their parents or siblings were in prison; he went to visit and was shocked to see a jail full of inmates with names like Dovid, Moshe and Avrohom.
Realizing that the impact he could have on younger children would be far greater, Rabbi Grossman petitioned the government to allow him to open a school. In 1972 he rented a classroom for eighteen children. 37 years later, after what was initially intended as a three month stay, Migdal Ohr, Rabbi Grossman's school and orphanage in Migdal Ha'Emek, is the world's largest orphanage. At sixty-five acres, it is roughly the size of Columbia University, and twenty minutes away from Haifa overlooking the Jezreel Valley. The facility serves 6500 people: 1500 children live full-time in the orphanage, 2500 are bused in daily and another 2500 hundred are serviced through a Boys and Girls Club-type of organization in Israel's worst neighborhoods. 15,000 meals are served daily on campus. The organization also runs a program in Israeli prisons to learn with inmates, and according to Rabbi Grossman, has over 900 participants.
"At a Chanukah party in a jail, I give a prisoner a kiss. Two days he wrote me a letter saying he felt that someone loves him for the first time."
Seventy percent of the 800 staff members of Migdal Ohr are alumni. Roughly two thirds of the organization’s $25 million operating budget is covered by the Israeli government; the rest is made up by private donations. Migdal Ohr does not charge fees for any of its services.
"One of the things you notice is the kids are really happy," said Robert Katz, who has been the Executive Vice President of the American Friends of Migdal Ohr for the last four years. "They look beautiful; they're well-dressed. We don't accept charitable donations. Rabbi Grossman doesn't want them to have hand-me-downs. He doesn't want them to feel like second-class citizens."
Migdal Ohr has seven day care centers, eighteen kindergartens, and fifteen different types of elementary and high schools serve populations that run the gamut from Russian and Ethopian immigrants to chasidic children.
“It's important to educate them in their own unique way,” Katz explained. There are a huge number of alumni couples and Migdal Ohr employs a fulltime matchmaker, he added.
“I use the analogy: it's like Disneyland. If you want to go back to Disneyland you need a stamp on your hand — that's what Migdal Ohr is — it's a city that encompasses a full life-cycle of a kid.” said Katz.
Rabbi Grossman was recently inducted into the Caring Institute Hall of Fame on Tuesday, October 13 in Los Angeles. The other inductees include former Secretary of State Colin Powell. Rabbi Grossman, who is also the recipient of the Israel Prize, has twice declined the position of Chief Rabbi.
"He probably does more on a tangible basis as the dean of Migdal Ohr than any Chief Rabbi could do. It's his whole life, he's immersed in Chesed," Katz estimated that Rabbi Grossman walks close to fifty girls a year down the aisle for their weddings.
Rabbi Grossman credits G-d and praised his staff at Migdal Ohr.
“I thank G-d and I think it's not enough. If you can have success with 6,000 in Migdal Ohr, you can have success with 300,000. Every day you have to think you're not doing enough,” he cautioned. “Everybody, if he loves G-d, if he has a feeling for Judaism, he must do something, not only for himself but for others. Everyone must believe that if he brought one person back to G-d or helped someone this is the greatest mitzvah he can do and this is the essential part of Judaism.”
Katz has a favorite Rabbi Grossman story. Every time a girl gets engaged, Rabbi Grossman holds a l'chaim, a small engagement party, in his office. Once one of Rabbi Grossman's favorite girls became engaged to a young man from a typical background. The girl's father was a notorious drug dealer who had been in and out of prison for most of the girl's life. But in the last few months, the girl had said he had been doing better and was expected at the l'chaim. An hour before the engagement, the girl ran into Rabbi Grossman's office crying hysterically. She said she had been lying and that her father had been in prison for the last two months and now, an hour before the engagement, she was terrified that her fiancee would find out about her parents. Rabbi Grossman told the girl not to worry.
An hour later the girl's fiancee walked into the office followed by his parents. Then the girl entered. A few steps behind her was Rabbi Grossman. He extended his hand to the young man’s family.
"Mazel Tov," he said. "I'm your new in-law."