January 22, 2019

Migdal Ohr: The Meaning of Love

On a hilltop high above the Jezreel Valley in northern Israel, Lior Salomon stands in the central courtyard of Migdal Ohr’s sprawling campus and points to the industrial city of Migdal Ha’Emek far below. “Everything you see there now — all the buildings and factories — is new. It was just forests and raw land when the young Rabbi Grossman arrived in 1968,” he says, shading his light blue eyes from the blazing summer sun.

The dusty town of 27,000 inhabitants that is today home to three industrial parks and several prosperous companies was originally an absorption center for all new immigrants to Israel. In the 1950s, those who could not afford to leave were stuck permanently in the makeshift tent town. Slim job opportunities and widespread poverty sent the already struggling population into a deep downward spiral. Violence and drug abuse escalated. When Rabbi Yitzchak Dovid Grossman arrived from an Orthodox community in Jerusalem, he found a forsaken city with high crime and little hope.

According to Salomon, a native Australian and the new director of international relations for Migdal Ohr, Grossman chose the most afflicted area of Israel he could find in order to thank God for the miracles he had performed during the Six-Day War. His first order of business in the dilapidated town was to find the synagogue. He soon realized that no synagogue existed and the young people, rather than studying the Torah like they did in his hometown, were in the discotheques drinking and doing drugs instead. Undeterred, he walked right into the clubs and started making friends. This bold move explains why he was nicknamed “the disco rabbi.”

“Everyone thought someone had died when he walked in,” Salomon recounts with a wide smile. Soon Grossman started visiting the parents of those same youths in prison and realized that in order to make a real change, he would have to start educating the children at a younger age. In 1972, he officially established Migdal Ohr, “tower of light,” and opened the first school with just 18 students.

Since then, over 15,000 children have graduated from Migdal Ohr and one of them — a 12-year-old boy who had dropped out of school and was spending his days in the discotheque — went on to become a member of the Knesset. Today, 700 new students a year are accepted into various programs and over 6,500 youths ranging from 3 months to 18 years old attend day care or school on the 60-acre campus. The largest youth village in Israel, the vast majority of the children here are victims of poverty, neglect, abuse and abandonment. Over 3,000 of them — many of whom are either orphans or come from broken homes — live in the dormitories full time.

On the day I arrive, summer vacation is in full swing and most of the older students are on field trips to other parts of Israel. A large renovation project in an adjacent building is creating new classrooms. The construction spreads a fine layer of dust into the humid air. Only the sound of a jackhammer pierces the languid silence.

“It’s a lot noisier around here when all of the children are on campus,” says Salomon as we enter the cool shade of a boy’s dormitory. Three elderly women are folding clean blankets and clothes and piling them neatly onto organized shelves that line the walls. “They’re on field trips to experience new places, but someone still has to clean their clothes,” Salomon explains.

Looking at the massive washing machines, dryers, industrial kitchens and huge dining halls, it’s not difficult to imagine the high-pitched screams and scuffling shoes that thousands of children usually make here.

In addition to the day care centers, schools, health care clinic, recreational areas, synagogue, dining halls, dormitories and family apartments on this campus, the Migdal Ohr organization runs youth centers throughout Israel that provide children in need with a place to go after school and serves them hot meals. They also facilitate soup kitchens that serve 15,000 meals a day, rehabilitation programs in prisons throughout the country and run vocational training programs for adults.

Aside from its sheer size, Migdal Ohr is unique in its far-reaching scope. Upon graduation, the organization provides help for those who wish to enter the army, get married (a new bridal salon on campus provides donated dresses) or enroll in university. Of the 800 full-time staff members, 70 percent of them are alumni. 

“We provide the children here with everything they need, including access to a recording studio, social workers and therapists, hairdressers, dentists, clothing and food, so although the Israeli government gives us between 65 and 70 percent of our $25 million annual budget, the rest comes from private donors,” Salomon explains as we continue our tour. “It’s a constant struggle for us to raise the money we need.”

A group of 2-year-old girls in the day care center are in the middle of an early afternoon meal. Spaghetti sauce covers their faces and hands, but their clothes and the facilities are clean and tidy. Three middle-aged women wearing long skirts and hair coverings quietly ensure that each girl has eaten enough. It’s hard to believe that these precious children who wave to us with bright eyes and sweet smiles were ever the victims of abuse or neglect.

In a nearby building, groups of boys play basketball outside and finish art projects inside classrooms in summer workshops. Most of them are wearing kippahs and tzitzit, but Salomon insists that while all of the children are Jewish and Grossman is Charedi, religion is not forced upon any of them.

Several days later in the Sheraton City Tower hotel just outside of Tel Aviv,  Grossman himself slowly ambles into the lobby followed by an entourage of male groupies. After scads of people rise from various seats around the circular room to shake his hand in greeting, I am finally able to introduce myself.

He smiles and asks if I can wait until after the Mincha prayers for our interview. Before I have a chance to answer, he has been pulled away to another group fervently awaiting his attention. He begins to count the men nearby to see if there are enough for a minyan. After coming up one man short, he agrees to proceed with the interview while his assistant continues the search.

The spitting image of the photographs I saw of him in the administration building at Migdal Ohr except for a change in the color of his beard from black to white, Grossman is instantly recognizable. A long white beard framed with curly payot covers most of his face, and he is wearing the traditional Chasidic dress despite the insufferable heat (a black fur hat, ebony frock and long pants). Yet, despite having the outward appearance of the extremely Orthodox, he is adamant about acceptance. “Orthodox is not in my language,” he says quietly with a strong Yiddish accent. “Every Jew has religion inside. Some of them just didn’t grow up like this.”

For Grossman, labels that occupy many, such as Ashkenazi, Sephardi, Conservative and Reform, are meaningless compared to faith. He believes that every Jew is born with the capability to believe in a higher power — whether they are Russian, Ethiopian, Moroccan or Israeli.

“The secret to my success in this endeavor is love and caring,” he explains carefully after I ask how he unifies such a diverse population of children. “That,” he continues slowly, “is a language that every child speaks.”

Throughout his 37 years as the head of Migdal Ohr, Grossman has received much public recognition. In 2004, he was awarded the prestigious Israel Prize, and this year he was named International Humanitarian of the Year by the Caring Institute. “I am going to receive an award alongside Colin Powell in Los Angeles this October,” he interjects proudly, with a beaming smile, before recounting another example of God’s countless miracles. After just a few minutes in his presence, it is obvious that Grossman is fond of storytelling.

In 2006, during the Second Lebanon War, he believes that faith kept 700 Israeli paratroopers safe. Amid the chaos of the sudden outbreak of war, that particular group of soldiers was kept waiting in a hot hangar for 12 days instead of the intended eight hours. Grossman got a phone call from a desperate father in the middle of the night and decided to invite them all to Migdal Ohr for a meal, a hot shower and a change of clothes.

“I spent $70,000 buying them missing equipment too, but that’s another story,” he says, waving a hand through the air to dismiss that minor detail. A big party was organized for them on the campus, with music and food, before they were deployed. As they prepared to leave, Grossman said a blessing with all of them together and asked them to believe that they would all return safely, to have faith in God’s power. “I told them that not a single one would be killed,” he says. In the end, his prediction came true, and all 700 of those paratroopers returned home from Lebanon alive.

“I see God every minute,” Grossman continues before I have a chance to ask another question. Then he stretches out his hand to greet another admirer who has come to say hello. As our interview draws to a close, his assistant informs him that the minyan is complete. Now they can pray. He gives me a knowing smile. For Grossman, God has just performed another small miracle in the hotel lobby.

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