A Tower of Light: Rabbi Yitzchak Dovid Grossman

I asked people where to find the yeshiva? The talmud torah? Where can I find the kids? They told me I would find them in the disco.”

Migdal Ohr founder Rabbi Yitzchak Dovid Grossman (photo credit: LAURA BEN-DAVID)
Migdal Ohr founder Rabbi Yitzchak Dovid Grossman
(photo credit: LAURA BEN-DAVID)
IT IS a rare person who is able to combine that unique blend of creativity, drive, energy and leadership. Rabbi Yitzchak Dovid Grossman of Migdal Ohr (Tower of Light) is just such an unstoppable individual. His utterly unselfish life’s mission is one he achieves over and over again as he is constantly reinventing the terms, and creating new solutions for the challenges facing thousands of disadvantaged and at-risk Israeli youth.
Rabbi Grossman grew up in Jerusalem, a sixth generation Jerusalemite. His father, Rabbi Yisrael Grossman, was a dayan and rosh yeshiva – one of the biggest rabbis in Jerusalem. Since he was 16, Grossman had a special feeling toward helping kids.
Grossman grew up in Mea She’arim, living in a small apartment of 70 meters, with his parents and nine siblings. There was a little, nearby neighborhood, called Musrara, that was a very tough place and people suffered there. Grossman used to go there to see how he could help. Many decades later, when Grossman received the Israel Prize, they interviewed people from that time in Musrara and people would remember ‘this Ashkenazi boy who was there all the time, helping.’ It seems it was just something in his blood.
In the 1950s, when large groups of Yemenite Jews came to Israel, the government sent them to Rosh Ha’ayin to settle. The situation there was very difficult. There were no apartments for them; they were living in tents. Rabbi Grossman and his family saw the people in this bad situation and told them, “If you don’t have a place for your kids here, we have a place for your kids in Jerusalem.” He arranged to bring more than 10 kids and enlisted the help of neighbors to help host the children. His own family took two kids into their tiny apartment even though it meant that Grossman had to share his bed with one of them.
In 1967, when Rabbi Grossman and his wife were newlyweds, the Six Day War broke out. “The situation was extremely grim,” recalls Grossman. “At the time, people thought Israel was finished. People with passports left the country and those who remained were very scared as multiple Arab nations attacked Israel at once.”
Miraculously, everyone’s worst fears were never realized and, within six days, Israel succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest imaginations, and even took control of Jerusalem and the West Bank. Grossman remembers some historical poignant moments from all those years ago: “The first day they opened up the Jaffa and Damascus gates of the Old City was Shavuot. It was 10 a.m. and suddenly the gates were opened.
There were literally thousands of people running. No one even knew where the Kotel [Western Wall] was.” Grossman was one of the 100,000 people running to the Kotel. He had heard stories about it while growing up and now to actually go there...
Rabbi Grossman tried to explain the feeling he experienced, “We got there with the feeling like the Messiah was coming that very moment. From such a place of fear, to such a feeling! To be at the place of the Holy Temple... I said to myself then that I need to give something back to God for these miracles.”
He decided that he will leave Jerusalem for a year to volunteer in a place that needed someone to help make a difference for the people. Migdal HaEmek, in the Galilee, was a depressed town, riddled with crime.
They decided to go there and volunteer for a year to help with the young people.
It was nothing like he expected. Grossman said, “When I came here I was very naive. I had come from Mea She’arim where every other building was a synagogue.
I asked people where to find the yeshiva? The talmud torah? Where can I find the kids? They told me I would find them in the disco.” Grossman had never even heard of a disco. In fact at first he thought that maybe there’s a yeshiva called ‘disco.’ He came to the disco and thought it was Purim in the middle of the day. Of course, it was no less shocking for the kids in the disco to see him there. As Grossman tells it, they thought someone died and he was looking for a minyan for Kaddish. “I told them I had come to help them. That they are my brothers.... It was like a magnet pulling me to them, to do what I could....”
The amazing thing is the astonishing amount that Rabbi Grossman actually could do. He, together with the organization he founded, has been an unstoppable force since that pivotal moment in 1968, helping so many thousands of kids.
“I became the ‘disco rabbi,’” Grossman said with a twinkle in his eye. “They thought everyone was looking down on them, yet here was this rabbi coming, inviting them to his home. And then my home became a disco. People were always there, eating, sleeping ....”
One young man once mentioned to Grossman that his brother was in jail. Rabbi Grossman said to him, “Your brother is my brother. When you go to jail to visit him, I will go with you.”
The young man’s brother was in the Shatah Jail near Beit She’an. It was Grossman’s first time going into a jail. He recalls how his heart was broken to see hundreds of youngsters in jail, locked up physically and spiritually. He went to the head of the jail and said he wanted to come twice a week to teach the prisoners. He didn’t ask for any money to do this.
He began to come twice a week to learn Pirkei Avot [Ethics of the Fathers] with them. Little by little, he actually built a system for rehabilitation through learning. As of this printing there are more than 1,000 prisoners in the system which has worked continuously since 1970.
Through working in the prison, on the streets and in discos and parks, there were many times that he sat with people who were involved in crime. Speaking with them face to face, he sees their hearts and souls. He looks at their circumstances; maybe they grew up in a bad atmosphere, or had no parents, or sick parents, or in broken homes, etc. This atmosphere influenced their involvement in drugs, crime, etc.
This understanding was a turning point for Grossman. He decided that if he wants to do something real for Israel and the people, he needs to build a home for these kids. As Grossman tells it, “Give them love, a home, education. Then they will grow up and be the best kids and stop being involved in crime. They’ll be lawyers doctors, teachers, rabbis.” From this idea sprang Migdal Ohr, which started in 1972 with just 18 boys. Today, every one of those boys is a successful professional.
Forty-eight years later, Rabbi Grossman’s drive, determination and creativity seem to know no bounds. Today, Migdal Ohr includes branches all over the country that take care of more than 10,000 children annually. With 16 different institutions on its three education campuses and its over 160 youth clubs, Migdal Ohr is providing essential services – for free – to orphaned, impoverished, abused and new immigrant children and young adults all over Israel. Additionally, the extremely active fundraising arm, the American Friends of Migdal Ohr, draws members from the Jewish world in the United States.
Of the 800 staff and teachers, 80% are Migdal Ohr alumni. In fact, 80% of Migdal Ohr graduates have gone on to pursue higher education; almost double the Israeli national average.
To walk through one of the campuses and see the incredible variety of resources, classes, programs, services and more that are made available to thousands of young people and all without charging the families at all for their children to attend, it’s mind-boggling to imagine the scope of expenses that the organization must incur. Everything from a full stock of clothing in every size, to laundry services, multiple meals and snacks per day, adoptive families, extracurricular programs, courses such as culinary arts, carpentry and computer programming, which can one day turn into a real source of income for the students, and so much more.
Michael Kronenberg, of Bergenfield, New Jersey, has been the treasurer of the American Friends of Migdal Ohr for close to two decades but has been connected with Rabbi Grossman and the institution for more than double that time. Kronenberg recalls, “I’ve known the rabbi for about 40 years. The first time I met him he was visiting Queens, New York. He made a tremendous impression on me. I feel very fortunate to be so close with him. In fact, all of my kids have a connection with him as well. He’s a tremendous visionary.”
Raising funds for such a huge and important enterprise as the Migdal Ohr Institutions is a full-time job in and of itself. The latest campaign to be launched by the American Friends of Migdal Ohr in November is a cause-match campaign, which will be held on Giving Tuesday. There are currently 10,000 students enrolled and the goal is to have each child sponsored for the year. A lofty goal indeed, but hearing how people speak about Rabbi Grossman and Migdal Ohr, it’s not hard to imagine that people will be moved to make a difference for these kids.
Jordana Grunfeld of Manhattan, who has been an American Friends of Migdal Ohr board member for the past five years, as well as a supporter of the organization, speaks of the almost magical quality of Migdal Ohr.
“It’s so vast and all-encompassing in terms of what they seek to achieve in each child: give them a loving family, a home, summer camp, medical care. But not just to fill in the gaps but to go above and beyond for each child.” She adds how meaningful it is when she sees the love of the staff and teachers for the kids, but the love and gratitude and happiness that the kids demonstrate for teachers and staff is everything.