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With His Eye on Jewish Unity, ‘disco Rabbi’ Wins Israel Prize

April 23, 2004
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In a country wracked by religious-secular tension, it’s not often that the country’s political and intellectual establishment awards Israel’s highest prize to a fervently Orthodox rabbi who has made a career of saving Jewish souls.

Then again, Yitzchak Dovid Grossman is not your average rabbi.

A sixth-generation Jerusalemite born to a prestigious Chasidic family, Grossman left his roots and his fervently Orthodox surroundings in 1968 for the nightclubs and discos of one of Israel’s most drug-infested, crime-ridden cities, Migdal Ha’emek in the Lower Galilee.

The thing was, Grossman never shaved his beard or sidecurls.

Instead, the people he met were changed by Grossman, who today presides over one of Israel’s largest educational institutions for poor and at-risk youth, a wildly successful prisoner rehabilitation program and, as the city’s chief rabbi, Migdal Ha’emek.

Now the recipient of the Israel Prize for lifetime achievement, which is awarded every year at a ceremony in Jerusalem on Israel’s Independence Day, Grossman says he hopes to bridge the secular-religious divide in Israel.

"I want to use the Israel Prize to engage people, to connect with them and show we’re one," Grossman, 57, told JTA.

Israeli Prime Minister "Ariel Sharon has his disengagement plan from the Palestinians; this is my engagement plan for the Jewish people," he adds.

Grossman’s maverick tactics have earned him a unique reputation. Early on, Grossman says, he decided that the best way to reach Jews was through love.

When he went to discos in Migdal Ha’emek, rather than chastising the youths there he engaged them in discussion and debate. Sometimes, before the evening was over, many of the young men had foregone their female dance partners for a simcha-dancing circle with Grossman, like those at Orthodox weddings and Bar Mitzvahs.

The next step was to get the youths to abandon their lives of drugs and crime, which by the late 1960s had turned Migdal Ha’emek into a notoriously dangerous place.

Grossman says he sought to influence the youths by embracing them.

"When a person sees a rabbi helping him with something practical, then maybe he will look to you for spiritual guidance, too," he says. What’s important is "not only that he sees you want him to be religious, but that you want to help him generally."

Grossman would invite criminals to his home for Shabbat meals, visit Israelis in prison and find youths in city slums where they conducted illicit business. His home became so popular with underworld characters that his wife insisted the family install a closed-circuit TV monitoring system and a button to summon police in case of emergency.

In 1969, an appreciative city named Grossman chief rabbi of Migdal Ha’emek, and then-Prime Minister Golda Meir attended his installation ceremony. At 23, he was the youngest chief rabbi in Israel.

Not long afterward, Grossman started an educational institution to help the youths he encountered. Called Migdal Ohr — Hebrew for Tower of Light — the Migdal Ha’emek school began with just 18 students.

Today, Migdal Ohr has 6,000 students from disadvantaged, immigrant and at-risk homes, 700 staff members and an annual budget of $20 million — though it’s suffering from a $4 million deficit due to recent government cutbacks. Graduates have gone on to become engineers, generals, doctors, lawyers, teachers, rabbis and Knesset members.

"I realized I needed to establish an institution where the kids could get the love they need," Grossman says.

Migdal Ohr continues to be a popular destination for youths from all over Israel. The school’s dormitories house more than 2,000 students, many of them immigrants from Ethiopia and the former Soviet Union.

In the early days, the dorms were filled with the children of Sephardi immigrants from places like Morocco, Tunisia and Yemen, who were then among Israel’s poorest communities.

"One of my missions is to take religious/secular, Sephardi/Ashkenazi out of the lexicon," Grossman says. "We have to seek what is shared between us — and a lot is."

Grossman tells the story of a young Israeli who, after a trip abroad, decided to convert to Christianity and went to live in a monastery near Safed, in northern Israel. Shortly before Yom Kippur, the man’s distraught grandfather approached Grossman for help, asking him to bring his grandson home for the holiday.

Grossman headed north, exchanged his black cloak for jeans, tucked his sidecurls under a cap and rode a tractor up the mountain to the monastery. He said he knew he had to go incognito if he hoped to get inside.

The young man insisted he was a devout Christian and had no interest in leaving the monastery, but Grossman said he told him, "I’m not here to discuss theology with you. I’m here because your grandfather wants to see you."

The young man finally agreed to join Grossman for Yom Kippur, though he warned the rabbi that he wouldn’t fast.

Come time for Kol Nidrei, however, there was no sign of the young man. After the holiday, Grossman learned that he had gone straight to his grandfather. The two made up, and not long afterward the man returned to his Jewish roots, thanking Grossman for saving him.

It’s one of thousands of stories Grossman tells about the people he has touched.

"I am the person people turn to to save souls" Grossman says earnestly. "There is not such thing as a secular Jew to me. Every Jew has a soul and the will — the question is how you reach him."

Grossman has been offered the post of chief rabbi of Israel, but says he disdains politics and in any case is more needed in Migdal Ha’emek.

"They’ll find another volunteer to be the chief rabbi," he says. "But I don’t know if they can find another rabbi to run Migdal Ha’emek."

Grossman says he wishes that more fervently Orthodox Israelis followed his lead in reaching out to secular Israelis, but many are afraid to expose themselves to the temptations of the outside world.

"Had I removed my clothes and cut off my sidecurls and beard, they’d have an argument," Grossman says. "But I haven’t changed a thing."

"The haredi public needs to get out more, to meet the secular more, and they need to show everything that’s beautiful about religion to make the public aware," he says. "I think it can only bring blessings. The reality of what has happened to me proves it."

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