Israel's 'Disco Rabbi' brings meals, hope to children

Charity work helps some 6,000 immigrants and orphans find a life outside crime, drugs, and alcohol.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

It's the beginning of the academic year at Migdal Ohr and 700 new students, all underprivileged Israeli children, are getting accustomed to life on the sprawling school campus in the middle of this dusty northern Israeli town. Meanwhile, in an office tucked away at one end of the campus, school founder Rabbi Yitzchak Dovid Grossman is hard at work.

As charity head, school principal, and chief rabbi, Grossman is trying to manage the needs of more than 6,000 underprivileged children in schools and orphanages throughout Migdal Ha'Emek, while also serving as the leading spiritual adviser to the entire community. As if that weren't enough, with the Israeli economy struggling, Grossman faces government funding cuts and rapidly growing numbers of needy students that are testing the limits of this enormous humanitarian operation that he built from scratch.

Dance lessons

Grossman first arrived here in 1969. "I intended to stay for just a couple of months, volunteer, then go back," he says. At that time, he explains, Migdal Ha'Emek had become the biggest center for crime in Israel. There weren't enough schools, few jobs, and no social or leisure facilities. Many young people had turned to crime, drugs, and alcohol.

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"When I arrived," Grossman recalls, "the only place I could find young people were in the town's discos. So I went there. Gradually they began to open up, to tell me about their lives and their problems. No one had ever asked them about their feelings, fears, and dreams before."

Grossman decided to stay, and he soon became known locally as the 'Disco Rabbi.' Befriending many young people, he learned that most had a close relative in jail.

Grossman believed he could prevent a new generation of children from entering a life of crime. Thus, Migdal Ohr (Tower of Light) was born. In 1973, Grossman opened his first junior high school for 18 local boys from broken homes. Today, Migdal Ohr's campuses occupy huge tracts of land in the hilltop town, with a teaching and social worker staff of roughly 800, 80 percent of whom are former Migdal Ohr pupils.

Of the 6,000 boys and girls attending one of Migdal Ohr's 18 schools and seven toddler day-care centers, 2,000 live permanently in the charity's dormitories, supported by a network of foster parents.

A model program

With violence rising at an alarming rate in Israeli schools and wider society, many educators and public institutions are now coming to learn from the successes of Migdal Ohr.

"Recently, 50 Israeli army officers were sent by the IDF Chief of Staff to learn how the rabbi is able to weave emotionally scarred, problematic children from varied ethnic backgrounds almost seamlessly into mainstream society," says Norma Balass of American Friends of Migdal Ohr in the USA. The army faces similar challenges in assimilating new soldiers who come from diverse backgrounds.

"Migdal Ohr's children are matriculating with much higher scores than the national average," Ms. Balass continues. "The schools are violence- and drug-free, despite the backgrounds of these children." With a graduation rate of 98 percent, the organization has had children go on to become doctors, lawyers, and even members of parliament.

Besides schools, Migdal Ohr also runs local social programs, adult education courses, and prisoner rehabilitation programs. "Our central kitchen produces 15,000 meals per day," says Grossman. The soup kitchen project is a good example of how Grossman aims to build relationships between Migdal Ohr's various programs. "The director of the soup kitchen," he explains, "is a successful graduate from our prisoner rehabilitation program, who came to work for us after serving his time in jail."

Less than 20 percent of Migdal Ohr-rehabilitated prisoners ever return to prison. Back at the school dorms, many of the children are orphans, some having arrived from poverty-stricken orphanages in the former Soviet Union. In a country increasingly polarized by racial intolerance, with a constant stream of new immigrants experiencing prejudice and sometimes even violence, instilling the children with a sense of love is more vital than ever, Grossman says.

"The Israeli government is largely concerned with national security," he says, "so it's up to organizations like us to provide the social 'first aid' and integration young people desperately need." In Migdal Ohr, children are taught to be extremely culturally aware and tolerant.

"When the first Ethiopian immigrant children arrived here, the Moroccan children went out and bought candies with their own money, to welcome them. And when the Russian immigrants first arrived, the Ethiopian children did the same. The children are also 'on the job' as much as we are: The older children are taught to provide counseling for the younger ones and the new ones. This gives them a sense of responsibility, which is so important in today's selfish world."

Turbulent times

It's not all smooth sailing for Migdal Ohr. Recent budget cuts have led to a cut in government financing of the charity to the tune of $4 million per year.

"We receive financing from a number of government departments," explains Rabbi Ben-Zion Sobel, executive director of Rabbi Grossman's Jerusalem office, "from the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Welfare, and others. So we were on everyone's list when the budget cuts came through. We were afraid to answer the phone, and every letter began 'We regret to inform you.' "

The result is that Migdal Ohr, whose annual operating costs are roughly $25 million, is relying more heavily than ever on its supporters around the world.

"But because of the crisis in the Israeli economy, more and more families are sinking below the poverty line, and are turning to Migdal Ohr for help. And 'no' isn't a word in Rabbi Grossman's vocabulary," says Rabbi Sobel. "He told me 'If I don't take these kids, they'll end up on the streets.' So on one hand, our financing's been cut, and on the other, we've just taken in 700 more needy kids,"

Grossman is, as ever, undaunted. "As soon as I finish one project, God gives me another one," he laughs. "The problems never stop, so the answers never stop.... But this is my raison d'être - to keep children from the streets."

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