Nechama Carmel: You’ve served as president of Yeshiva Beth Yehudah for many years and you are involved in a number of national and local organizations. How did you first get involved in communal work?
Gary Torgow: My maternal grandfather, Manuel Merzon, a”h, emigrated from Russia to the United States in 1918 as a sixteen-year-old orphan. He worked hard, became a lawyer and built up a law practice. He was the first lawyer to wear a yarmulke in the courts in the ‘40s. But his real avocation was helping people. He was deeply involved in assisting the community, always with an eye on those less fortunate. During and after the war, he felt it was his responsibility to help the European Jews, and he brought many families over. He also served pro bono as a lawyer for the communal organizations in Detroit, and I grew up watching his kindness. My grandfather had a strong influence on every area of my life, including my communal career.
I started out in communal work as an officer in our local Young Israel because my grandfather was a member of the shul. During those years I developed a very close relationship with Rabbi Avrohom Abba Freedman, zt”l, who ultimately became my Rebbi. Rabbi Freedman came to Detroit in 1944. He was sent by Reb Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz to build a Jewish day school; Rabbi Mendlowitz felt that there is an obligation to establish a day school in any place where there are 5,000 Jews. Rabbi Freedman and his colleagues took a fledgling afternoon school and turned it into a day school that currently has three beautiful campuses with more than 1,100 children. Detroit has other flourishing and wonderful yeshivos and day schools as well. Today, there are thousands of children in day schools in Detroit all because Rabbi Mendlowitz’s foresight and vision to send Rabbi Freedman, along with other outstanding rabbis, to Detroit.
My Rebbi was mission-centric; he was totally focused on the Jewish people. There was no small talk with him. It was all business, and it wasn’t your business, it was the Almighty’s business. He encouraged me, among others, to get involved in the local Jewish day school they built, Yeshiva Beth Yehudah. That is really where my communal career expanded.
NC: Having been a communal leader for decades and having worked with many other talented leaders, what would you say is one of the main lessons you’ve learned about askanus, communal leadership?
GT: We are familiar with the Torah description of how Avraham Avinu had a dream in which God came to him and told him to pack his bags and leave his father’s home. Avraham left, of course, and followed God’s directive, and the whole world changed as a result. He became the leader of monotheism in the world and changed and uplifted millions of lives. The Sefas Emes asks, quoting the Ramban: Who was this man, Avraham Avinu? We don’t know anything about him before God came to him with this commandment. The Sefas Emes, quoting the Zohar, explains that on the night that Avraham Avinu had the dream in which God told him, “Lech lecha mei’artzecha umimolad’techa umibeis avicha,” every human being on earth had that same dream. Yet only Avraham Avinu got out of bed the next morning, packed his bags and did what God instructed him to do.
And that seems to be one of the key lessons of communal service. If you’re willing to put yourself out there and get involved in the community, the Almighty will surely assist you. But you have to hear that frequency. Rabbi Meir Zlotowitz, zt”l, once said, quoting Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt”l, that a bas kol (heavenly voice) goes out every day. But only a small number of people hear it. But those who do hear it, grab onto it, and have the power of the Ribbono Shel Olam behind them to do good things for the Jewish people.
I learned all of this by watching my Rebbi. Detroit in the ‘40s was a spiritual desert. He told me that on the first Shavuos night after he moved to Detroit, there wasn’t even a minyan of men for the vasikin minyan after learning, not one minyan. Today there are thousands attending minyanim. He, his rabbinic colleagues and the askanim of that time get the credit for that.
NC: Do you view communal work as a religious obligation? Is this something that everyone is supposed to be doing on some level?
GT: Whenever people ask me about askanus, I tell them all the same thing, which is what I tell my own kids: Everyone should get involved in some way, but it has to be at the right time in your life. If you do it at the appropriate time in your life, you’ll be able to give your maximum abilities to the community.
You need to first take care of your spouses and your children; your first obligation is to establish the foundations of your own homes. Build up your Torah studies, your resume, your profession, your financial condition. Then, as time goes on, you’ll be more capable of contributing significantly to the community. That’s a basic primer for those who want to get involved in askanus: first make your familial foundations and career stable.
NC: What was the best advice you ever got regarding askanus?
GT: Early in my career as president of the day school, I visited Rav Moshe Wolfson, shlita, mashgiach of Torah Vodaath in Brooklyn. He told me something that really stuck with me. The key to successful askanus, he said, is to make every decision l’shem Shamayim, for the sake of Heaven, and the Ribbono Shel Olam will be with you. How do you know if you’re doing something l’shem Shamayim? Don’t make decisions based on negios (self-interest). Do what’s right for the klal, without personal interest.
Also to keep in mind when making decisions is that you have to look at the big picture. Take a school, for example. When running a school, it’s inevitable that you will have a rebbi who is ready to retire. The rebbi may not belong in the classroom anymore, but he has dedicated his life to the children of the community, and he must be taken care of. You need to be generous with those who have devoted themselves to chinuch. The rebbi should be given a proper financial send-off, and the Ribbono Shel Olam will help you find the money if you do the right thing.
Being president of Yeshiva Beth Yehudah has been a great primer in emunah and bitachon. I witnessed the Almighty bring about miracles. When things were really, really tough, angels came along. I think the Ribbono Shel Olam looks at the way an institution operates and says, “Okay this is a l’shem Shamayim institution of tinokos shel beis rabban (children learning Torah). This is what I’m proud of, and I want to see it supported.”
There is a non-Orthodox amazingly generous couple in our Detroit community. They are wonderful, outstanding people who are givers to all kinds of causes in the community, but the local Orthodox day school wasn’t necessarily their top priority. The Yeshiva Beth Yehudah had many needs, so we called the husband. We said, “Jimmy, we understand your wife has a big birthday coming up.” He said, “Yes, she does.” We said: “We have an idea for a fantastic birthday gift for her.” He said, “Really? What?” We said, “We think you should buy her the new campus of the girls’ school of Yeshiva Beth Yehudah.” The request was out of left field; the Almighty placed the idea into our minds. “No. I don’t think so,” Jimmy answered. But a few minutes later, he called back and said, “I forgot to ask you—how much is it?” We gave him the figure, and remarkably, with his great foresight and Hashem’s guidance, he said: “Okay, I’ll be happy to do so.”
Subsequently, his wife, Nancy, told me the rest of the story. She celebrated her birthday with a family party. When it was her husband’s turn to speak, he said, “Nancy, I bought you a really, really expensive gift.” She said, “Oh, Jimmy, I hope it’s not another house. We have enough houses.” He said, “No, it’s not a house.” She said, “I hope it’s not another piece of jewelry, I have plenty of jewelry.” He said, “It’s not jewelry.” She said, “I hope it’s not another piece of art, we have no room on our walls.” He said, “Nancy, it’s not art, it’s not jewelry and it’s not another house, but it’s a gift you can never return.” With tears in his eyes, Jimmy said, “Nancy, I bought you the campus of Yeshiva Beth Yehudah girls’ school.” She told me that she started to cry. And she said, “Jimmy, that is the nicest gift I have ever received.”
I’ve seen miracles like this happen over and over again. If the Ribbono Shel Olam likes what’s being done, He will certainly help and provide. I’ve become a stronger believer as a result of these communal experiences.
NC: That’s an amazing story. Do you have any other stories to share?
GT: At one point, when our Yeshiva was struggling to get through the weekly payrolls, Rabbi Freedman, aware of the tremendous financial pressure we were feeling, suggested that whenever a donation came in, regardless of its size, we should pen a personal note of thanks and send it off to the contributor. I thought to myself: Rebbi, I already have so little time in my day. When will I ever find the time to write personal notes to every contributor to the Yeshiva? However, I felt compelled to follow his advice, even if it seemed like a lot of effort. To further encourage me, Rabbi Freedman told me he was confident it was the right thing to do because I would make lots of people feel good and maybe, just maybe, middah keneged middah, the kindness you extend is mirrored by the kindness you receive, Hashem would make us feel good and reduce some of the financial pressure we were feeling, struggling to make the Yeshiva’s payroll.
One of those donors whom I corresponded with was a Holocaust survivor who worked for many years as a supervisor in the General Motors plant in Michigan. Three or four times a year, he would send the Yeshiva a $500 donation, and as my Rebbi had instructed, I wrote him a personal note each time the school received his check. Many times I tried calling and meeting with him, but he was shy and somewhat reclusive, so I only met him a few times. After nearly a decade of communicating with him through personal cards and letters of thanks, both when receiving a donation and before yamim tovim, we learned one morning that he had passed away. He had never had children, and his wife had predeceased him. The funeral was a graveside one with only a minyan of people in attendance. A few months after his passing, the controller of the Yeshiva dropped a large package the Yeshiva had received off at my office. Inside was a copy of every letter I had written to this man for over ten years as well as a note he had written a few months before his passing. The note read:
Dear Gary, I cannot tell you how much these thank you letters meant to me. I read each of them over and over and felt so great every time I received one. I know five hundred dollars is not a lot of money, yet you made me feel like a million-dollar giver. It warmed my heart, and I will never forget the love I felt.
I took a moment to reflect and to mentally thank my Rebbi for his wise suggestion. This man’s five-hundred-dollar donations never put much of a dent in the Yeshiva’s cash flow, but much more importantly, I felt truly wonderful that we had had the opportunity to bring a bit of cheer to a lonely and special neshamah in my community. I still have that man’s letter, and every so often I pull it out to remind myself of my Rebbi and the important need to concentrate not just on the donation but on each individual, notwithstanding his or her financial contributions. It was a lesson I will never forget.
There is also a small postscript to the story. It turned out that this man had accumulated quite a bit of money, and a month after those letters arrived, his lawyer contacted us and told us that his client had left his entire estate to Yeshiva Beth Yehudah. It was continued proof that doing the right thing for the community had many seen and unseen benefits.
NC: You interface quite a bit with non-Orthodox communal leaders and organizations as well. Can you tell us about your involvement in philanthropic work with non-Orthodox partners?
GT: A really important part of askanus and philanthropy is to give outside of the immediate Orthodox community. I am involved with the outstanding Detroit Federation, a relationship which was essentially born out of my Yeshiva Beth Yehudah experience. The Jewish Federation graciously and unconditionally supports all of the day schools of our community, and I am impressed and grateful for its support, I felt a responsibility to join in their efforts. If you want to make a kiddush Hashem in the broad community, you cannot only be a giver to things that are specific to you, your children and your family. You have to be a giver beyond that. Being ecumenical and having the ability to go beyond your four walls can be a kiddush Hashem and is a very important part of askanus. I have learned in my career that if the Orthodox community joins the Federation circles and gives to the Federation, the Federation will feel much more comfortable giving to Orthodox causes. There are also great benefits to giving beyond even the Jewish community. It promotes brotherly love and warmth from many who need and deserve our attention and generosity. You want to strive to be a giver and help as many people and causes as possible, always in consultation with da’as Torah.
A final story: One night around twenty years ago, Rabbi Freedman called and said he was coming by to see me. That was always a sign of trouble. Before I had a chance to ask any questions, he was at my doorstep. He told me that he wanted me to go with him to New York in the morning to visit Rav Avrohom Pam, zt”l. I told him it would be very difficult for me to go the following day and asked if it could be postponed. He was very insistent and would not take no for an answer. When I asked what the topic was and why the urgency, he simply said, “We will discuss it when we meet with the rabbi.” We left the next morning and arrived at Rav Pam’s home before noon. As soon as we entered, Rabbi Freedman took out a crinkled newspaper with a short article about several people that the Michigan Democratic Party was considering as potential candidates for the United States Senate. Unfortunately, and not of my doing, my name appeared at the top of the list. Rabbi Freedman said to Rav Pam, “Please tell Gary that being president of a yeshivah is much more important than a US Senate seat.” I began to explain that the article was incorrect and that I was not considering any run for political office. Rabbi Freedman would not accept my explanations and insisted Rav Pam tell me in no uncertain terms that volunteering for a yeshivah was the ultimate public service.
Rav Pam concluded with words that I will never forget and that I live with every day. “You should feel tremendously blessed to be one of the handpicked representatives of the Greatest Power in the Universe; don’t ever trade it for a fleeting moment of fame or notoriety. Nothing is more important than working for the klal; it is the surest path to eternity.”
On the flight home, my Rebbi was as pleased as could be, fully confident that the subject was closed forever. But for good measure and in Rabbi Freedman’s inimitable way, my loving Rebbi turned to me and said, “Okay, so you heard what Rav Pam said, right?” I said, “Yes, Rebbi, I heard it.” To which he added, “I want to tell you something else. You weren’t going to win anyway.”
Gary Torgow is chairman of TCF Financial Corp, a bank holding company in Michigan. He is a senior vice president of the Orthodox Union and chair of OU Kosher.
Nechama Carmel is editor-in-chief of Jewish Action.