WHEN I MET Irving “Papa” Gelman my first thought was what is in this man’s water because he looks fantastic and there is no way this man is 93 years old; I literally made him show me his driver’s license because I didn’t believe him. What an honor and a pleasure it was meeting such an extraordinary man. I, of course, had done my research but nothing could prepare me for this man’s story of overcoming incredible obstacles; a man whose generosity would later ignite dramatic changes within Orange County’s Jewish community. When I reached out to Rabbi Elie Spitz he had this to say, “Irving Gelman is widely called “Papa Gelman” by the students of Tarbut V’Torah, because they love him. His dedication to Jewish youth combined with imaginative vision, a dedication to education, and practical wisdom created Tarbut V’Torah, along with many others that he inspired. Irving is a mitzvah hero, whose life of service exemplifies the core values that Tarbut and our rich Jewish legacy seek to convey.”
Irving “Papa” Gelman was born in Hosht, Poland and survived the Holocaust by hiding in a dirt hole inside a peasant farmer’s barn for 16 months with his parents, sister and future wife, Rochelle. Once a week, the trapdoor would open and the farm couple would dispense boiled potatoes and black bread, which enabled them to survive. He told me they could hear the rooster’s crow in the morning and that’s how they were able to tell time or the passing of the days. In 1944 Soviet soldiers liberated Gelman and his family. In a town of 1,500 people, 18 survived the Holocaust and 5 were members of his family. Then in April 1947, Gelman received a charitable contribution from a Jewish agency that enabled him to immigrate to New York City with $5.60 in his pocket after sending his soon-to-be wife, Rochelle, a telegram confirming he was waiting for her. Gelman began working in a textile business for $35 a week. Seven years later, Gelman established his own textile company named Domka Inc., after the Ukrainian woman who saved his life by hiding him and his family on her farm.
Gelman’s rich history in Jewish education began with his father who was involved in starting a school in Poland to allow the Jewish culture to survive and thrive. The school was called Tarbut which means “culture”. Gelman’s passion for Jewish education led him to help manage and secure funding for two Jewish schools in New Jersey, Yavneh Academy and The Frisch School, before relocating to Orange County in 1984. In 1991, Gelman founded Tarbut V’Torah Community Day School, in loving memory of his daughter, Naomi Gelman Weiss. He understood that the only way the Jewish community can flourish is through a strong foundation in Jewish education and Torah values. Since opening, Tarbut has grown from a 36-student to a flourishing TK-12 college preparatory school and now boasts an enrollment of over 500 students and 580 alumni, making it one of the highest regarded community Jewish day schools in the nation.
On campus, the students call Gelman “Papa,” and, whether he’s visiting a classroom or strolling across campus, they often go out of their way to give the school’s founder a hug. The hundreds of students who have attended TVT look forward to being greeted by “Papa” Gelman whose big hugs, warm heart, keen mind and boundless energy have guided the school to remarkable success.
Ralph Stern reminded me how fortunate I was to meet Gelman, “an icon in the Jewish community of Orange County. The British author Helen Oyeyemi wrote a book titled What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours. Mr. Gelman on the other hand, when referring to philanthropy, says: What is yours is not yours, but what you have given away is yours” as written in the Talmud.
The vision of an immigrant who came to America with a few dollars in his pocket after surviving the Holocaust and his perseverance in making it a reality spawned an award-winning community day school reflecting top-tier academics, value-based education and enormous community pride. He maintained then, as he does now that “the key to Jewish culture is teaching.” In the process of building a school for our children, “Papa” Gelman has built a community committed to Jewish education.
Now celebrating its 25th anniversary, TVT is pluralistic and inclusive in its approach. TVT offers advanced institutes in STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics) and Jewish studies. Recently, TVT was ranked as the #1 K-12 private school in Orange County and the #1 Jewish school in California in the 2017 NICHE Best Schools in America ranking for private schools. TVT received on overall NICHE grade of A+. The school has received many other accolades and is recognized by the U.S. Department of Education as a National Blue Ribbon School of Excellence.
Graduates of TVT earn acceptance at top universities at up to three times the national rate. This past year had arguably the best college placement results ever from a graduating class at TVT. 55% of TVT’s class of 2016 is attending a US News and World Report’s Top 50 University, and 80% of TVT students applying to a University of California (UC) campus were accepted. High school students ACT scores have risen to their highest level of the past five years and elementary students’ test scores have risen steadily over the past four years to new heights of excellence.
When people join the TVT community, they become members of a close family of parents, students, alumni, faculty, staff and friends. Lifetime friendships are formed with a shared vision to ensure the continuity of TVT’s mission to provide an outstanding education rooted in Jewish values and identity. As TVT celebrates 25 years of excellence in education, it has remained faithful to Papa Gelman’s vision and is grateful for the long history of philanthropy and the generous spirit that exists within our community.
On April 30, 2017, TVT Community Day School will host its Annual Benefit, Light the Legacy, celebrating 25 years of instilling a love of learning in our students and a desire to repair the world. Proceeds from the evening enable TVT to continue its tradition in providing excellence in academics, meaningful experiences in Jewish Studies, financial aid to deserving students, and an array of extracurricular activities.
Tanya Schwied graduated from New York University, studied abroad in Israel, and currently works for the CEO and President of Jewish Federation & Family Services.