Home January 2014 Here for a Reason

Here for a Reason

During the Holocaust, Irving Gelman lived in constant fear that there would be no tomorrow.  There was a time when he expected to be shot.  A German officer told him to dig his own grave.  At the last minute, the officer told him to run and simply fired shots into the air.  Such near-death experiences made Gelman’s faith and resolve to stay alive stronger.
“In our part of the Ukraine, the value of a Jewish life was two pounds of butter,” he said.  Along with four members of his family and the young orphan who would become his wife, Gelman hid in holes underground for sixteen months – fourteen in one place and two in another – until the Soviet army liberated the area.  He was one of eighteen people from his village to survive.
He said, “I survived to be able to pay back.  It’s my pleasure.   It’s my life.  It’s a good feeling to see the perpetuity of the Jewish people.  My priority has always been Klal Yisroel (caring for the Jewish people).  “I love children.  When I see children, it brings life back into me.  I saw no kids when the war ended, but I knew how important it was to find and educate them.”
Moving to a displaced persons’ camp in Poland after the war, Gelman organized Betar, and he and his wife, Rochelle, organized a youth group.  Eventually, they smuggled children into Palestine.  In 1947, they came to the United States.  Gelman had $5.60 in his pocket and the attitude that he would succeed and help others.
“Since giving my first dollar, I never got poor,” he said.  “People will never remember what you had but what you did with it.”
Landing on the east coast, he ran a successful business and then became active in the Yavneh Academy in New Jersey.  Acting as the Lee Iacocca, the person who stepped in and made sweeping changes, he became known as “Mr. Yavneh” for the K-8 school, and its student population grew from 288 to 800.  He was involved with the school for 27 years, serving as the president, perennial vice president and frequent development director, raising funds for the school.  He funded the implementation of the first Holocaust curriculum which became the model for Holocaust education programs in the Jewish day schools.  In 1973, while still at Yavneh, he was instrumental in securing the funds for the establishment of The Frisch School, in Paramus, New Jersey, one of the best Jewish high schools in the country.
Knowing that grandchildren were coming, Gelman and his wife relocated to California.  Initially, he was unhappy in Orange County, describing it as “tohu v’vohu,” the words used to describe the chaos in the creation story in Genesis.  There had been open anti-Semitism, and Jewish people were reluctant to relocate here.  “But I don’t believe in quitting,” he said.
He established a Chabad Day School, kindergarten through third grade.  Then he found out that the Jewish Studies Institute in Anaheim was about to close.  He took the school, relocated it to Costa Mesa, and Tarbut V’Torah Community Day School was born in 1991.  Initially, there were only 37 students, but it quickly grew to 190 “even without windows or a soccer field,” he said.  “It showed that people embraced the concept of a Jewish day school.  I started to dream of a high school.  The rest is history.  It changed the landscape of Orange County.”
Today Tarbut V’Torah (TVT) is a pluralistic Jewish day school with nearly 600 students.  In addition to being highly rated academically, TVT strives to instill in students a strong sense of Jewish ethics and identity and how Judaism promotes a joyous and meaningful way of life.  According to its website, students “learn the meaning and significance of prayers, symbols, rituals and festivals.  Consequently, they graduate with a strengthened sense of Jewish identity, a commitment to the Jewish community and a comprehensive knowledge of history and traditions.”
“When I look on the playground and see students waving Israeli flags and singing, I say ‘Am Yisrael Chai,’” Gelman said,  “Hitler couldn’t get rid of us.  The Jewish people will survive, live and flourish.  The kids know the history and heritage of the Jewish people.”
In addition, Gelman said that it is “beautiful to hear what TVT kids are accomplishing, that they’re always together maintaining friendships.”  Through the children, the parents are learning too, he believes.  Everybody gets to know a little bit more, and the Jewish people keep going.  TVT has served a good purpose, he said.
As he is about to turn 90, Gelman reflected, “The ultimate gratification is to be alive, to have a good family, to be blessed with friends, to achieve a purpose in life.  I must have done something right.”

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