Safeguarding Jews From Genetic Disease: DOR YESHORIM EXPANDS TO THE SEPHARDIC COMMUNITY
By: Kelly Jemal Massry
As Jews, we are commanded to show extra sensitivity to orphans – to shelter them, to feed them and to share in their pain and suffering. What makes Ralph Tawil’s story so remarkable is that he was an orphan, who rose to great heights while never forgetting his beginnings. When he did make his money in the importing business, it was always with the intention of giving it back to those less fortunate. Ralph Tawil lived his life with this purity of heart and with a sensitivity that came from having once been at the depths of despair. His empathy was one of kinship and his sense of purpose knew no bounds when he set out to help others. How lucky we are that he pulled himself up and became a self-made man, answering to no one except Hashem. How thankful we are that he supported our traditions, our hachamim, our yeshivot and our poor for so many years.
“Everyone knows Poppy as a champion of tzedakah,” said his grandson, Ralph Tawil at the one-weekarayat, “but many people don’t know how this came to be.” At the age of 11, Ralph, or Poppy as everyone called him, lost his mother. Unable to take care of him, his father put him and his siblings in the Brooklyn Hebrew Orphanage. Oh, how Poppy wanted out of that orphanage! Nearly every day, he would rail against his situation, trying to jump the wall, ride the train, do anything to escape his confines. But alas, that orphanage and the foster homes that followed would be his fate for most of his childhood. He lived off scraps of food and hungered for the generosity of others. He was completely dependent on human kindness – and he never forgot how important this compassion was to his – or anyone’s - survival.
Poppy did see his father on Shabbat and managed to absorb two important ideals from him – to hold fast to his faith and to save his money even as everyone else was spending it. This last precept would be important, for, by the age of 13, Ralph’s father would pass away, leaving him penniless. “Poppy didn’t think of his desolate upbringing as a handicap, or a sign that his life should be a failure,” said his grandson, Ralph Sitt, at the funeral. “He never stopped fighting.”
As a young boy, Poppy struck out on his own, peddling ties. Once, he walked into a bar and offered his wares to a drunkard. For no explicable reason, the man took one look at him and punched him, hard. Poppy crumpled to the floor and stayed on the ground for a good while. While down there, he contemplated how he’d arrived – by asking another person for money. He vowed in that moment that he would never again put himself in that position, the position of someone down on his luck and at the mercy of others. He would become self-sufficient and he would give readily to the needy but he most certainly would not be a beneficiary.
Except in the case of Isaac Shalom, A’’H, who Ralph asked for a job just as so many of his contemporaries had. Ralph told Mr. Shalom that if he didn’t hire him, he’d have no choice but to take a job that would require him to work on Shabbat. Still, regrettably, Mr. Shalom told him he had absolutely nothing available. “Did you ask (so and so) for a job?” he asked him. “Of course I did!” said Ralph who had done nothing of the sort, and was just saying what was needed to carve his way in. The two parted company without resolution.
The next morning, however, Poppy received a knock on his door from Mr. Shalom, who ran a shipping company. “Do you know how to tie?” he asked him in Syrian. “Of course I know how to tie!” said Ralph, who was thinking of the way he knotted his shoelaces. He was given a position, with no one suspecting his lack of experience tying boxes. It was only after he was taken on board and had to be taught everything that he was called out on his fib. Soon after, Mr. Shalom approached him and asked him with good-natured humor, “Why did you lie to me?! You don’t know how to tie boxes!” Ralph pleaded understanding, saying he hadn’t known there was a difference between tying knots and tying boxes. Mr. Shalom excused him, of course. He recognized Ralph Tawil as a go-getter, a man who would do anything to improve his station. Admiring that tenacity, Mr. Shalom kept him on.
Ralph was such a good learner, such a hard worker, that soon he was ready to go out on his own – but first he needed a loan. He approached Mr. Shalom for the money. What followed would become a story told and retold, central to Ralph’s foundation as well as so many others. “I’ll give you a loan,” said Mr. Shalom, “but first, you need a guarantor.” Ralph was fear-stricken. Of course, he had no guarantor, no family to speak of who would support his efforts. What Mr. Shalom told him in response changed all of that: “You do have someone,” he said “If you promise to give 10% of your money to charity for the rest of your life, you’ll have Gd. He will shower blessings upon you. He will be your guarantor.” And Hashem, Who is the father of all orphans, was. He repaid Ralph so many times over for his diligent giving of ma’aser. “[Poppy] would always say that he and Hashem were constantly fighting,” said his grandson Rabbi Saul Kassin at the funeral. “He would give charity and Gd would give him more money. He would give more charity and Gd would give him even more money! He believed with all his heart that if and when he gave Hashem would pay him back in kind. And he did.”
Ralph was forever attuned to Hashem’s reciprocity and he would preach this method of charity to people of all ages. He truly felt that he was wealthy only because he gave back unreservedly. To him, parlor meetings for institutions like Rabbi Diamond’s kollel and drives delivered on the pulpit in shul were so important. Through them, we could ensure a continuation of our zechuyot, through them we could train our youth to be charitable and emulate the philanthropy of their fathers. “He used to say, ‘We have a private club of rich people and here’s the secret of how to join: Give ma’aser. Give tzedakah,’” said Rabbi Shlomo Diamond. He said the same thing to the men who were in attendance at these drives. He’d get up to speak and often break down relaying one person or another’s unfortunate situation. He’d make bargains with Gd and pray that his money was received where it was needed most. “He hated the idea of enjoying luxury when he knew there were poor people who couldn’t afford it,” said Rabbi Eli Mansour. He pleaded with others to feel that same sense of urgency. “You think I’m wealthy because I’m so smart?” he’d ask them. “I’m not any smarter than anyone else. I’m wealthy because I give back.”
Ralph went onto to give start-up loans to many budding entrepreneurs. In the tradition of Isaac Shalom, he perpetuated what the great man had taught him; he made his beneficiaries promise to give 10% of their money to tzedakah. In so doing, he created an influx of charitable giving, as generation after generation opened their hands and their hearts to others.
The story of how Ralph met his first wife, Rachel, it one of characteristic ingenuity. He had been asked to march in his best friend’s wedding, but he lost his confidence and declined. He swapped clothes with his friend, Leon Shamah, giving Leon his tuxedo so he could march in his stead and clothing himself with Leon’s suit. Watching the ceremony from the sidelines, Ralph saw Leon marching with the most magnificent woman he’d ever seen. In that moment, he began to plan. Once the ceremony was over, he cornered Leon in the restroom and asked him to switch clothes again. Looking sharp now in his tuxedo, Ralph sat down next to Rachel and began a conversation. The two were married for over 60 years. Together, they raised three children, Saul, Marilyn, and Sharon, all of whom further their father’s legacy of giving and kindness.
Mr. Tawil did not just carry the torch of charity; he also was a great supporter of Torah. Rabbi Diamond calls him “the layman’s Hacham,” because, though he was a businessman, he knew the value of Torah. As Rabbi Diamond shares, he was one of the first supporters of a trend that took place in the early 60s, when several of the community’s boys were choosing to study Torah after high school rather than go into the workforce. Though it was fiercely unpopular, Ralph Tawil stood behind it along with David Bibi, Joe Kassin, and Joe Tawil. He helped to organize a committee called the Sephardic Scholarship Yeshivah Fund that would provide tuition for these men to go to yeshivot. “I remember how he gave me strength,” said Rabbi Diamond, who as a young boy went to ask Ralph for a donation to his future father in law Rabbi Davis’ yeshivah. “He told me to follow my instincts. He told me I was doing a great thing. I was a direct beneficiary of Ralph Tawil. What a visionary he was!”
In 1977, there was a parlor meeting for the first kollel in our community. Sitting in the front row alongside Eli Ashkenazi, Ralph Tawil would influence the people, proclaiming that supporting Torah study was our highest duty. “When there were breaches in our community, breaches in our traditions, in our kedusha, who stood up but Ralph Tawil,” said Rabbi Diamond in a class of his entitled ‘Loss of Great People.’ “He could stand up because he didn’t take money from anybody. He gave money. He fought the wars of Hashem.”
One such threat arose when the community was considering a new school – one that would be devoid of Torah learning and focus solely on secular studies. Ralph Tawil, with the zealousness of Pinhas, gave us all this message: That vision is not welcome here. We can’t possibly endorse that mesorah for our children. Imagine a Jewish education empty of Torah. Imagine what sort of negative ripples that might have caused! In an instant, Poppy – “direct, to the point and always right”— squashed it.
Ralph Tawil had great respect for our Gedolim and they, in turn, had tremendous respect for him. He had a particularly special relationship with Hacham Ovadia Yosef, zt”l. Ralph was the first person to greet Hacham Ovadia when he came to America in 1973 and he would always make a point of visiting his private study on his trips to Israel. On one occasion, Hacham Ovadia actually asked Ralph for a blessing, in an incredible role reversal that most of us can only dream of meriting. “You are the founder of the Torah network all over the world,” Hacham Ovadia told him. There can’t be a higher compliment than that.
Poppy strengthened his support for Torah institutions when he was stranded too far out from shore one day while on vacation. Fearing for his life, Ralph made a vow to Hashem: “If you get me back alive,” he told Him, “I will build a school.” True to his promise, he didn’t just built one school, he built many schools, in America and all over the world. Each one of these buildings is dedicated in memory of his parents Saul and Miriam Tawil. Though they were not a very big physical presence in his life, Ralph never forgot that they gave him life. He used his money to secure the glory of recognition not for himself but for his parents.
Mr. Tawil’s role in our community yeshivot was far reaching. From France to Argentina, from Israel to America,Ralph gave his financial support to Hebrew schools. He also gave his counsel, going so far as to tell the administrators of Hillel Yeshivah that he didn’t like the price they had charged him for the dedication of the building – it was too little. “Don’t you know that what you’re selling me is precious?” he told them. “I want you to double the amount you’re charging me – and promise me to sell to everyone else at a premium.”
Still in spite of all of this, in spite of learning Torah every day, yearning for hidushim and being at his happiest when in the company of Rabbis, Ralph worried towards the end of his life that he wasn’t learned enough – and that he wouldn’t have Torah as a merit to serve him in the World to Come. “Don’t worry,” Hacham Ovadia Yosef assured him noticing his gloom. “You will be together with me, side by side in Gan Eden.”
And now we grapple with his passing, at a loss for how to commemorate this giant of a person. “It’s not a coincidence that he died in the week that we read about Aharon HaKohen dying,” said Rabbi Diamond. “The entire community mourned Aharon HaKohen HaGadol because of everything he did for Klal Yisrael. This week, we mourn our Kohen Gadol.”
At the end of his life and in failing health, Ralph was difficult to care for. He was not used to being a receiver. Even then he wanted to continue to give to others. As his wife Julie says, he continually worried about children, wondering especially if he’d done enough to help orphans. Though he’d supported the orphanage in which he was raised, unsolicited, for his entire life, though he would often give these children kind words and even something as majestic as a toy, still he worried for them. He couldn’t leave them behind,
And so, two years ago, at the age of 95, he set in motion plans for a foundation to support orphans called Bnei Melachim. On the last morning of his life, his grandson, Jesse Sutton, came to visit him, and unveiled the brochure; Bnei Melachim was coming to fruition. When Poppy heard that, he smiled, everlastingly content that his dying wish had been fulfilled. He died that day, secure in the knowledge that he had done all he could and lived a life filled with the highest values.
In the wake of his passing, what can learn from this great man – a man of humble beginnings, searing sincerity and fierce convictions? We can learn, as Rabbi Diamond advises, to do things from the heart – not because we’re trained to or because we’re religious, but because we truly feel the need. As the Chief Rabbi of Israel, Hacham Yitzhak Yosef, said at Ralph’s arayat, if something emerges genuinely, not only from your mouth but also from your heart, that’s a double demonstration of ahavah – love. The numerical value of ahavah in 13. Double that is 26, the numerical equivalent of Hashem’s name. It is no wonder that Ralph, a man of such truth, walked with Hashem, serving as His “defender and messenger.” It is our job to remember him now, in the charity that we give, in the Torah institutions that we support and in the way we express gratitude to others.