From Johannesburg to The Yated And Many Places In Between. An Interview with Rabbi Chanan (Antony) Gordon

Chanan (Antony) Gordon, formerly of Johannesburg, South Africa, is a Yated columnist, a sought-after lecturer, a former popular stand-up comic, and co-author of the renowned research article titled “Will Your Grandchild Be Jewish?”, an intensive analysis of the national Jewish population census carried out every 10 years in America. He travels around the globe speaking to diverse audiences, teaching, inspiring, and sharing his unique life story.

In honor of Chanukah, with his candor and wit, Reb Chanan shared “the story behind the story” with the Yated.

Let’s start at the beginning. Where were you born and raised?

I was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 1964, when Apartheid (lasting from 1948 to 1991) was at its peak. South Africa is a most unusual country. Most of its Jews are of Litvishe background, having escaped from Lithuania shortly before the Holocaust, and they are very proud Jews. Most of the Jewish families in Johannesburg and elsewhere would describe themselves as traditional, with varying levels of observance. Conservative Judaism does not exist in South Africa and the Reform movement never quite took off there.

I am the middle child. My elder brother is a doctor in Atlanta, while my sister teaches at a Jewish day school in Toronto. We were raised by my beloved parents in a home permeated with warmth and love. My father, who is of Irish descent, was a director at J.H. Isaacs, a prominent real estate company in Johannesburg. It was really my late mother (Hessie Gordon a”h) who had a profound impact on my life.

Can you share some memories of her?

My mother, of blessed memory, was a brilliant and accomplished woman who loved to give and had a strong and vibrant connection to Hashem. Trained as a psychiatric social worker, my mother would spend hours counseling and advising her patients, often being called to emergencies late at night.

A wise and caring person, my mother often noticed that when families were chozer b’teshuvah, they tended to go all the way – as she dubbed it, “throwing the baby out with the bathwater.” My mom felt that it was dangerous for baalei teshuvah, or for anyone really, to undertake too much, too soon. She would speak about how important it was to be an integrated human being, to have a strong support system and network of friends. She was a student of Viktor Frankel, a professor of neurology and psychiatry at the University of Vienna Medical School, whose famous book, “Man’s Search for Meaning,” contains many fundamental truths about life. It has been proven that one whose life is meaningful has the strength to transcend adversity and triumph over their circumstances.

My mom, who was niftar very suddenly eight years ago after contracting Listeria, was one of the main guiding forces in my life. In fact, wherever I travel, I often meet former patients of my mom who tell me, “Chanan, your mother saved my life!”

Was there anything in your childhood that hinted to a future career as a public speaker?

Actually, there was. I attended a traditional “day school,” like most of my friends. At the age of 12, my English teacher gave me a grade of 100% in a class on public speaking. That planted a seed in my mind, which later germinated. My late mom, recognizing this G-d-given gift, sent me to classes in elocution during my formative years. Cleary, this early training played an enormous role in me becoming a seasoned public speaker.

After I graduated elementary school, I attended King David High School, a Modern-Orthodox high school with a strong academic program, which honed my debating skills. Every Friday, a couple of students would be tasked with preparing a parody or mock newscast of recent current events. It needed to be informative and funny, and, most of all, grab the attention of our audience – hundreds of our fellow students. We would need to comb through news reports all week long to find the ones that spoke to us, analyze them, and come up with a brilliant idea.

Later, I attended Wits (University of the Witwatersrand), where I studied psychology and law, graduating with a BA and LLB. During my years at Wits, I performed small “Purim shpiels” called RAG (Receive and Give) Dynamics in front of thousands of students at the university amphitheater to develop university spirit and help students take a break from the intense academic courses. Part of the role that I assumed for RAG was to do public relations stunts to raise money for charity. I did a few crazy stunts just to make the news and raise awareness for various charities.

Can you give us some examples?

Sure! One day, we staged an elaborate mock “kidnapping” of the captain of the Australian cricket team (cricket is a very popular sport in South Africa) when the Australian cricket team was in South Africa to play our national team. We held him hostage, until he donated five thousand rand to charity. The captain played along with our spoof and the readers lapped it up.

Another time, three guys – including myself – sneaked into the office of Harold Rudolf, then the mayor of Johannesburg, and stole his chair. The mayor was annoyed at first, but quickly got into the spirit. These pranks made a huge splash and helped us have a huge impact on our readership.

RAG Dynamics taught me several important life lessons, including the power of the media in influencing others by doing things in a creative, quirky manner. Today, I use these tools to help me in my public speaking career and in several of the activities which I am involved in.

Sounds like you had a full plate. Was there anything else you were involved in?

Truth be said, my plate has been full my entire life and I wouldn’t want it any other way. I produced the so-called “Free People Concert” for three consecutive years in Johannesburg. The Free People’s Concert was the highlight of the Wits University Orientation Week at a time when Apartheid was in place in South Africa. The Free People’s Concert was a play on words, a call to “free people” from the shackles of Apartheid on the one hand, while also allowing people to attend the concert for “free.” (The university paid the costs.) Each year, the audience grew. The last year that I produced the concert, we had over 25,000 people attending. You can well imagine the amount of time and effort it took to organize these events.

The Free People’s Concert led to me being asked to be the stage manager of the largest music concert in South Africa’s history in 1985. At that event, Concert in the Park, there were over 100,000 people in attendance.

Just to give you an insight into some of the tongue-in-cheek things I was known for in Johannesburg at the time, as a dare, between acts, I taught the enormous crowd a Hebrew song that I had learned in summer camp. Incredibly, the audience clapped and sang along with gusto, although they clearly did not understand a word!

When did you decide to move to the US?

Soon after graduating from Wits and being admitted to the Bar as an Advocate, and after returning to Johannesburg from the United Kingdom as the recipient of the Sir Abe Bailey Travel Fellowship, I began to think of my next step in life.

I was concerned about the political situation in South Africa and decided to continue my studies in the United States. I applied for, and received, a Fulbright Scholarship to attend Harvard Law School. I was in my mid-twenties, single, and determined to succeed.

With my parents’ blessing, I packed my bags and traveled to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where I continued my law studies, obtaining a Masters in Law in the competitive, intensely charged environment. While at Harvard Law School, I also audited classes at the Harvard Business School.

As was the case while I was a student in South Africa, I continued to be very involved in student activities, including being the class representative of my class and a member of the Harvard Law School Council, and I continued to spearhead some out-of-the-box initiatives.

Can you give an example?

During my tenure at Harvard Law School, the then-president of the university, Derek Bok (son of Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Curtis Bok), announced his desire to raise one billion dollars for the Harvard Endowment to help future students with tuition. Since I had become friendly with the vice dean, David Smith, who knew of my activism back at Wits, I was asked to develop an idea that would represent the law school’s contribution to the billion dollar fundraising campaign.

I suggested an idea based on the successes I had in South Africa with the Free People’s Concert titled Harvard’s International Rock for Education (H.I.R.E.), a music concert to be hosted at the Harvard football stadium.

In terms of my life journey, the most significant point to come out of the H.I.R.E. campaign was that it served as a conduit for me to meet with the late Larry Tisch, the CEO of CBS at the time. In short, I thought of a novel idea: We would give CBS exclusive rights to expand the concert I had developed through the H.I.R.E. campaign on a national level.

I flew to New York to meet with Mr. Tisch, a famous Wall Street investor who led CBS from 1986 to 1995. Mr. Tisch was very excited about my idea, which, ironically, never ended up happening. The entire concert was scrapped because the president of Harvard was leaving and I was graduating that year. I had also accepted a position to work in the entertainment group of a law firm in Los Angeles.

So what was the point of the meeting?

My meeting with Larry Tisch was tremendous Hashgacha, which opened many doors.

I had prepared intensively for this all-important meeting with information about the concert and what it could achieve for CBS. As it turned out, our conversation took a different direction altogether.

“I like the way you think,” Mr. Tisch said to me during our intense meeting. “You’re a creative thinker. What are you planning to do after graduation?”

Before I could even respond, Mr. Tisch called Jeffrey Katzenberg, then-chairman of Walt Disney Studios, one of the biggest names in the entertainment industry, and insisted that Mr. Katzenberg meet with me. It was a lesson that molded my approach to many things that I have done in life. For me, the lesson was that while clearly the outcome is always up to Hashem, there is nothing lost by making the tough calls and “pitching” big ideas.

My meeting with Mr. Tisch and the opportunities he presented to me (which turned out to be very helpful in my current position) taught me how important it is – both in the world of business and in my personal life – to make “relationship capital” deposits.

I merited tremendous siyata diShmaya during this meeting. If I want to pinpoint something that helped me achieve this success, I could say that it was my ability to focus on what I could do for Mr. Tisch and CBS, not what they could do for me. It is human nature to focus on what I want to get, not what I want to give. But most employers, from CEOs of major companies to regular people, want to know, “What’s in it for me?” If you tell them how you can help them and be an asset to their firm, that can make all the difference between “I’ll call you if I need you” and reciprocating by making an all-important call that can change one’s career.

This is true in many areas of life, as you suggested. As Dale Carnegie writes in “Making Friends and Influencing People,” most people are interested in talking and hearing about themselves.

Of course! It’s especially true in marriage, in raising children, and in reaching out to unaffiliated Jews. By focusing on the needs of the other person, on what you can give instead of what you can get, you can accomplish so much more. It becomes a completely different equation.

Nowadays, no matter where I travel or what type of group I address, I use this concept as my mantra. It’s not about the message that I’m trying to bring across or how I can achieve the greatest impact. It’s about what they need to hear and how I can help them. It may seem like mere semantics, but there’s a very big difference.

Wow. That’s pretty awesome! So what happened when you began your new life in Los Angeles?

After working in the entertainment department for the law firm of Jeffer, Mangels, Butler and Marmaro for a couple of years, I joined one of our clients to assist in launching a recording studio in South Africa. I then decided to take a break from the industry.

So you changed careers?

It wasn’t a change of career. It was a complete lifestyle change. After a couple of years in Hollywood and my exposure to the gaping emptiness that I sensed wherever I turned, I wanted out. I met celebrities who had everything. They were earning millions of dollars, lived in huge mansions, had staff attending to their every whim and tens of thousands of fans, but many of them were miserable, addicted to prescription drugs, to fame, to spending money or inappropriate relationships.

Interestingly, as someone who has worked in kiruv for a couple of decades, I see a similar phenomenon with baalei teshuvah who often have a similar story. I see the emptiness of their lifestyle, the lack of fulfillment, etc. After a while, people who have everything lose the capacity to feel pleasure because they have too much of it.

So you decided to enter another field?

Yes, but that only happened later. First I took some time off and went to Eretz Yisroel, where I learned at Aish HaTorah, forging a close connection with Rav Noach Weinberg zt”l. It was Rav Noach who urged me to continue to use my strengths, instead of shutting them off, and of harnessing the power of the media to influence people.

My time in Eretz Yisroel, when I was just a regular yeshiva bochur learning under Rav Noach, was one of the most meaningful periods in my life. Rav Noach gave me a brocha that I meet my basherte (I was already in my late twenties), and I returned to the US, armed with his advice and wisdom. I had no idea how quickly his blessing would be fulfilled.

You stepped off the plane and met your basherte in the airport?

Not exactly. I returned to Los Angeles. I hadn’t even unpacked my bags or decided what I want to do next when a friend suggested a shidduch. Her name was Lebe Belgrade (related to the Morgenstern and Mashinsky families from Monsey), and she had lived in Los Angeles her whole life. We dated, and the rest, as they say, is history. My wife and I have been married for over twenty years and, bli ayin hora, are the parents of six beautiful children, four boys and two girls. Our eldest son, Gavi, got married a few months ago to Sharon Umansky from Monsey, and our youngest is eight years old.

Where did you live after your marriage?

The original plan of going back to Eretz Yisroel unfortunately did not work out, so we set up our home in LA. For almost 20 years, we were members of Kehillas Yaakov, under the leadership of Rav Gershon Bess, but when my sons starting davening upstairs at Young Israel of Hancock Park, under the leadership of Rav Yaakov Krause, we joined YIHP, where our family now davens.

Can you describe your day job today?

I am responsible for spearheading business development for MGO, a professional service firm that has one of the most successful business management groups in the country. The firm offers a holistic approach for many athletes and celebrities, who require a trustworthy firm to manage their assets and assist them with taxes and business management services.

I am assuming that although this is your day job, it is certainly not your passion.

Actually, my work with celebrities is an open door for my true passion, which is to impact my fellow Jews and draw them closer to our faith. My connections in the entertainment and business industry was the precursor to me becoming involved in American Voices in Israel, founded by Malcolm Hoenlein in 2005. I am currently the Chairman of the Advisory Board.

As explained in their mission statement, “America’s Voices in Israel was formed to bolster Israel’s image in the United States by bringing entertainment personalities, athletes and high profile personalities to Israel.

These high-profile opinion-makers reach many admirers, followers, and the general public. Using traditional and social media, they offer firsthand accounts of experiences in Israel, engaging large and ethnically diverse audiences. Their positive stories about Israel counter distortions and misrepresentations about Israel, which are often reported in the media.

What is your involvement in the organization?

I reach out to prominent celebrities to invite them on an all-expenses paid trip. We give them the royal treatment and take them to meet the prime minister and influential politicians, etc., after which they are hopefully inspired to report positively about Israel and reach out to their tens of thousands of followers as well.

Since many of these celebrities are Jewish, there is a kiruv aspect as well. We reach out to their Jewish spark, the pintele Yid, and encourage them to learn more about their heritage.

I am currently co-writing a book with the CEO of MGO about why so many prominent celebrities and athletes end up deeply in debt and have such high rates of suicide. The research is very telling: Fame and fortune, unless accompanied by positive morals and core values, will usually destroy a person. At the end of the day, only strong relationships and accountability will anchor them in a world where external success is worshiped.

You mentioned a famous research article that you co-authored. Can you tell us about it?

Of course. I am referring to the article titled “Will Your Grandchildren be Jewish?” It is a comprehensive compilation of data on the rates of intermarriage among American Jewry today. I co-authored the paper with Richard Horowitz, president of Aish HaTorah International and president of Management Brokers Insurance Agency.

We recently published the third iteration of our article. The article has been translated into over 10 languages, as has been cited in numerous publications. Rabbi Moshe Sherer, the world-renowned leader of Agudas Yisroel, encouraged us to spread the finding of our article, which shows the impact of assimilation across the world. Rabbi Sherer advised that our demographic chart appear in a full page ad in the New York Times as part of the Am Echad Campaign.

Can you describe the impact of the article?

It is impossible to gauge the full impact of the article, which has been published in numerous prestigious publications, including The Vanishing American Jew by Alan Dershowitz. It would be safe to say that our demographic chart, which was the culmination of years of research, is the most cited illustration of the impact of assimilation in America today.

The article and chart have helped numerous philanthropists and askanim to appreciate the impact of assimilation in America. In many ways, the publication of the article and chart launched my public speaking career, as I was invited to discuss the impact of our research to audiences all over the world. I served as co-chairman of the Agudath Convention in 2007 and the chairman of the AJOP Convention that same year.

I often use our chart to sensitize people to take responsibility for the thousands of Jews disappearing every year. We can’t afford to lose any more of our people. We have an obligation to reach out and impact unaffiliated Jews in our community by extending a warm smile, an invitation for Shabbos, and a genuine interest in their well-being. After all, these are our brothers and sisters, children of our Father. How can we leave them to their fate?