Big Mike refused to let darkness destroy life


MIKE Gondelman took a lot of hits before he found his life's purpose.

He claims to have been molested by his school principal from the age of eight until he was 12.

Those in authority did not protect him from his abuser. Disillusioned by all the horrors and negativity in the world, he became an atheist at age 11.

He turned to alcohol and drugs to cope with the pain of life, and although he played a good standard of American football, his inability to stay sober cost him the chance to play professionally.

Today, he has taken all that angst and turned it into a powerful story of healing to inspire others.

Gondelman grew up a Conservative Jew in New York, but despite a clear memory of the ubiquitous JNF blue boxes in his parents' and grandparents' homes, he says he had "no real firm grasp on what it meant to be Jewish".

A family trip to Israel in 1999 began to clarify the question of his Jewish identity.

The trip was marked by a new view of Jewish history, one that could engender Jewish pride. However, given that he wasn't yet sober, his first trip included a party every night.

"I had a hole inside me," he said. "What happened to me literally destroyed me inside. Drugs were the answer to dealing with the agony. With drugs, I didn't have to think."

Recovery required him to find God again.

Gondelman is a big man, standing over six-feet tall and weighing more than 28 stone; people everywhere call him Big Mike.

In order to stay sober, he needed to find a God that was stronger than he was. Thus began his journey to find a God he could believe in.

As his search progressed, he recalled, "everywhere I looked, Judaism was at the core.

"If you want to find out what Judaism is all about, you have to get to the core, which is in Israel."

It wasn't until he was sober and returned on a Birthright Israel trip in January, 2001, that the country's power hit him fully between the eyes.

"Israel gave me a sense of Jewish pride," he said. "It was always home to me. I knew when I got here that this is how I want to live my life.

"People help each other here. There's a camaraderie here . . .

"We're a huge family. It doesn't matter if you're a secular guy in Tel Aviv eating cheeseburgers or a charedi guy in Mea Shearim.

"Every single day, you see Jews helping each other all the time. We're all connected."

He lived in Israel on a student visa for eight years, studying Torah at the Ohr Somayach Yeshiva in Jerusalem and began his life's work as an addictions counsellor.

He started by working with the post-high-school American students hanging out in the area of downtown Jerusalem known as 'Crack Square', but ultimately worked with clients ranging in age from 11 to 70.

He officially made aliya in 2009 after recognising that he was, in fact, cut out for army life.

"Some people belong on the front lines, and some people belong in the beth midrash, learning.

I'm not one of those guys that belongs in the beth midrash. I wanted to be a part of the society."

To his regret, the IDF gave an exemption to the 32-year-old married father.

But instead of turning all that darkness in on himself, he upped his game.

"God gives each of us a job," he said. "God said to me, 'The army is not your job'. My job is to be an addictions counsellor."

At this point in his addictions work, he was accompanying clients back to America for rehabilitation; the only rehab option available in Israel wasn't a match for his philosophy.

He said: "It says in 12-step programmes that you have to learn to live life on life's terms. I didn't want my clients to be locked up."

With a vision of a rehab facility that would encourage its residents to be out in the world during the day - going to university, working, or studying Torah - he opened the Jerusalem Sober House in Ramot.

"I didn't want to rely on fund-raising," Gondelman said.

"So I started the Sober House with my life savings. That's how much I believed in it."

The Jerusalem Sober House opened on March 1, 2012. Gondelman's wife, Tatiana, was nine months pregnant at the time.

He credits Tatiana, whom he met through a friend and married in June, 2003, with making it possible to do what he does.

"I spent 11 years trying to save every guy who came through my door, so she had to hold up the household," he said. "It's definitely been an amazing ride with her."

They now have four children and live around the corner from the Jerusalem Sober House.

The residents of the Shabbat-observant, 12-bed in-patient facility come from Gondelman's substantial referral network.

Over the past three years, 50 residents have come through the programme, and each leaves with a plan of action in life.

"God sends the people I'm supposed to help my way," he asserted. "Everyone has to find his own path to God. Most of these guys have a religious background.

"We have a much higher success rate than the community average, because we teach them how to live life on life's terms."

He explained that "we require a three-month minimum commitment. We get a few donors here and there who pay for a particular kid.

"We have no government help right now. It's a mom-and-pop organisation. My wife does the financial side."

Although he lost his chance to play in the NFL, Israel offers Gondelman a valuable consolation prize.

"I love playing football for the Jerusalem Kings," he said. "I never had so much fun as playing for the Jerusalem Kings. And we're looking for more players."

When asked about goals for the future, he said: "To improve on a daily basis.

"The whole idea is to be the best I can be. The best father, the best addictions counsellor, the best husband.

"If I'm not yet the best, I have what to live for. Keep growing and learning. Never stop growing. Remember that."

In overcoming the harsh circumstances of his early life, he calls himself "a walking miracle".

He has found his place in life, and in Israel.

"It's amazing," he said. "Plain and simple. I love it here. It's just simply home.

"I love all things New York, but New York is still not home to me. This is home." (Jerusalem Post)

© 2015 Jewish Telegraph