Tavia Gordon—Tavia ben Yitzhak Pesach v’Malka

by | Nov 20, 2015 | Other News

February 23, 1929–October 30, 2015
A giant in the community, Tavia Gordon is remembered by Rabbi Jeff Arnowitz and Rabbi Arthur Ruberg. Their eulogies from his funeral at Congregation Beth El are excerpted here:

As we gather to remember and celebrate the life of Tavia Gordon, it seems that there is no better place to do it than in Beth El’s sanctuary, one of the many places in our Jewish community that exists in large part thanks to Tavia Gordon and where Tavia spent so many Saturday mornings.

When we look around Beth El and all around our community and see the fruits of Tavia’s passion, skill and commitment, we know we will never be without him. More importantly we can look around this room at all of us, especially the family that was the core of everything he did, and we can look at the thousands and thousands of people, from school children to those nearing the end of their lives and everyone in between, from the needy of Hampton Roads to the needs of Israelis, we can look at them and see how Tavia’s care, generosity and wisdom continues to echo and influence our community and that it always will. Though he has left us for the Olam Habah, we will never be without Tavia Gordon.

Tavia Gordon lived a life of simple order. In fact, that is the thing that makes Tavia Gordon so inspiring; it is that simple thing that was the secret to his greatness– Tavia Gordon was a truly ethical man. That is a rare quality to find, consistency of deed and values, and that was Tavia. Tavia had the rare gift to always see the right path and the will and fortitude to always choose to do the right thing.

Tavia’s ethical consistency was exemplified in every aspect of his life. When it came to philanthropy, no matter how well the business was doing, Tavia never spent a lot of money on himself, on exotic cars or big showy houses or lots of travel to the ritziest vacation spots. Those whims are not for the truly ethical man. Time and again Tavia saw the possibility of spending more on himself or giving more to others and time and again, he chose to give to others. I remember the first time I was in Tavia’s home. I was new in the community and had heard a lot about him and I thought to myself, “This is Tavia Gordon’s house?” It wasn’t a bad thing—it was just a normal house, like any of us may have lived in— not fancy or filled with expensive things of whimsy. But as I got to know the man, I understood, to Tavia, the house was just a place to live. The places to make special were the places he supported that served the Jewish community and the needs of people in the general community.

And when it came to Judaism, no matter what his options were on a Saturday morning or on a holiday Tavia always chose to be in synagogue, because the truly ethical man never gets bored by doing the right thing and he knew that’s where he should be. And most importantly, when it came to family and friends, there was never any question—nothing was ever more important. He was there to teach and support and assist whenever he was called upon, and often even when he wasn’t. That is why he is remembered today with love and admiration by his family: his son Steven and his wife Randi, his three grandchildren, Eliana, Evan, and Marah and his two brothers, Daniel and Allen and Allen’s wife Barbara, along with numerous nieces and nephews and cousins and many friends and admirers.

Tavia was born in Norfolk in 1929. The son of Mollie and Isaac, better known as IP; it was a full house with Tavia’s two brothers, Allen and Daniel, as well as his two beloved sisters, Sara and Edie, of blessed memory. They lived in a house on Maury Place that I understand could get a little raucous, with Tavia and his brothers getting out their energy. IP owned a hardware store and Tavia grew up during the difficult years of the Great Depression. That and the KKK boycotts of the store helped shape who Tavia was—he understood the value of money and what it means when it is scarce, and he learned just why it is so important for the Jewish community to stick together individually and institutionally.

As intelligent and strategic as he was, he was never much a book student and his identity as a Jew trumped his identity as a student, as one of his teachers learned his junior year of high School. The teacher made some sort of Antisemetic remark and Tavia was having none of it. The altercation became physical and Tavia ended up finishing school elsewhere. That passion to defend his faith and his people, that fire for stamping out injustice and prejudice was already unusually developed even though he was just a teenager, and as we all know, he found more constructive outlets for that passion as he grew into an adult.

IP taught Tavia about business and sales, about how it is all about relationships. No one was a better salesman than Tavia. But I think Mollie was the one who truly influenced Tavia to adopt the core values he did. She was the one who loved Jewish life, and taught Tavia the centrality of synagogue in Jewish life and that he would be wise to associate with rabbis. She was the one who taught him that it doesn’t matter how much you have, but how much you give, which was always the way Tavia measured his success. She was the one who taught him to give everything you can and that when you do, God will replenish the stores. The combination of IP’s business teaching along with Tavia’s own entrepreneurial spirit and Mollie’s teachings about Judaism and tzedakah created the foundation for the amazing man Tavia became.

After high school, Tavia worked in the hardware store and eventually saw an opportunity in the paper business. He founded Gordon Paper with his brother Daniel, a partnership that has lasted these past 50 years and has provided not only stability for their families, especially their sons who also worked there, but also for the community in general. In some families, going into business together is the beginning of the end, but when Daniel and Tavia became business partners, and later when they would go into joint ventures with Allen, there was never a question that family came before finance and that no amount of money is as valuable as blood.

Tavia built his business by sheer force of will. He didn’t have a fancy degree, but he had a fire in his belly for making money. For him it was all about the personal relationships.

Now, you could take this all the wrong way. If all you heard was about his passion for business and making money, you might think that Tavia was greedy or miserly, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Perhaps it was growing up during the Depression, but Tavia always wanted to know his family had enough—just that though, enough. The rest he gave away with great joy. Other folks have hobbies like golf or travel or cards, but not Tavia. Tavia’s hobby was philanthropy. He loved it. That was his work-life balance. On the road he sat one-on-one with clients and got them to make purchases, at home he sat one-on-one with potential donors to the things he loved and by the time he finished a meeting folks were writing checks with money they didn’t know they had for organizations they didn’t know they cared about. And no one ever regretted it; they felt great about it.

Tavia was not simply a Jewish philanthropist. Though that is clearly where his heart was, he never said no to any organization that came calling, and they all came calling. Daniel and Tavia would sit with them and they would always give. He supported the Salvation Army and the Food Bank and Virginia Wesleyan and who knows how many other organizations.

He was president of the United Jewish Federation of Tidewater in the 80s and got involved in Israel Bonds and became a powerhouse for that organization. He loved the Hebrew Academy of Tidewater perhaps more than all of them, and was the leader in creating the Tompkins Lane campus. I can only imagine how proud he was of Randi who is now president of HAT. And of course there is Beth Sholom and JFS and Chabad and pretty much any other Jewish organization who asked.

Tavia, along with a few others, were the giants upon whose shoulders this Jewish community stands. That’s what Harry Graber wrote, and I thought it was so appropriate— a giant of the community…that was Tavia and his buddies, and with his passing so passes a generation of leaders and advisors that will likely never again be matched in their commitment and vision.

And that brings me to my last and most important aspect of Tavia’s life, and that is his family and first and foremost his beloved partner of 56 years, Freda. Tavia and Freda met on a blind date in Chapel Hill where she was attending pharmacy school and together they were a force to be reckoned with. Tavia ran the business side of things and Freda ruled the roost and I don’t think anyone truly realized just how dependent upon her Tavia was to keep their life humming along and enable him to accomplish all the great things he did. As Steven put it, some locks only have one key, and Freda was the key for Tavia. Tavia raised Steven to follow in his footsteps, teaching both the business and the love of philanthropy and making sure you always knew what the priorities were. And the same was true with Tavia’s beloved grandchildren, Ellie, Evan and Marah.

I came to Norfolk for the first time in October 2010. Tavia came to pick me up at the airport with his friend Sam Werbel. We spoke a little in the car and then he excused himself as Sam had to drop him off at the office before we headed to Beth Sholom. Tavia was 82. I couldn’t believe it—the office? Now I know it could never be any other way. There were deals to be made and philanthropy to be done and a future of the Jewish community and the greater Hampton Roads community to insure. And his life was a success—he made his community and his family strong and he and his peers created a legacy of institutions and leaders that will continue to insure our strength for the next generation and generations.

When we look around this community we will always feel the presence of Tavia Gordon, not only because of the Gordon name on so many institutions and buildings, but because his wisdom, his passion, his care and love are woven into the very fabric of who we are, how far we have come and who we are becoming. And so we say for a truly great man, our beloved Tavia Gordon, “T’hay Nishmato Tzerurah b’tzrur HaChaim, May his soul be bound in the bond of eternal life, his memory be an enduring blessing, and let us say, “amen.”

by Rabbi Jeff Arnowitz