Fast Friends Forever

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Unlikely friendship helps “diamond in the rough” find his place in Judaism.

This is the story of Mendel and Alan, a couple of Jews.

Rabbi Mendel Shemtov and businessman Alan Ross. (Photos by Jerry Zolynsky)

Mendel is a rabbi and a leader in the local Chabad-Lubavitch movement. He grew up in Oak Park and went through the entire Yeshiva school system, including college in New York, where he was ordained a rabbi.

Alan grew up in Detroit, dropped out of Mumford High School in the 10th grade because he couldn’t read well, and later became a successful businessman, now worth about $150 million.

Mendel, 43, has devoted his life so far to spreading the Chabad mission throughout the world, trying to help people reconnect with Judaism. “Chabad,” an acronym for the Hebrew words for “wisdom, understanding and knowledge,” is an Orthodox Judaism movement founded in the late 18th century.

Alan, 75, has spent two days of his life so far in a synagogue, his bar mitzvah and wedding, and admits he “just doesn’t fit the Jewish mold. I guess I’m always looking for confirmation that I’m a Jew.”

He looks and talks like a tough guy and uses salty language.

Rabbi Mendel Shemtov visited Alan Ross’ business office more than five years ago on his Chabad mission; they hit it off and have been fast friends ever since. It’s a unique relationship. Alan owns IFL (Industrial Freight Liquidators) at Oakland County Airport in Waterford, an aviation freight business that grosses close to $100 million a year.

They sit and talk to each other, or on the phone, for many hours a week, although Mendel laughs that he only talks “about 5 percent of the time.” Alan loves to tell stories, and the stories are all interesting and humorously depict his colorful life.

In their discussions, Alan often wonders to Mendel, “Maybe I’m not really Jewish? Even though I now believe in the Chabad movement, I still resist attempts to make me more Jewish.”

He cites Yom Kippur a few years ago when Mendel asked him to attend services, but “no dice,” responded Alan.

Alan’s doubts about his Jewishness were dispelled somewhat when the pair flew to Toronto for a day to visit a famous rabbi, who told Alan: “If your mother was Jewish, then you’re a Jew. And a Jew is already perfect just by being a Jew. It’s a basic thing that cannot be corrupted.”

Tap Into Jewishness
Mendel reiterates the mission of the “unique and distinct” Chabad movement that captured Alan’s attention five years ago: “Chabad doesn’t force Jewishness on anyone. Chabad wants people to tap into their Jewishness.

“It’s hard to believe, but, in our Chabad outreach, we do not seek to transform people into complete Jews,” Mendel says. “We just want to bring out their core Jewishness. We want to share something precious with them and help ignite a spark of Judaism that’s already there, but just needs a little fuel.”

Alan gets it. And the resulting passion just oozes out of him.

“I’ve never discovered so much hostility from other Jews toward Chabad,” he says. “The myth is that Chabad brainwashes Jews; Chabad members only want to have babies, then beg for money.”

Mendel winces, but lets Alan continue. “Anti-Semitism isn’t dead in this country; it’s just taken on a new face. Chabad is doing wonders throughout the world. I feel it will help save Judaism in the future. I call Chabad the touch of the Earth.”

‘A Fine Diamond’
When Mendel and Alan first met, the former called the latter “a rough diamond,” but, says Mendel, “now he’s a fine diamond. Alan thought he had no place in Judaism, but I made him my personal development project to show him otherwise. I hope I’ve inspired him.”

A grizzly bear is among the assortment of taxidermed animals in Ross' office.

Mendel has been working on “development projects” since age 18 when he and others traveled the U.S. and Europe on Chabad outreach, one time helping to re-establish Judaism in an entire village in the Ukraine. He and about 100 others have been approaching Jews in business offices in the Detroit area for the past 15 years, “not asking for money,” he says, “but suggesting they try to lay tefillin or study Torah. We’ve been successful in different ways with about 1,000 people like Alan.”

Mendel is now director of the new $12 million Lubavitch Education Center in Oak Park. “But more funds were then needed to help the students and their families,” Mendel explains. “Alan gave us close to a million dollars.”

Alan adds: “If it’ll help 100 kids study Torah, I’ll be happy.”

Alan is one of those quiet philanthropists in the community, assisting people in all walks of life behind the scenes — for family medical emergencies, employees in trouble, educational programs and so on.

Unusual Office
That’s not too bad for someone who came from a family that had to borrow money for the father’s funeral.

“That’s another long story,” warns Alan, who’s dressed in a T-shirt, shorts and sneakers on a hot summer’s day in an office replete with a ferocious-looking stuffed grizzly bear (Alan didn’t shoot it), a nasty-looking stuffed wolf and other animals, expensive paintings and stained glass, and a life-size replica of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, complete with a cigarette holder, in a wheelchair (no, Alan says, he didn’t vote for President Obama).

Moving from Detroit’s Dexter-Davison area to the northwest side, Alan attended Hampton Elementary School where he had a fistfight “with anyone” every day after school. “They were calling me ‘dirty Jew’ and I loved to fight, so it worked out well,” he quips.

Alan even beat up the son of then-Detroit Mayor Edward J. Jeffries, who came to the Ross home to protest, thinking that Alan’s bigger brother, Michael, did the beating. Jeffries was dismayed to learn that Alan, age 8, had trounced his son, age 14. “And I never even took boxing lessons,” Alan says, beaming.

Short Stint In California
Alan dropped out of Hebrew School after three weeks, but a tutor in California somehow managed to prepare him for his bar mitzvah there. The family had moved to the West Coast where Alan’s father, Earl Ross, opened a dry cleaning business.

“That didn’t last long because everyone wears blue jeans in California and there was nothing to clean,” Alan recalls, “so we moved back here.”

At Mumford, he continued fighting. “But I had no expectations of ever being a student,” he bemoans. “I just couldn’t read well.”

When his father died, Alan says, “Thank God, my brother was working for Jack Peltz at the old House of Foods on Seven Mile Road in Detroit because Jack took a liking to him and paid for the funeral.

“Ironically, my sister, two brothers and myself all became multi-millionaires.”

Alan dropped out of Mumford and joined the Navy for four years, where the fistfights accelerated because he displayed a Jewish star on his bunk.

“I really kicked ass on those anti-Semites in the Navy — maybe I fought because I loved the pain?” he wonders. “But, anyway, I also learned to read better, mainly on pornographic literature. I became an avid reader of Henry Miller books.”

Survives Court Martials
He was court martialed four times for fighting and other infractions, but survived each trial, and later successfully participated in a “six-for-five” business, whereby “sailors were loaned five bucks [or larger amounts] until payday, but had to pay back six.”

Stationed in four U.S. cities, Alan sent his mother $1,500 of his Navy earnings and kept enough for himself to briefly go into the home improvement business, stretching from Port Huron into Canada.

That led to a highly lucrative “short-hustling” career, as Alan describes it, for about five years in the 1960s. He sold pots and pans out of a station wagon, “but I sold them to businesses, not individuals, eventually to the tune of $1,000 a day for a couple hundred boxes. The businesses used them for gifts and other things, or maybe re-sold them.

“That business spread around the country and even to Europe. I employed 1,500 workers selling in 11 countries, and I took about 100 trips over there. Business was so good I couldn’t spend the money fast enough, so I kept $1 million in cash in a safe. To top it off, I made about $150 a day playing gin rummy. Heck, I ended up giving some money away.”

Gold Refining Next
Exhausted from all of this, Alan stayed in the U.S. to open a gold refining business in Detroit, Chicago and Toronto, employing 40 workers. “But I dealt with jewelers only, not individuals, and I made $2 million a year in gold refining.”

Alan’s interest turned to aviation 35 years ago when he had to charter a plane to visit his ailing sister in Cleveland — and bought the plane for $28,000. IFL now has 25 planes, including three large 727s, worth $80 million, with 150 employees, several hangars and a huge parts inventory.

“Our biggest freight customers are the auto manufacturers, and we fly parts to their plants in North and South America,” he said. “We take trips to Canada for oil companies.

“When you see the winning team put on those championship hats after a Super Bowl game … Well, we got the hats there that day, for both teams, just in case; the same with hockey’s Stanley Cup champions. We also take individual vacationers to Florida for $15,000 a roundtrip.”

Can’t Fly Now
Alan’s tone turns a bit somber when he describes his own love for flying, pointing out he made a solo flight after seven hours of instruction. “Unfortunately, I can’t be a pilot again

"Friends for life," says Rabbi Mendel Shemtov

for medical reasons,” he laments. “I’ve had a few mini-strokes, and I have five stents in my blood vessels.”

Alan is a bit more relaxed these days, spending quality time at his Orchard Lake Village home with his wife, Helen, to whom he has been married for 51 years. They have two daughters and four grandchildren. And, of course, he spends more time with Mendel.

“Alan’s life story is amazing, isn’t it?” asks Mendel rhetorically. “He’s an amazing Jew. I think my Chabad mission here is complete, but Alan and I are friends for life.” 

By Bill Carroll, Contributing Writer

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