On a sunny day in October, 2013, Rabbi Harold Loss of Temple Israel came to visit me with an essential question. I remember it clearly: “I have a potential donor who would like to know what transformational dream do you have for Hillel?” I looked at him and said, “Are you kidding me?” That moment marked the beginning of Hillel’s special relationship with Bill and Audrey Farber and their children. Bill and Audrey had been “behind-the –scenes” donors and they had grandchildren who were alumni of the school, but this moment heralded a whole new encounter.
Over the next few months, Bob Canvasser, who was then President of the Board of Trustees, and I met with Rabbi Loss and Bill and Audrey’s son and daughter-in-law, David and Nanci Farber, to explain in detail our dream for Hillel and the role the physical space could play in achieving our educational vision. We were told to create a detailed proposal for Bill to review.
In order to create a meaningful proposal, I would need $50,000 to engage Fielding Nair International, a renowned firm in the field of educational architecture, to create a master plan for us. I presented the request to the Hillel Board of Trustees, and with Bob’s full support, the Board, sharing the mission and vision, unanimously approved the funding.
I remember it like it was yesterday – on Thursday, January 30, 2014, Bob Canvasser and I met with Bill Farber to present our proposal. Rabbi Loss and Nanci and David Farber joined us. Our PowerPoint presentation detailed Hillel’s mission, and the changes that schools must undergo in order to meet the needs of children in this century. We showed him the plans, and shared the research that space, furniture and light all impact children’s motivations and feelings, and their ability to learn. We spoke to him about the power an all-encompassing Innovation Hub with a Maker Space, media room, proto-typing lab, art studio and greenhouse could have on our children’s Jewish and general education.
After the presentation, Bill looked at Nanci, David and Rabbi Loss, and thinking out loud, suggested that the four of them leave and meet to discuss the proposal. He then paused for a moment and suggested that there was no need to leave and that they could speak about the merits of the proposal right then. He asked a few questions, made a few comments, and then said, “Okay.”
Nanci and David smiled, as did Rabbi Loss, who, sitting across from me, must have seen my confused expression and said, “Do you realize what just happened?” I said, “I am not sure.” Rabbi Loss said, “He said yes. He approved the plan, you can go ahead.”
I was dumbfounded. Bill gave us the green light in essentially five minutes. That came down to a million dollars per minute. Never before had our school received such a gift so quickly to impact, so deeply, the educational experiences for our children. It was beyond incredible and moving for me.
This was the first of four major gifts that enabled Hillel to reimagine and redesign the learning spaces for our children – creating one of the most innovative and child-centered schools anywhere. In all, Bill, Audrey and their children gave over nine million dollars to make this possible. The Davidson Foundation funded the renovations of the Davidson wing, making the redesign for our K-8 program complete.
Through the three-year renovation process, I had the honor to be with Bill four times. What amazed me each time was his humility, his humor and his passion for the Jewish people. He liked to say he was a simple guy; he was anything but a simple guy. He had clarity of vision to recognize that the key to a vibrant future for the Jewish people is through Jewish education. His love for Jewish Detroit motivated him to give the bulk of his wealth to Jewish causes right here in Detroit.
As a man committed to the Jewish people, he did not concern himself with ideological or affiliation differences. Instead, he focused on what we shared in common – our peoplehood. As a result, one of his first major gifts went to Yeshivat Akiva, now the Farber Hebrew Academy. A member of Temple Israel, his generosity was bestowed upon them, along with the Friendship Circle and Tamarack Camps. Every choice he made spoke of his commitment to the Jewish people and our Jewish community.
In 2014, the first phase of the Hillel renovations, the Audrey and William Farber Family I.D.E.A Lab, was constructed in a few short months because of Bill’s health concerns. We all wanted to do everything possible so that he could be there for the dedication. The I.D.E.A Lab was the first project he funded, and everyone was determined that he should derive some nachat by being present.
We were blessed that both Bill and Audrey attended the dedication in August 2014. Fortunately, they were able to attend subsequent dedications as well.
I will never forget Bill’s joy at the initial opening of our new space to the public. His whole being smiled. In addition, the few times he came to see the other renovations in progress, his interest and questions, and his own gratitude for being able to make these dreams come true, were inspiring.
I am changed — we are all changed, because of our encounters with Bill Farber. Hillel and the entire Jewish community lost a great man, friend and passionate supporter of Jewish education. His legacy will live on through the countless children who will benefit from the learning environment he made possible at Hillel and elsewhere. And knowing his children, I am confident that through them, his great vision and work will continue. May Bill Farber’s memory be a source of comfort and blessing for years to come!