He arrived in the United States with his parents from Germany, where they had spent the previous five years living in three different Displaced Persons camps following World War II. At the start of the Holocaust, when Gortler was three years old, the Nazis occupied his shtetl (village) in Poland. With the assistance and protection of non-Jewish friends, the Gortlers managed to escape Poland and fled to Siberia and then Uzbekistan, where they stayed until the war ended. When they returned to Poland, they found a cold reception, and moved to German DP camps, awaiting resettlement in the U.S.
In 1951, sponsored by the Jewish Family Services of Phoenix, the Gortlers were brought to Arizona.
“At the time, there was little yiddishkeit there,” recalls Gortler, “so my parents decided to send me to New York so I could receive a Jewish education.”
Through the help of a rabbi, a YU graduate, at the local Conservative synagogue (there were no Orthodox synagogues in Phoenix at the time), the Gortlers were told that Yeshiva University High School, then called Talmudical Academy (TA), had agreed to educate and house their son for free. He also received a modest stipend from TA, since his parents had virtually no money.
Gortler, who knew no English when he arrived with his family in Arizona, was sent on a Greyhound bus by his parents. They had only packed a couple of sandwiches for him, not realizing the trip would be four days long.
Gortler flourished in his Jewish studies at TA, having learned Hebrew fluently in the DP camps, and took night classes at nearby George Washington High School, where he worked hard to hone his English. Gortler continued on to YC and worked throughout his time there, primarily in the cafeteria. “My experiences in high school and college,” he says wryly, “certainly helped me learn how to budget.”
Gortler says when it came time for graduation, he knew he would continue studying at YU, this time at the Wurzweiler School of Social Work. “I saw how much the social workers did with DP camp survivors, helping them with their trauma and with putting their lives back together,” he says. “I felt like I wanted to dedicate my career to helping people and giving back to society as well.”
During his time at Wurzweiler, Gortler met and married his wife, Sarah Barash ’61S.
Gortler graduated from Wurzweiler in 1960 with a Master’s degree in social work and administration. For the next nine years, he was employed by a number of organizations, working with Holocaust survivors, the elderly, street gangs and other troubled youths.
In 1969, he was recruited to become the executive director of the Caroline Kline Galland Home, a nursing home for Jewish seniors, in Seattle. Although he initially told the Board he would stay for a two-year commitment, he stayed for several decades, and continues to be affiliated with the organization today.
Under Gortler’s leadership, several successful fundraising campaigns allowed for the expansion of the nursing facility and its programs, including The Polack Adult Day Center, Kosher Meals on Wheels, and the SPICE Senior Nutrition Program. The Kline Galland Center and Affiliates were incorporated in 1981, and Gortler served as its Chief Executive Officer until his retirement in 2006.
In 1993, the addition of 60 special care beds brought the home’s capacity to 205 residents. Gortler oversaw the planning and construction of The Summit at First Hill, a state-of-the-art retirement and assisted living facility, which was established and built in 2000.
When Gortler assumed leadership of the Kline Galland Home, the annual budget was $250,000. Currently, the budget of the Kline Galland Center and Affiliates is over $30 million, thanks to Gortler’s vision and fiscal stewardship (no doubt fostered by his time at TA and YC). The Caroline Kline Galland Home is considered one of the finest nursing homes in America today.
Gortler’s accomplishments have been recognized with numerous awards, including the Distinguished Administrator Award of Honor from the North American Association of Jewish Home and Housing for the Aging in 1997.
When Gortler retired in 2006, the Board asked him to assume the presidency of the Kline Galland Center Foundation, which works with major donors to support the nursing home’s expanded programs for seniors. Gortler explains, “We invest the donors’ gifts and use the income to provide for people who cannot afford to live in our facilities. The foundation also subsidizes the deficits in our various programs.”
The Board of Directors at the Center wanted to do something special for Gortler when he retired as CEO. They asked him what he would like – a trip around the world, perhaps? Gortler had something nobler in mind: “I asked them to establish a scholarship to train people in social work, since social work is so vital for so many vulnerable populations,” he says. The Board granted $150,000 to establish the Joshua H. Gortler and Sarah B. Gortler Scholarship in Geriatric Social Work, with first priority of scholarship assistance given to graduates of YC and Stern who plan to attend Wurzweiler.
Gortler is hard at work raising another $50,000 to bring the total gift to $200,000.
We at Yeshiva University are truly proud to be associated with Gortler’s vision, hard work, and selfless ability to turn an early life of pain and suffering into a life devoted to caring for others.
The Gortlers have two children, a son, who is a tenured professor of computer science at Harvard University, and a daughter, who is an adjunct professor at the University of Memphis. They have five grandchildren, one of whom will be attending Yeshiva College in September 2012.