Mark Farber has played a major role in strengthening the Jewish community of the North Shore. A native of Newton, Farber is a fourth-generation shoe retailer – he started Mark Adrian Shoes in Gloucester in 1975 (now run by his son, Adam). Mark formerly served as president of Gloucester’s Temple Ahavat Achim, and until earlier this year, was the chair of the Epstein Hillel board. He lives in Gloucester, with his wife, Amy – who recently served as the president of Ahavat Achim. They have three children: Adam, who is married to Sara and who have two sons; Shira who is married to Jeff and who have two sons; and Robin.
Could you tell us about your upbringing – where you grew up, a little about your parents and siblings and your family’s Jewish priorities and your Jewish upbringing?
I grew up in Newton with my three older sisters in a relatively non-observant family. My mom is now 101 years old. We were members of conservative Congregation Mishkan Tefila where we attended Hebrew School three days a week. The student body of my public elementary school was so overwhelmingly Jewish that only two students in my entire class would attend school during our Jewish high holy days. I remember learning that Abraham Lincoln was the first president since Washington that was neither a Whig, Federalist nor Democrat. I immediately assumed that that meant he was Jewish. I was thus immersed in the culture of an American Jewish “golden ghetto.”
When did you first become interested in Judaism?
Among other things at Mishkan Tefila, we learned a lot about Israel. I think my affinity toward Zionism began to stir as a young child, much more so than for my parents or sisters. It was about that time that I also began to think about the concept of a “Jewish Peoplehood,” even though I wouldn’t learn of that term for many years. I became involved with USY as a teenager and loved the camaraderie. A summer at Camp Ramah during the Six-Day-War was ultimately a transformative experience, as my Jewish values and identification were reinforced.
Like you, your wife Amy has been very involved in the Jewish community – from working at Hillel to being president of Temple Ahavat Achim in Gloucester. How did you and Amy meet?
Like me, Amy grew up in Newton, but we attended different schools. We subsequently became acquainted through many mutual friends. As UMass classmates and dormmates in 1971, we became platonic friends and then began dating. But, because by 1976 I wasn’t making a permanent commitment, we took three weeks off from each other. Then we made a date to reassess. The morning I woke up to that day, I didn’t expect that during our reunion I’d experience the epiphany of my lifetime: I couldn’t live without her. We were engaged that very afternoon and married 6 months later.
Your family has been in the shoe business for over 100 years, and you started a shoe business in Gloucester that your son now runs. How did you decide to get into the shoe business and what do you like about it?
As a fourth-generation, I grudgingly started going to one of my dad’s shoe stores at age 12. By 17 I was running his last store during my school vacation so my parents could get away to Puerto Rico. In college, I attempted to go through the pre-med program but ultimately decided I wasn’t cut out for it. In my junior year, I came to the conclusion that I would be more adept at making a living doing what I knew best, and subsequently found the Gloucester location in the Boston Globe in 1975. It was there that I named the store Mark Adrian Shoes, after my first and middle names. Over the 50-plus years in the industry, I’ve had the pleasure and good fortune to meet (and fit) tens of thousands of people. Through all that time, I came to appreciate and agree with Anne Frank’s famous reflection, “In spite of everything, I still believe people are good at heart.”
What attracted you to Gloucester?
It was serendipitous luck. The business opportunity on Main Street was attractive and I put my (then) 10 years of experience right to work. It’s a good thing I didn’t realize that I was starting the store right in the middle of a recession, or I might have lost my nerve.
You’ve fitted some famous celebrities for shoes, like Dustin Hoffman and Whoopi Goldberg. How did that come about, and what’s it like to help choose shoes for an actor?
Whoopi Goldberg sent her driver in to scout us out just as I was about to close for the day. When he thought the coast was clear, he sent her in. I said to her, “…are you who I think you are?” She answered coyly, “…could be.” She ended up buying 5 pairs of shoes. Dustin Hoffman raced into the store during a break in the filming of “Moonlight Mile” which was shot locally with co-stars Susan Sarandon and Jake Gyllenhaal. He was pacing wildly and frantically around the store. Someone said at the time that he wanted to remain in character. The only person I remember him talking to was himself.
You’re very committed to Jewish organizations, and you just finished a term as chair of Epstein Hillel. What draws you to these organizations and why are you so devoted to Jewish communal life?
In the brotherhood/sisterhood of humankind, we Jews represent only 0.2% of the worldwide population, or 2 out of 1000. Because our pool of potential contributors is so small, if we don’t wholeheartedly support the Jewish community and all of its agencies, who will? I believe we have a duty to play a part in the cultivation and nurturing of the Jewish diaspora, and Israel, so that it will be able to continue forward for generations to come.
Your children went to what is now Epstein Hillel, and your wife, Amy, worked there as well. Why did you choose Hillel, and has it enriched your family’s Jewish identity?
In the early 1980s, when Amy and I were new parents, Rabbi Myron Geller hosted a congregational gathering at his home in Gloucester. Among other things, he spoke to the group about how to encourage Jewish values and roots in one’s children. These things didn’t happen by accident, he said. He encouraged parents to consider sending their kids to Jewish summer camps and/or day schools, becoming involved in Jewish communal life, and to teach by example. That’s when the revelation hit me that it was really a math problem: if you expose your children to a given milieu, it will increase the odds of their making lifelong associations with that community. Amy and I are very gratified that we made the choices we did.
What do you love most about Judaism?
I am heartened knowing that we have endured over our nearly 4,000-year history, even though only about 500 of those years as a wholly sovereign and independent people in our own land. That history makes me all the more resolved to help in advancing the work of our forebears so that our descendants can have the opportunity to carry on the work.
What advice would you give to parents who are considering sending their kids to a Jewish day school?
Sending our children to Epstein Hillel was the best “return on investment” we could have made, bar none. The academic, psychological, emotional and social nurturing they experienced was foundational in making them the adults they are today. Yes, a quality higher education is consequential, but I place our choice in elementary education at Hillel to be of seminal importance.
You’ve volunteered a lot. What’s your favorite experience?
Of all my time spent volunteering over the years, the most fulfilling is tutoring children at Epstein Hillel for the last five years, plus more recently at our synagogue’s Hebrew School. They are so precious and excited to learn. I “kvell” watching them thrive.
What’s the secret to instilling a strong Jewish identity in a child?
My dad used to say, “Do as I say, not as I do.” That’s the worst advice I’ve ever heard. Sorry, Dad, but I believe we have to “walk the talk” and hope that our children will model the best version of ourselves that we can muster. A pretty savvy thinker – Albert Einstein – once remarked, “Setting an example is not the main means of influencing another, it is the only means.”