Rabbi Rob returns to Jacksonville

Native son invests in downtown buildings, philanthropic efforts

He tools around town in a pickup truck with the license plate "Rabbi R." He has bought several downtown buildings and is transforming them into retail, entertainment and living spaces. He's going to bring actual World War II tanks to town and have them fire off a few rounds. He'll even officiate at a wedding from time to time.

Just who is this man who has in a very short time left an indelible mark on the Jacksonville community?

Meet Rabbi Rob Thomas, 57, a native son of Jacksonville who has returned to his hometown with a mission as bold as the rumbling tanks he likes to drive in his spare time. That mission is to address two chief concerns among current community leaders – the need for more housing and entertainment opportunities.

"We want to bring more young professionals to town to live and become entrepreneurs, which will bring even more young professionals to town," Thomas said. "I call this the self-licking ice cream cone."

Thomas, an ordained rabbi, is practicing what he preaches with the purchase and rehabilitation of four downtown Jacksonville buildings. The former Kresge Store building on the southeast corner of the square now houses Pizza Records, a retail and entertainment establishment, on the ground floor with two apartments being developed above. A similar plan with retail, restaurant or entertainment establishments below and residential units above is underway for the Andre & Andre Building, formerly the site of Sears; the former Osco Building known locally as the "green monster" and a red brick corner building at 201 E. Morgan St.

"This is the sort of thing that feeds on itself," Thomas said. "You've got a critical mass of people living on the square; therefore, the square needs services for them of every type."

Thomas is quick to point out that downtown Jacksonville had already come a long way by the time he returned to the community a few years ago. He hadn't seen the formerly struggling downtown in years and was amazed by what the area had become.

"There were all of these boutiques and shops, the buildings were painted, everything was vibrant and exciting," Thomas said. "I'm doing things downtown and people say, 'Thanks for what you're doing,' but I'm just standing on the shoulders of giants. Others blazed the trail."

One of those trailblazers was Judy Tighe, executive director of Jacksonville Main Street, who knew Thomas as a youth and was thrilled when he recently expressed an interest in the downtown area.

"He was tickled to discover the square was not what he remembered it being several years ago prior to our Downtown Turnaround project, and he wanted to get involved," Tighe said. "The next thing you know, he bought a few buildings and he's doing work on them. He's a major sponsor for our 25th anniversary party that's coming up in September, and he is sponsoring our summer concert series."

"Rabbi Rob and his wife, Lauren, are just joyful," Tighe said. "He's not a complainer; he's very optimistic."

Kristin Jamison, president of the Jacksonville Regional Economic Development Corporation, is another community leader who is happy to have Thomas back in town.

"Not only does he have pride in Jacksonville but he also has a vision for its future, whether he is restoring buildings more than a century old, serving on committees to lift up vulnerable populations or investing in technology to achieve hyperconnectivity," Jamison said. "Rabbi Rob's love for his community and business acumen is making the Jacksonville region a better place for people to live, work and do business."

"Man plans while God laughs."

So who is Rabbi Rob, and why did he leave Jacksonville as a youth, only to return as a major presence decades later?

Thomas spent an "idyllic" childhood in Jacksonville that he described as "the first season of the TV series "Stranger Things" without the monsters," he said. "I didn't appreciate just how wonderful this town was for a child until I was much older."

Thomas attended a gifted program at Illinois College when he was 12 years old and caught the computer programming bug there, a passion that was furthered by classes he took while a student at Jacksonville High School. After his 1985 high school graduation Thomas enrolled in Western Illinois University for two years where he learned two things: "One, college is expensive, and two, you need to have the funds to pay for it," he said.

Unsure what he wanted to get from college, Thomas enlisted in the U.S. Navy Reserve where he was trained as a hospital corpsman. He was attached to several U.S. Marine Corps units during Operation Desert Storm, where he experienced firsthand the horrors of combat that he describes as "something your readers don't want to hear about."

Thomas took up computer programming as a part-time job and turned it into a vocation right at the time that the commercial internet was being created. Thomas joined "the guys configuring and deploying the gear, and I got to see the internet as it commercialized and understood how important it would be later in life for all of us," he said.

Specializing in network security, Thomas eventually founded his own company, Team Cymru, that works with large financial institutions. He also began to invest in the stock market and after learning "some incredibly expensive lessons," Thomas became a venture capitalist investing primarily in tech companies.

"That has been a great blessing and has allowed me to invest in other things," Thomas said.

During this time Thomas and his wife, Lauren, found themselves at a spiritual crossroads and they decided to follow the path of Lauren's faith, Judaism. Shortly thereafter a friend who wanted to become a rabbi listed Thomas as a reference. When the rabbinical school called, that conversation ended with Thomas wanting to become a rabbi himself.

"There's a Yiddish saying, 'Man plans while God laughs," Thomas said. "My wife knew that I always do things 110%, and she thought becoming a rabbi would be a great way to further explore our faith. Plus, I do life-cycle events like weddings and that sort of thing."

A friend at the U.S. Defense Department heard that Thomas had become a rabbi and asked if Thomas would be willing to counsel Jewish U.S. combat veterans coming back from deployment.

"I knew what they had experienced, and I could speak to them on an emotional and spiritual level," Thomas said. "That's all pro bono, and that's how I found my calling as a rabbi."

"A true blessing for our community."

A few years ago, Thomas' father, longtime Jacksonville teacher and radio personality Bob Thomas, became seriously ill and Rob and Lauren came back to the city to be with Bob.

"We told my dad that none of us know how long we have so name it, whatever is on your bucket list, we'll make it happen," Thomas said. "He quickly replied, 'I just want to spend time with you.' That obviously pulls at the heartstrings."

Rob and Lauren, who live in Florida, decided to spend one week a month with Bob as he recovered, and soon decided to buy a residence in Jacksonville as well.

"Lauren is a Chicago girl. She is urban all day long, but once she saw this town she fell in love with Jacksonville," Thomas said. "I fell in love with it again, too. It's fun to see old friends and make the many new friends we now have."

One old friend who was glad to see Thomas return was Jacksonville Mayor Andy Ezard, and the mayor was even happier when Rob and Lauren decided to live and invest in the community.

"They both have huge hearts and a passion for the greater good. Working with them has been a real pleasure," Ezard said. "They don't make hasty decisions. They thoroughly think through the projects they tackle so they will stay solvent and provide longevity for years to come.

"They do all this with compassion and grace and enjoy the challenges in helping Jacksonville move forward," Ezard said. "I often try to figure out what they are going to come up with next. Rabbi Rob and Lauren have been a true blessing for our community and I do not see that ending."

The Thomas' investments also include supporting local causes, but their charitable donations are made after ensuring their money will help to create a tangible return for the community.

"It's important that any organization to which Lauren and I give has a future that has been mapped out," Thomas said. "Everybody should have a North Star and a plan on how to reach that. If you fail, a part of the community fails with you, and I don't want to see that happen."

Rob and Lauren made a matching $25,000 donation toward the Jacksonville Public Schools Foundation's 2023-24 Annual Campaign that helped that fundraising effort to achieve its goal. The foundation's executive director is Leslie DeFrates, who was Rob's high school classmate.

"Rob and I lost touch after high school, but fast forward 37 years and just a couple of months into my role as the executive director of the foundation I received an email message from him," DeFrates said. "In typical Rob form, his message was kind and congratulatory on my new role, and closed with an inquiry asking what they could do to help.

"Rob's life has been an incredible journey, and he has forged a path filled with extremely positive impact in all avenues of his life," DeFrates said. "It is really awe-inspiring to see how a boy from Jacksonville has grown into a man that has international influence. He literally pours himself into whatever interest he has and works to make it better. Not many people can say that."

Thomas also made a $100,000 matching donation that helped the Jacksonville Area Museum Foundation to exceed its half-million-dollar goal for the museum's Phase Two expansion project.

"I have enjoyed knowing Rabbi Rob over the past two years, and he has a really generous heart to help people and local organizations," said Jacksonville Area Museum Foundation President Bob Chipman. "He has guided the Jacksonville Area Museum to a successful fundraising campaign. He contributes not only with financial participation, but just as importantly, with his expertise and ideas for projects and improvements."

"Be too stupid to quit."

Most people who meet Rob and Lauren come away with smiles on their faces. The couple exude optimism and a can-do attitude that inspires others to dream.

"We are optimistic people. I've been in some pretty hairy situations, and I can't believe I came through them just to be dour and grumpy," Thomas said. "It's also a lot more fun to be happy. It's better to laugh, to smile, and to be around people who laugh and smile."

Thomas looks forward to spending more time in Jacksonville and becoming even more plugged in to the community, and he isn't shy about taking on new challenges in his hometown.

"I always tell people that if you want something done, give it to a busy person," Thomas said.

Thomas is often asked about how to be successful in business, and he always gives the same advice.

"The No. 1 thing is to be too stupid to quit," Thomas said. "Never give up. I got told countless times that something was dumb or it wasn't going to work. But I was just too dumb to quit."

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