Written by Diane Krieger | Photos by Vincent Rios
He was born, after all, in a displaced persons camp in Wiesbaden, Germany—the
child of traumatized concentration camp survivors. The shtetls his Polish
Jewish parents came from had been wiped off the map.
There was no going back, so Harry and Zelda Gelbart moved forward. They
affirmatively chose happiness, resettled in Brooklyn, New York, and had
two more babies. Harry supported the family as a tailor. Zelda raised the kids.
They never spoke of the Holocaust, but it surely colored their lives—in
the Yiddish spoken around the kitchen table and, later in the career choices
of two of their children. Both Moe and his sister Mia became psychologists.
Looking back, Gelbart reflects, there were similarities between his and
his father’s professions: both were in the business of making alterations.
Harry Gelbart adjusted sleeve lengths. Moe Gelbart readjusted troubled minds.
Though his role as director of behavioral health only started in October,
Gelbart is no newcomer to Torrance Memorial. His connection goes way back
to 1978— the year he earned his doctorate degree in psychology from USC.
He came to the profession a bit circuitously. Gelbart had studied economics
at Brooklyn College, but his heart just wasn’t in it. So he went
to work as an English teacher at a Brooklyn junior high school. A remedial
reading class exposed him to educational psychologists and social workers
who showed him new ways to reach troubled teens. Intrigued, he enrolled
in a master of educational psychology program at City College of New York.
From there, he applied to the doctoral program at USC.
Gelbart and his wife, Debbi, moved to California in 1974. It was a time
when USC’s most famous professor was Leo Buscaglia, aka “Dr.
Love.” Gelbart himself was trained in “existential-humanistic
psychology”—a school of thought focused less on treating disorders
than on showing patients how to lead richer, fuller lives.
“It’s a really good framework for understanding people—how
they think, make choices, all the things they do,” says Gelbart,
now a leader in the South Bay mental health community for more than 40
years. “It helped me understand myself as much as become a good
He began practice as a licensed marriage and family therapist in 1976,
moonlighting while he worked on his doctorate. He counseled juvenile offenders
in a Redondo Beach diversion program. He was a police psychologist with
the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department.
He was running a chronic pain program at a Redondo Beach rehab center when
Torrance Memorial tapped him to direct its fledgling outpatient pain management
unit. It was the beginning of a 42-year relationship that’s still
Along the way, Gelbart built two large mental health private practices:
PsychCare Alliance, a network of 400 practitioners that was dissolved
in 1999; and Gelbart and Associates, until recently the South Bay’s
largest psychotherapy group practice, with 40 clinicians spread across
offices in Redondo Beach, Torrance and Palos Verdes. Last year, Gelbart
sold that practice to Community Psychiatry so he could devote himself
full-time to Torrance Memorial.
At 72, he now only sees a limited number of private patients. He’s
happy to pass the clinical torch to younger psychotherapists, including
his daughter Jamie, a licensed marriage and family therapist.
His new job at Torrance Memorial cements a role Gelbart has long played
informally—seeing to the emotional well-being of the hospital’s
4,000-person workforce and making sure psychological services are readily
available to patients and their families. “I love working with the
hospital,” he says. “Whenever they needed something, I tried
to help them develop or get it. I’ve tried to be a resource to the
hospital for 40 years.”
Having directed Torrance Memorial’s pain program through the mid-1980s,
Gelbart spent a decade as staff psychologist with the hospital’s
now-disbanded inpatient psychiatric unit. In 1992, he added a new role
as founding director of the
Thelma McMillen Recovery Center.
Affectionately known as “Thelma,” the intensive outpatient
alcohol and drug treatment center works full-time with as many as 140
adult and teen patients. During the pandemic, the program is fully and
completely functioning remotely. Gelbart remains McMillen Center’s
executive director alongside his new role as Torrance Memorial’s
director of behavioral health.
He has helped develop many other programs over the decades. One innovative
program provides a psychiatrist in the emergency room two hours a day
via telehealth, conducting patient mental health evaluations. In another
project, Gelbart helped set up psychiatrists to deliver three hours a
day of on-site services to all hospital departments.
On the workforce side, he oversees two employee benefits programs providing
free counseling sessions to any Torrance Memorial staff or family member
who needs them. Responding to unprecedented workplace stresses brought
on by the pandemic, Gelbart has recently helped implement a coronavirus
support group just for doctors.
In his new role, Gelbart is working on several projects including increasing
community mental health services supporting women’s reproductive
mental health. In collaboration with Deepjot Singh, MD, of the OB-GYN
department, that service will provide better access to psychotherapy resources
for patients dealing with miscarriage, postpartum depression or other
Another project he is collaborating on with several physicians is attempting
to integrate behavioral health into Torrance Memorial’s primary
care offices, allowing patients quicker access to psychological and psychiatric care.
Since the pandemic started, Gelbart has also been one of the hospital’s
mental health spokespersons. Through appearances on television and quotes
in newspaper interviews, he is a calming voice of resilience for the South
Bay community. He also writes regularly for Torrance Memorial’s
blog. He owns a therapy dog, a yellow lab named Sophie, who provides therapy
to kids in school environments.
With all these connections, Gelbart calls the decision to sell his practice
and become director of behavioral health a natural course to take at this
time in his life. “Torrance Memorial has been a big part of my life,”
he says wistfully. “I know everybody at the hospital. These are
my friends. These are people who come to my house parties, and I go to
their kids’ weddings.
About those parties … they’re the stuff of South Bay legend.
Every few years, Gelbart throws a blowout Woodstock revival at his Rolling
Hills Estates home. He was one of the 400,000 free spirits who descended
on Yasgur’s dairy farm for the iconic 1969 rock festival, and he
periodically likes to recreate the scene with 150 hippy-costumed friends.
He’s also famous for his pizza parties, firing up the backyard wood-burning
oven and inviting guests to improvise with homemade dough and platters
of exotic toppings. Gelbart’s own signature pizza is good old-fashioned
margherita. In another long-standing tradition, for 25 years Gelbart has
enjoyed a weekly poker game with the same group of friends—all New
York transplants like himself.
Gelbart is now a grandfather, his home office filled with stuffed animals
belonging to Emma, 4, and Nomi, 2. The girls live in West Los Angeles,
but their parents, Josh and Sarah, take them to see their grandparents often.
Gelbart and Debbi will celebrate their 50th anniversary next year. An art
teacher for three decades, she recently retired from the faculty of Rolling
Looking back, Gelbart—in keeping with his early training in existential
humanistic psychology—appreciates the rich, meaningful life he’s
led. “I’ve had a good, long career. I’ve helped a lot
of people. And if you ask me how I feel about the hospital, it’s
like … this is where my loyalty lies. I’m so grateful to
be here at this time in my career.”