Special project: The boss who taught me the most
No Drama, Just Work
Name: Shlomo Pollak parliamentary assistant
My Boss: MK Rabbi Moshe Gafni
Duration: 12 years
Working under someone gives you a unique close-up view. As Rabbi Moshe Gafni’s employee, I would say that what defines my boss goes deeper than his political acumen and his astute grasp of the country’s economics as chair of the Knesset Finance Committee. It’s that he sees himself as a representative and a champion of the people. There is a constant stream of individuals beating a path to his door seeking help, and he relates to every petitioner, responding to even the most trivial of requests.
Early on, he taught me that “no” is also an answer. That means that if someone contacts Gafni’s Degel HaTorah office for assistance, and we can’t do anything to help them because the matter is beyond our remit, we don’t just leave them hanging. We still get back to them and explain that unfortunately, we can’t help. That’s something people really appreciate.
One of his mottos in dealing with both the political echelons and the secular public here in Israel has also become one of my own. “Anachnu chareidim aval lo metumtamim —We’re chareidim, but we’re not idiots.” Gafni is down to earth — he’s not easily taken for a ride. Of course, self-control is very important in his position, and I have watched him keep his cool and keep silent when provocative lines of questioning are opened on TV or radio. He knows how to keep his mouth shut and won’t respond to journalists’ efforts to draw comments on certain issues.
Politics here in Israel is a real roller-coaster ride, and we have certainly had major ups and downs during the past decade. Faced with setbacks, like an electoral loss for Degel HaTorah or a political failure, Gafni is very restrained. No great drama, no hysteria. Just keep working hard, and hope for better next time.
As a Degel HaTorah representative, Gafni is closely linked to the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah. When the 2018 mayoral elections in Jerusalem went to a second round of voting, progressive secular candidate Ofer Berkovitch looked poised to win. The night ended in a surprise victory for Moshe Leon, and I went along with Gafni to Bnei Brak to tell Rav Chaim Kanievsky the results. It was 2 a.m., Rav Chaim drank l’chayim with Moshe Gafni, and yes, he was emotional.
But like all employees, I’ve made mistakes during my career. Especially early on, I remember that I sometimes mishandled his correspondence, even once sending a letter to the wrong person. He corrected me again and again, and I guess I’ve learned to do things right. But he also let me know something important — “Im lo osim, lo to’im.” That means, the only way to avoid mistakes is to do nothing, or loosely translated, “no pain, no gain.” If you’re making mistakes, it also means you’re getting things done.
Working in politics where major issues are at stake has definitely had an effect on me and enhanced my own sense of proportion. Moshe Gafni’s attitudes have spilled over into my own life — and that means that if something doesn’t go right, I just take a deep breath and try and react as he would.
Making it real
NAME: Yitzchok Fuchs
real estate manager, mentor to bochurim
MY BOSS: Rabbi Yehoshua (Josh) Silbermintz A”H
Duration: teenage years
To be honest, I didn’t actually start my own connection to Reb Josh. I’m a second-generation talmid. Rabbi Silbermintz was my father’s rebbi. He took my father’s generation, children whose parents were nursing themselves back to mental health after surviving the Holocaust, and helped transform their Yiddishkeit from familiar to fervent. My father’s whole chevreh were Reb Josh’s talmidim. Reb Josh was Pirchei. Reb Josh was their advisor. Reb Josh and his wife Millicent were their hosts for countless Friday night farbrengens.
The first time I met Reb Josh myself, it was Purim. I went in to bring mishloach manos together with my father, and Reb Josh put on a beard and started to dance with us. I thought he was pretty strange. Around my bar mitzvah, I started to attend Camp Munk, and there I came to know Reb Josh and experience his passion for Yiddishkeit.
Every part of Yiddishkeit was real to him. There was no make-believe, no fluff. The most important thing, to his mind, was to help as many people as possible become as passionate about Yiddishkeit as he was. People could occasionally make fun of him — it made no difference at all. He’d just continue to use every ounce of his significant talents to serve Hashem.
Camp Munk alumni tend to have a very strong sensitivity to the mourning for the Beis Hamikdash, and a lot of that comes from Reb Josh’s input into the Nine Days’ feeling in camp. The loss was absolutely real to him, and that came through.
I worked for Rabbi Silbermintz as a teen, organizing the Agudah hasmadah contests. We labeled and stuffed envelopes for hours and sent the contest material to every kid who had ever had any connection with Pirchei. We learned to reach out to the klal, and that the world was bigger than just ourselves.
I kept the letters Reb Josh wrote, thanking us boys for running those programs, and every letter was signed “with Torah and Agudah greetings.” He was a true Agudist, and he wore it on his sleeve. I learned that Agudah, and trusting in daas Torah completely, is a way of life.
During the Nine Days, though, the letters were signed off differently, with the phrase “b’nechamas Tzion.” I sign like that in the Nine Days too, because that’s how I saw Reb Josh do it. In fact, a lot of what I do with my campers in the Eretz Yisrael Experience, which I’ve had the zechus to run for the last ten years, follows the pattern set by Reb Josh, by Rav Dovid Trenk ztz”l, and by ybdlch”t Rav Oelbaum, in Camp Munk.
When I became a counselor in Camp Munk, I had further opportunities to learn from working under Rabbi Silbermintz. Another lesson I learned from him, via Rabbi Boruch Diamond, took place the Shabbos after color war, when the two generals were leading zemiros with Reb Josh, and everyone present was singing strong. Suddenly Reb Josh motioned that this was the last song. Rabbi Diamond disagreed, saying, “But look how everyone is ‘into’ it.”
Later, Reb Josh explained, “When I stopped the zemiros, 100 percent of the camp was ‘into’ it. They’ll go home saying that zemiros in camp were ‘wow.’ With one more song, we would have lost 15 or 20 percent of the kids, and that loss is not worth it.”
I employ this principle all the time. Today I run “The Experience,” a bein hazmanim trip to Eretz Yisrael for mesivta bochurim. We do Eichah at the gates to Har Habayis and a kumzitz at the Kosel on Motzaei Tishah B’Av, and I’ll always stop it before even one or two kids are getting fidgety. I also repeat this when I give dating advice. End it while it’s on a high, don’t wait for it to drag.”
I’ll never forget the Agudah dinner I went along to in New York as a teenager. I think it was in 1985. They presented Reb Josh with an award, and Rav Dovid Trenk got up and stood on his chair to lead the applause for him. Yes, I’m an Agudist, and I’m dedicated to working for Klal Yisrael because of Reb Josh’s example.
With all the respect
NAME: Shimon Cohen
Public Relations Consultant
MY BOSS: Rabbi Lord Jakobovits a”h
Chief Rabbi of the UK & the Commonwealth
Duration: 7 years
Wwas only 22 when I took over as the director of Lord Jakobovits’s office. The counter to those who thought that youth was a disability, he said, was that I would get a little better every day.
In a position like Chief Rabbi to such a diverse crowd, you can never please everybody. Some feel that you are not doing enough, while for others, it’s always too much. Rabbi Jakobovits worked on the premise that the community at large would rarely be pleased or satisfied with what we did. He therefore was committed to serve Judaism, not Jews. He set his own goals and did his best to ensure that he met or exceeded them.
It never mattered to him if he got the credit — because he was serving Judaism. He wanted to bring the people along with him. I saw him lead people in discussion so that the conclusion he was certain of would become their own idea. For example, in his time, the mainstream Jewish community was slow to appreciate the need for and the wisdom of opening more Jewish day schools. He didn’t set up the schools and hope that people would come, because he wanted the community to want the idea. Instead, he brought it up in discussion on so many occasions, letting others come up with his idea and open schools, which he then supported in crucial ways. He insisted that each school be excellent and employ the right people, and his method successfully brought about a revolution, where Jewish schools were viewed as a first choice and not as a last resort.
A very thoughtful person, Lord Jakobovits was never quick to respond. He took his time to express his views, feeling that it was “better people should wonder why I haven’t spoken than wonder why I have.” On the other hand, he lived in the time before social media, and had the luxury of not being pressured into instant responses. Sometimes his position was challenged, and then he would not change it but work hard behind the scenes to explain and clarify the position.
Lord Jakobovits had an immense work ethic. He was so driven to show the very best of Yiddishkeit to the world that nothing was too much for him. Of course, there were many things we tried to achieve that did not work — deals we tried to broker with other organizations that fell through. Rabbi Jakobovits just persevered, ever confident and very determined.
He believed in cultivating the right relationships. “A thousand friends are too few, but a single enemy too many,” he’d say. His treasured relationship with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was probably the most famous of these. He never abused it, but there was one occasion, a serious attack on shechitah during the 1980s, when he bypassed all normal channels of government and went directly to her, to successfully resolve the issue.
He encouraged learning and Jewish education in so many ways. Some of them are little known. For example, when Rabbi Yosef (Joey) Grunfeld initiated Project SEED, it was the Chief Rabbi who encouraged United Synagogue committees to open their buildings to the learning program. SEED was a game changer in kiruv, and Rabbi Grunfeld brought his ambitious dreams to reality, but Lord Jakobovits provided the venues, allowing it to flourish. If I had to define his rabbinate in a phrase, it would probably be his own oft-repeated “Let my people know.”
Under the Big Boss
Iwork under Rabbi Kotlarsky, director of the International Conference of Chabad-Lubavitch Emissaries, assisting him in the immense organizational feats that are the annual Kinus Hashluchim and the Merkos Shlichus programs. Yet, he actually does not consider himself my boss in any way, and he may even be slightly offended by the title — because ultimately, he considers our work together a joint mission that was given to us by our collective “boss,” the Lubavitcher Rebbe, to make sure that the needs of any Jew around the entire world are met.
When it comes to our biggest event, the annual Kinus, our team manages the registration, security, catering, seating plan, photography, video, and countless other elements. Rabbi Kotlarsky is the type of leader who does not micromanage, but trusts his employees wholeheartedly to get the job done well. The Kinus involves 6,000 shluchim and guests from all over the world, coming together to recharge their batteries with training sessions, workshops, learning, farbrengens, and the now-famous grand banquet.
What is clear to Rabbi Kotlarsky and to all of us who work for him is that this is no nine-to-five job with a list of tasks and clearly defined job description. Rabbi Kotlarsky was entrusted with grave responsibilities by his boss, the Rebbe, who taught him that as long as there are Jewish souls in the world that have yet to be reached and uplifted by the light of the Torah, he can’t be satisfied with his accomplishments.
Before every event, project launch, or major decision, Rabbi Kotlarsky will always turn to the Rebbe’s compass and directives — “How would the Rebbe respond?” And witnessing this has had a huge impact on my own personal and professional life. I now do my best to look at every situation and juncture the way the Rebbe would look at it. The Rebbe’s oft-repeated “Tracht gut, vet zein gut — think positive and it will be good,” has become a way of life, and a setback is a challenge to push for even greater growth.
Several years ago, as we were preparing to dispatch some 700 young “Roving Rabbis” to run Pesach Sedorim in hundreds of cities around the world, a major donor pulled out of his commitment to cover most of the cost of the project. I remember the discussion we had about canceling the program or significantly cutting back on the number of places we were to service. Rabbi Kotlarsky was completely unfazed. He felt that as this mission was entrusted to him by the Rebbe along with many brachos, he certainly had the capability to fulfill the directives and make it happen in the fullest measure. He not only didn’t cut back, but decided to increase the amount of Yidden we would reach. It was not a logical decision, but a decision full of bitachon and emunah.
I was recently at the regional Kinnus Hashluchim in St. Martin in the Caribbean. Eight years ago, there was no shaliach in the entire Caribbean, while today there are several on the various islands, and countless Jewish souls have found their way back to Yiddishkeit. These new Chabad Houses were instigated by Rabbi Kotlarsky, whose goal is to cover the entire globe so that Jews have what they need to stay attached to Yiddishkeit.
I have often seen Rabbi Kotlarsky tearing off the sender’s address from an invitation envelope to file away, because when he makes a simchah, he wants to remember everyone. It’s a given that he will travel to celebrate simchahs with the shluchim. In fact, he recently arranged his travel plans for the Southern regional Kinus Hashluchim in Kentucky to be able to attend the Kinus and the wedding that Thailand’s shaliach Rabbi Kantor made that week. And when tragedy strikes a shaliach’s family, it is as if Rabbi Kotlarsky himself has lost a family member. Because it’s really all one family, and one shared mission. And I’m grateful to be a small part of it.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 781)