Along the Silk Road| June 20, 2018
Silk says the move away from his New York haven and the law firm he’s partnered in for two decades, to what he calls “the self-imposed exile in Washington from Monday to Thursday,” is all in the name of public service. He sees it as hashgachah (Photos: Eli Greengart)
ast October, when Reb Moyshe (Mitchell) Silk left his influential position as a senior partner in the global law firm Allen & Overy to become Deputy Assistant Secretary of the US Department of the Treasury, he arrived for his swearing-in ceremony holding an ancient tome. Instead of the Bible typically used for such ceremonies, Silk — bearded, black-hatted, and ever-connected to his chassidic roots — brought along his treasured ancient Tikkun Korim that had belonged to Rebbe Mordechai of Nadvorna, a tzaddik and miracle worker who passed away in 1894, and was from Silk’s grandfather’s ancestral town.
Using the precious sefer for the ceremony indeed captured what Moyshe Silk — the first chassidic Jew in a US Administration senior slot — is all about: a brilliant attorney and international negotiator equally comfortable as a chavrusa with his rebbe (Rav Shlomo Leifer, the Nadvorna Rebbe of Boro Park) as he is walking the halls of the White House or advising Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin or Undersecretary David Malpass.
These days have found Silk — an expert in Chinese law and finance who spent over a decade as a partner in his former law firm’s Hong Kong office — heavily involved in the negotiations with China that have dominated the press over the past few months. Silk heads the Treasury’s Office of Investment, Energy, and Infrastructure, where he formulates and implements American policy relating to international investment and designs international programs for US exports of energy and infrastructure — and China features heavily in his investment portfolio.
Today, the US is at a critical juncture in its trade and investment relations with China, which not only impact US-China relations, but also global economic stability.
The US is pressing China to address numerous long-standing issues, including reducing the enormous US trade deficit with China, measuring over $375 billion; granting greater market access to US firms in China; and effective and enhanced protection of US intellectual property in China and China’s predatory practices regarding sensitive US technology.
“Addressing these issues will ensure a fair and reciprocal trade relationship, benefit the global economy, create more jobs for US workers, provide greater access to US investors to capitalize on opportunities in the China market, and protect US innovation and creativity,” Silk, the Treasury’s lead negotiator in energy trade matters, tells Mishpacha.
President Trump’s decision last week to impose tariffs on $50 billion of Chinese goods, and China’s immediate retaliation, bring an additional level of challenge to the task at hand.
As a senior negotiator, Silk was part of the delegation that traveled to China last month with Secretary Mnuchin, Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, US Trade Representative Ambassador Robert Lighthizer, National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow, and White House Director of Trade and Industrial Policy Peter Navarro, as well as the same US team that met with Chinese Vice Premier Liu He in Washington mid-May and again in Beijing two weeks later.
Silk says the move away from his New York haven and the law firm he’s partnered in for two decades, to what he calls “the self-imposed exile in Washington from Monday to Thursday,” is all in the name of public service. He sees it as hashgachah — as the next stage in the roundabout route his own life has taken. The appointment came soon after Silk returned from a trip to Taiwan with then-law partner Heath Tarbert, where they met with senior government officials and regulators — including President Ma Ying-jeou — regarding matters of money laundering and terrorist financing. Shortly after the trip, Mr. Tarbert was appointed as Assistant Secretary to the Department of the Treasury. Undersecretary Malpass and Mr. Tarbert were looking for someone like Silk, with his proficiency in Chinese and accomplishments in China, as well as his expertise in energy and infrastructure.
But Silk never imagined that an unintended and chance opportunity to learn Chinese back in high school would one day lead him to the most influential corridors of Washington.
For Moyshe, father of eight, currently working on translations of the chassidic works Kedushas Levi and Ma’amar Mordechai (Nadvorna), the China odyssey started back in high school in Florida, where his family moved from Chicago when he was 12. “So many people ask how it is that a nice Jewish boy learned to speak two dialects of Chinese fluently,” Moyshe relates. “It just happened.”
A Chinese family had moved into the Silks’ housing complex, and while Moyshe helped them transition to life in the US, they, in turn, offered him much-appreciated after-school employment in their family’s Chinese restaurant. Moyshe worked first as a dishwasher, then moved onto prep cook, busboy, and finally a full-fledged waiter. “By that time, without really trying, I became fluent in Cantonese, and it was a real plus — I was able to get my food out of the kitchen quicker from the Chinese-speaking cooks,” he remembers.
But that’s about as beneficial as Cantonese would be to him. As he soon discovered, nearly all of Mainland China speaks Mandarin, a radically different dialect. And so, enrolling in an intensive summer course at Vermont’s Middlebury College, Moyshe, with a combination of determination and innate talent, became proficient in Mandarin in just nine weeks. With his language skills and a dream to pursue a degree in East Asian Studies, Moyshe spent the academic year 1979-80 in university in Taiwan, and then returned to the US where he enrolled at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, known for its excellent programs in international relations and China Studies. Moyshe’s Chinese skills were so advanced that he was asked to teach Chinese students while completing his degree.
Throughout those years, Moyshe, who grew up under the influence of grandparents with chassidic roots, maintained a daily Torah learning regimen. “I’ve had regular chavrusas every day since then,” he says, “in college, then in law school, and later during the years in Hong Kong.”
Moyshe lived in the Washington area for five years, first while studying at Georgetown and then at the University of Maryland Law School where he earned a doctorate in law and was mentored by a Chinese professor of international law, who hired Moyshe as assistant director for the law school’s East Asian Legal Studies Program.
During his two years at Georgetown, Moyshe attended shul at Kesher Israel, then the only Orthodox shul in the capital. “Shabbos was always a surprise since there were so many interesting people who would come to shul — academics, professionals, and government workers and officials. “My big treat was to chat with author Herman Wouk after davening,” he says. “And a number of families would look after us and have us over for meals.” For the next three years in Baltimore, Moyshe lived in the Park Heights suburb, where he became close to Rabbi Yitzchok Breitowitz, a star talmid of Rabbi Ruderman and a noted law scholar, and other rabbanim, including Rabbi Amram Taub, Rabbi Mendel Feldman, and Rabbi Moshe Heineman.
In 1986, with his JD in hand, Moyshe applied for a prestigious post-doctoral fellowship with the US Government’s National Academy of Sciences. Of the 1,000 applicants in all disciplines, only nine were chosen — and of those nine, only one in law: Moyshe Silk. And so, Moyshe was again off to China, this time to Beijing and Shenzhen Universities and the Shanghai Institute of Foreign Trade, where he taught graduate classes in International Law.
Today, with burgeoning trade and business opportunities in China, Jewish travelers can find each other all over the country, but then, the closest community was Hong Kong, to where Moyshe would make sure to travel regularly. He returned to the US after his nine-month fellowship, and began his legal career with the Wall Street law firm of Hughes Hubbard & Reed. But in 1991, in the wake of China liberalizing foreign investment in many sectors, including energy, headhunters were canvassing law firms for lawyers with a Chinese background. Moyshe had the requisite language and cultural skills, but the firm he’d interviewed with — Chadbourne & Parke, well-known for energy matters and tobacco litigation — was looking for someone with project finance experience and exposure to the power sector. (Moyshe quipped at his interview that he was highly experienced for the position, given that he had been dutifully paying his electric bills for a number of years.) In the end he secured the position, which entailed moving to Hong Kong to assist in building the firm’s newly opened office there, which would represent power developers seeking to expand into the emerging markets of China and India.
This twist in Moyshe’s professional journey would eventually equip him with the sector expertise that would be vital to his present position in the Treasury. He was constantly traveling with power developers and learning the ins and outs of the energy business. The challenges were mainly in the backwaters of China — Gansu Province in China’s northwest at the edge of the Gobi Desert, Heilongjiang, Shandong, and Liaoning Provinces in China’s northeast. Constantly being on the road with leading foreign developers afforded Moyshe the ability to learn the power and infrastructure business from some of the world’s leading developers, engineers, and financial analysts. Moyshe forged an especially close relationship with James Wood, then a senior executive at Babcock & Wilcox. Jim, who started his career at B&W as a boiler engineer and slowly worked his way up, taught Moyshe the ropes of power development and finance, and went on to become the CEO of B&W and a senior official in the Department of Energy. Moyshe, meanwhile, became a consultant for the global law practice Allen & Overy, eventually making partner and, after his return to the US in 2005, heading the firm’s China group out of their New York offices.
During his 15-year Hong Kong period (in the beginning he was splitting time between New York and Hong Kong), Moyshe would marry and have a family, and become a pivotal member of the small but dedicated Jewish community there. One of the most technically challenging aspects of his job was coordinating a schedule to make sure he was back home to Hong Kong for Shabbos — and sometimes that meant a circuitous connection or taking flights on old Soviet Tupolov jets that were still in use by China’s emerging commercial airlines.
Hong Kong during Moyshe’s tenure had three Orthodox kehillahs: Ohel Leah — Hong Kong’s oldest community that has existed for over 100 years; Lubavitch — serving a group of locals as well as travelers from all over the world, run by Hong Kong’s longtime shaliach Rabbi Mordechai Avtzon; and Shuva Israel, which served the Sephardic community. An additional Sephardi community, Kehillat Zion, emerged on the Kowloon side of Hong Kong toward the end of Moyshe’s tenure in Hong Kong.
Despite being so far from the centers of Jewish life, the young Silk children would be raised in a heimishe atmosphere without compromise. Between exposure to visiting rabbanim and talmidei chachamim on one hand, and Shuva Israel — the Sephardic community school run under frum auspices with separate classes — and later, Hong Kong’s Carmel Jewish day school on the other, their chinuch was solid.
Moyshe didn’t give up his other passion in Hong Kong, either — long-distance running. Every morning in steamy, humid Hong Kong, he’d run five miles before going to shul, usually with earphones and a shiur to accompany him. Over the years he’s run many half-marathons (his personal record is 100 minutes) and some long-distance races too, including three 200-kilometer relays for Jewish charities. Today, though, he’s put his running shoes in the closet. “I can’t run anymore because of an injury,” he acknowledges, “so I do other exercises more suited to my tender years. Exercise has always made me more productive and is a great stress reliever as well. And I’m firmly of the view that we need to take care of the body Hashem gave us.”
All that energy, coupled with a strong dedication to his new community, didn’t go unnoticed by the heads of the city’s Jewish Community Trust. One of the programs the Trust initiated with proceeds from a property swap (the original Ohel Leah Synagogue sat on a huge swath of prime property, some of which was sold to build luxury high-rise buildings without impacting on the historic synagogue itself) was the Jewish Benevolent Society, which helps Jews with a variety of charitable initiatives. Moyshe was responsible for drafting the guidelines serving the JBS, including the rules by which it would make charitable grants and interest free loans. The chevra kaddisha and Jewish cemetery also operated under the Trust, and soon after his arrival in Hong Kong, the Trust asked him to become gabbai of the chevra kaddisha and renovate the community’s funeral facilities.
“The community’s taharah facilities and funeral chapel had been in use for over 100 years but were badly outdated and needed a total renovation,” Moyshe says, acknowledging how he greatly benefitted from the sage advice of Manchester chevra kaddisha expert Shloime Adler, Dayan Chanoch Ehrentreu and Dayan Yitzchok Dov Berger of the London Beis Din, as well as US chevra kaddisha champion and Jewish burial expert Rabbi Elchonon Zohn.
Using both his legal and linguistic skills, Moyshe secured a funeral home license for the Jewish facility, enabling the kehillah to exercise care of and control over the community’s deceased without having to rely on local facilities or the dreaded government morgues. “Imagine a large slab of stone in the shape of a bed in the middle of a stark room — that’s what we were dealing with,” Moyshe says. “I worked with a number of medical, engineering, and hospital equipment experts, and we developed and adapted equipment and designed modern facilities that would enable our small chevra to carry out our holy duties and ensure proper kavod hameis.”
While he did chesed with the dead, Moyshe Silk’s time in Hong Kong was primarly devoted to the living. He never knew when he’d meet another Yid, and was always prepared. Once, for example, he had to be in Gansu’s capital of Lanzhou for Purim, while negotiations for a major project were at a critical stage and a senior representative of the client was in from the States. Knowing in advance that he wouldn’t make it home for Purim, Moyshe brought his Megillah and provisions for a lavish Purim seudah — and it turned out that the client was a traditional Jew from New Jersey. And, so, in a small room in the backwater Lanzhou Hotel, Moyshe leined the Megillah, and the two shared his vodka and kosher food.
The Silk home was open to everyone, from unaffiliated Jews to heimishe travelers, and so the week automatically revolved around Shabbos preparations, where everything was homemade. “I had to give up on the herring, though,” Moyshe admits. “In the beginning I’d ask friends to bring herring when they would come from New York or London, but one time a friend brought me some special herring from London and one of the containers broke in his suitcase. After that I stopped imposing.” Instead, he improvised and started grilling locally-sourced sardines, which he says are still a staple at the Silk Shabbos table.
In a throwback to those years, Shabbos is still at the center of their week more than ever, since the move to Washington last winter. Most weeks Moyshe comes back home to Brooklyn, but sometimes the family finds itself in DC for the weekend.
“I know it sounds very glamorous, but on the whole it’s just a lot of juggling and Shabbos in DC isn’t much different than Shabbos in Hong Kong — or Turks and Caicos or any of the other numerous and exotic places we’ve been to,” says Moyshe’s wife Yocheved. “Same atmosphere, same food. We never compromise.”
Yocheved says she has the organization of the DC weekends down to a science. “This past visit I started cooking at home in Boro Park on Wednesday, and on Thurdsay night I used my van as a makeshift refrigerator since the weather was frigid. The car was packed to the brim as we were hosting 12 people for the Friday night meal and another 12 for Shabbos day. I could probably open a catering service.”
Time to Pack
By 2005, Moyshe had achieved a huge degree of success in his practice in Hong Kong, utilizing his language and cultural skills and the expertise that he built up to complete some of the largest and most challenging energy and infrastructure projects in China — the Jingyuan Power Project in Gansu Province (the first Sino-US joint venture power project), the Shandong Zhonghua Power Project (the largest foreign invested power project in China), the Chengdu Water Project (China’s first Build-Operate-Transfer water project), the Meizhouwan Power Project, Marubeni and Sithe Energy’s Power Project in Taiwan (one of Taiwan’s first independent power projects) and the $6 billion restructuring of Guangdong Enterprises (including the restructuring of the Dongshen Water Project, supplying 75% of Hong Kong’s raw water supply). Yet, he felt it was time to go back. His parents were aging and failing in health and the children were getting bigger and needed a more encompassing Jewish environment. At the same time, the markets were shifting. China had initiated an aggressive outbound investment policy and the law firm he’d joined several years prior — Allen & Overy — wanted to establish a China desk in New York.
Before his recent move to the Treasury, Moyshe had been a partner with Allen & Overy for over 20 years. The firm, considered one of the global elite, has more than 40 offices worldwide, 5,000 employees, and annual turnover in excess of $2 billion. The move back to the US afforded Moyshe the ability to combine his sector expertise in energy and infrastructure with his command of Chinese to grow a China practice in New York. His group has been on the front line of some of the largest and most noteworthy Chinese outbound investment transactions (two large pipelines in Brazil for Sinopec, China’s largest investment in Colombia; virtually all of the China Vanke real estate developers’ investments in US; and Industrial & Commercial Bank of China’s acquisition of a broker-deal from Europe’s Fortis BNP — the first ever Chinese acquisition of its type to be approved by the US financial regulators.) His group represented all of the Chinese banks in New York in financings, regulatory matters, and major litigation, and also formed some of the largest and most novel private investment funds in the energy, infrastructure, and mining spaces.
Yet with all that, after the move back to New York, it didn’t take Moyshe long to reignite the communal dedication that was a priority in Hong Kong. Back in China, Moyshe had been in touch with Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zweibel and Rabbi Mordechai Biser of Agudath Israel’s pro bono lawyers network for assistance on a certain case, and upon his return, Moyshe reached out to Rabbi Biser to offer his assistance. Rabbi Biser took up the offer, and Moyshe soon became chairman of Agudath Israel’s Pro Bono Legal Services LLC, a nationwide network of over 400 pro bono lawyers engaged in a variety of matters within Agudah’s purview, including children’s cases, end-of-life issues, not-for-profit formation and compliance matters, and workplace discrimination issues.
Moyshe’s pro bono work brought him in contact with many leaders of rabbinical dynasties and heads of mosdos, and included aiding New York’s two largest chassidic mosdos with major restructurings and compliance programs to maintain the government subsidies vital to their operation. Together with a team of more than ten pro bono lawyers, Moyshe helped restructure a particular institution’s holding of over 20 diverse corporations to a much smaller, more rational number, by establishing a separate corporation for the shul, each of the yeshivos and girls’ schools, the kollel, the chevra kaddisha, the summer camps, and various other communal programs. Through ratcheting the numbers down and formulating policies and procedures, the mosad was able to regain its footing and continue its existence in compliance with relevant regulations.
Yet Moyshe says one of the greatest perks of moving back to Brooklyn was that he was able to daven with and learn with his rebbe, the Nadvorna Rebbe of Boro Park, on a daily basis. And so, accepting the job in Washington was no easy decision. It meant not only leaving the Rebbe — whose proximity he was finally able to enjoy — but being away from his family during the week, in addition to leaving his firm and the expert legal team he had built. The Nadvorna Rebbe, known for his expertise in chinuch issues, mapped out a detailed plan for his children; both the Novominsker Rebbe and Rabbi Aaron Twerski, whom he consulted as well, were strongly in favor of Moyshe accepting the position for both personal and professional reasons — but more importantly, because the position would provide the opportunity to be mekadesh Shem Shamayim.
“We took housing in DC that’s close to shul and work,” Moyshe says. “Our place is in the serene and beautiful Kalorama district, less than a block from Chabad and 15 minutes on foot to Kesher Israel. We aren’t in DC that often on Shabbos, but we enjoy having a group over when we’re in town.”
During the weekdays, he has the camaraderie and companionship of Chabad’s Rabbi Levi Shemtov and the rabbi’s family and community, as well as old and new friends at his old stomping grounds, Kesher Israel. And what’s missing in daily contact with his own family, community, and friends in Brooklyn, Moyshe tries to make up through kiruv opportunities at Treasury and elsewhere in Washington. He recently bought a pair of tefillin for a young professional who took on Shabbos and kashrus, and just weeks later, the young man decided to take a year off to learn in yeshivah in Eretz Yisrael.
And he takes advantage of the four-hour long train rides, too, which provide time for learning and writing. He’s spent the last two decades working on a project to translate and publish classical chassidic seforim. His first major undertaking has been the translating and editing of Ma’amar Mordechai, divrei Torah and teachings attributed to the holy Rebbe Mordechai of Nadvorna. At the same time, he’s working on the Kedushas Levi, the sefer of Rebbe Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev. Both seforim are close to press, thanks to Amtrak.
Moyshe says that his combined roles of service to both his country and his community are simply a continuation of the legacy of two grandfathers who came to a foreign country and stayed true to their principles — their conviction and perseverance always inspired him when his was a kid growing up in Chicago. He says he gets his strong work ethic from Zeide Silk, a painter by profession who not only gave his all to the job, but never left the house with a hair out of place and always adhered to a strict regimen of exercise. When he went for his shpatzir on Devon Avenue on Sundays, Zeide Silk would be in suit, tie, and hat.
Moyshe attributes his spiritual side to Zeide Meshulam Friend, who grew up in the shadow of Cossack terror, with dire poverty and the chassidic court of Nadvorna as the two backdrops. Young Meshulam spent most of his days in the beis medrash, where he would memorize two blatt Gemara every day. When he was 20, Zeide Meshulam arrived on US shores with great hope (he had command of five languages — Yiddish, Hebrew, German, Polish, and Russian — and knew learning English wouldn’t be an obstacle in the “goldeneh medinah”) and great trepidation. “Zeide Friend was a warm and generous man, a remarkable scholar and a man of great principles and self-discipline, and a Galitzianer through and through — he didn’t suffer fools,” Moyshe remembers. “Zeide had a passion for the truth, fairness, and equality. He drove a movement against the city to secure housing for lower income families — I simply can’t fathom how Zeide, a short man all of five foot four, whose English was his sixth language, could successfully champion the working class in a battle against City Hall.”
The “Silk Road” was an ancient network of trade routes that for centuries connected East and West cultural interaction. Moyshe Silk’s road — winding through Hong Kong, New York, and the US Treasury, connects the legacies of his forbears to modern times, each phase posing different roadblocks and challenges. Yet when the light turns green, this legal expert, international investment champion, and chassidishe Yid knows forward is all about making a kiddush Hashem along the way.
Guarded at Every Turn
hroughout Moyshe’s own “Silk Road” — the path that took him to China and back, ending (for now) with the US Treasury, he’s always felt enveloped in Something Bigger that has accompanied him through his journeys.
Of course, being an observant Jew in Hong Kong had its complications, but he remembers a bit of Hashgachah pratis at Succos time. “Everyone lived in high-rise apartments, and the only practical place for building a succah was at ground level,” he says. “The perfect spot turned out to be an almost never-used deck, not far from the pool area. One of the building’s maintenance staff got involved, and was more than happy to go off in search of something appropriate for schach. He headed to the mountainside and returned an hour later with large leaves resembling elephant’s ears… perfect. But it turned out that the succah was in a spot where it was in view of one of the tenants on a lower floor, and the neighbor was convinced that the maintenance man and I were in cahoots in some strange voodoo practice.” By the time the complaint was filed, Yom Tov was over and the succah came down.
But another year, in another apartment high-rise, Moyshe requested permission of the building association to assemble his succah in a neighbor’s uncovered parking space. The neighbor was happy to oblige, but then the building association demanded he remove it, going so far as to engage a lawyer to initiate court proceedings. During Succos, a massive typhoon hit Hong Kong; the succah survived, but somehow the lawyer and the lawsuit disappeared.
In his 13 years in Hong Kong, Moyshe lived through many of these “coincidences,” but nothing matched the sheer stretch of Divine Hand at the end of 2004, right before returning to the US. On December 26, Moyshe was in Phuket, Thailand, when for some reason he decided to join a tour of the Similan Islands, some 70 miles from the shores of Phuket. When the Similans came into sight, those on the boat would witness an extraordinary sight — the water at the coast was rising and falling 90 feet in seconds. There was an abnormal stillness, not only on the boat but in the air. The passengers soon learned that a catastrophic tsunami had struck Phuket, and they would be transferred to a naval ship that would bring them to shore. The transfer didn’t happen until hours later, and the horrific destruction that met Moyshe as he disembarked was indescribable. The tsunami had passed right underneath the boat he was on. Had he not gone to the Similans that morning… he prefers not to dwell on it.
A similar event occurred over a decade later when Moyshe was on a business trip to Brussels. On his flight back home the next morning, Moyshe, who is a stickler for punctuality, was an unprecedented ten minutes off schedule, and was still at the checkout desk at the airport hotel when terrorists bombed the airport. Those ten minutes were the difference between exiting the hotel and being at airport check-in — just two aisles away from the direct path of the bomb.
–Rachel Ginsberg contributed to this report
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 715)
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