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High Energy

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LEADING LIGHTS Neil Auerbach travels the globe to influence policy on clean energy worldwide but Wall Street and the clean-energy sector aren’t the only places where he’s well-known. “The rebbe demonstrated a deep and sophisticated understanding of the inner workings of some of the world’s largest financial institutions. I was impressed by the rebbe’s grasp of international finance clearly achieved without the Wall Street Journal” (Photos: Amir Levy Tosh and family archives)

I t was a cold Purim night the March winds stonewalling the spring buds that had tentatively sprouted on branches.

But inside Neil Auerbach’s Monsey home there was music and merriment a mingling of every sort of Jew. A Wall Street businessman in a red jumpsuit was in deep conversation with a couple close to retirement. Unaffiliated singles scanned the room for their potential zivug. A group of bochurim twirling fire batons shook the floorboards. A small knot of youngsters already tipsy performed a song they’d composed especially for this party.

At the head of a dining table in the center of the room sat Neil Auerbach on this night dressed in a tie-dyed shirt and a Texan fringed vest. On his one side was a chassid wearing a flowered beketshe; on his other a rosh yeshivah. Listening deeply his head bent close to his visitors Neil wrote checks. The chassid stood proffered a warm brachah and walked away while folding the bounty into his breast pocket. The rosh yeshivah similarly encouraged left with his small entourage. They were quickly replaced by others a bevy of generosity seekers on this most holy of nights.

A line snaked from his table to the foyer to his front yard where a crowd waited in a heated tent. “We never did a tent until now it’s not our style ” Neil says recognizing the luxury of such a thing. “But the weather is forecast to be in single digits and we didn’t want anyone waiting on the lawn to be cold.”

“That’s Nachman ” his wife Judy a leader in the Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project says. “Focusing on the needs of a fellow Jew allows him to slow down. His mind is always active. But the connection it stops him it opens his heart.”

Power Source

When he’s not overseeing Purim parties Neil Auerbach is the founder CEO and managing partner of Hudson Clean Energy Partners a private equity firm that invests in the clean-energy industry.

Neil Auerbach presents his grandfather’s sefer written in 1932 to Rav Chaim Kanievsky. When he inherited the manuscript he had no idea of its value

Auerbach spent ten years on Wall Street as a tax lawyer before converting his skills to working as an investment banker and investor. Around 15 years ago he started investing in hard assets like airplanes railcars and power plants for Wall Street banks like Goldman Sachs with a special focus on renewable energy assets such as solar power and wind power plants.

Today Hudson Clean Energy Group and Sunlight Financial (another Auerbach company) have invested around $1.5 billion in all parts of the clean-energy sector. Auerbach’s portfolio includes six companies active in over a dozen countries as well as solar-power projects in the United States Japan and South America. His investments are diverse ranging from power plants (wind solar and hydropower) to the companies that manufacture key pieces of equipment used in building those plants and to the businesses that lend money to people who install solar power.

Neil travels the world to manage his businesses and convenes frequently with government and industrial leaders in the United States, China and the Middle East. He is also active in the policy world of clean energy where he contributes articles and provides advice to policy makers.

But Wall Street and the clean-energy world aren’t the only places Neil Auerbach is well-known. Institutions in Monsey Lakewood and Eretz Yisrael are also familiar with Neil who is happy to support some of the Jewish world’s most venerable yeshivos and organizations.


Jewish Pride

Neil (Nachman Zev) Auerbach grew up in a traditional home in Queens eventually attending New York University and Boston University for two law degrees. His comfortable upbringing was nothing like that of his father’s.

Shmuel Aaron Auerbach arrived in Eretz Yisrael as a child and attended school in Kfar chassidim. But with World War II raging young Shmuel Aaron 16 enlisted to fight with the British against the Nazis. Less than a year into his service Shmuel Aaron was captured by the Germans when his vessel was struck off the Isle of Crete. He went on to spend four years as a prisoner of war in a labor camp called Stalag VIII-B just two miles from Auschwitz-Birkenau. Although he fared far better than some of his Jewish brethren Shmuel Aaron Auerbach and his campmates were forced on a death march known as The Long March — several hundred miles in the dead of winter with almost no food no warm clothes or proper boots and no shelter. Shmuel Aaron saw two-thirds of his comrades perish.

Despite his traumatic experiences as a POW under the Nazis, Shmuel Aaron heeded the call of military duty soon afterward serving as a senior officer during the Israeli War of Independence. Although he remained close to Yiddishkeit the impact of spending nine years at war took its toll.

“He gave me a tremendous pride in being Jewish ” Neil says of his father. “In my early twenties I realized that to a certain extent I was also a Holocaust victim. To repair the breach was to reattach myself to the traditions of my father’s fathers.”

One singular opportunity to do that came during Neil’s first year at Boston University School of Law where Rabbi Dr. Aaron Twerski (brother of Rav Michel Twerski of Milwaukee and of psychiatrist Rabbi Dr. Abraham J. Twerski) was one of Neil’s professors.

“My grandfather wrote seforim ” Neil Auerbach casually told Professor Twerski one day.

“I did a double take ” Rabbi Dr. Twerski says. “This student was a Ropschitzer einekel a [descendant of a] nephew of the Divrei Chaim a descendant of the Noam Elimelech.”

Professor Twerski told Neil “You are an einekel of gedolei Yisrael. Are you going to do something about that?”


Under The Rebbe’s Wing

In fact, Neil comes from a long line of rabbanim. His ancestor Reb Aryeh Leib Auerbach, av beis din in Stanislav and Betchatch in Galicia, had only daughters. The Baal Shem Tov promised Reb Aryeh Leib a son on condition that he, the Baal Shem Tov, be the sandek at the bris and name the baby. “I’m destined to have two sons,” the Baal Shem Tov said, “but I’m giving one to you.”

The Baal Shem Tov called the baby Dovid Tzvi; Dovid after his great-uncle, the Turei Zahav (TaZ), and Tzvi, the name of his own son.

Dovid Tzvi Auerbach was among the great rabbanim of that era, serving as rav of three major communities in the Ukraine (Sharograd, Mohilov, and Kremenetz), and ruling in 83 cities throughout Europe through sh’eilos u’tshuvos. He is well-known as the father-in-law of Reb Nosson, the main disciple of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov. Though the Baal Shem Tov had been his sandek, and he’d grown up with chassidus, Rav Dovid Tzvi became a misnaged after witnessing two chassidim arguing about whose rebbe was greater. His sons and grandsons remained chassidic, however, becoming leading rabbis and attaching themselves to the Ruzhin dynasty.

“I’m named after my father’s father, Rav Nachman Zev Auerbach,” Neil says. As a dayan in Frankfurt and Berlin, Germany, he finished writing a sefer called Shomrei Shabbos in 1932, complete with commentary. In 1933, he was beaten by the Nazis, an attack that ultimately saved his family. He picked up his wife and ten children and fled to Israel. “He never published that sefer,” Neil says.

When Auerbach inherited the manuscript of Shomrei Shabbos about 20 years ago, he initially held on to it, unsure of its public value. Six months ago, however, Neil felt he should pursue publication as a tribute to his grandfather. He showed it to Oz Vehadar Publishing, where it was accepted immediately. The sefer, which includes additional perushim, was in the stores for Pesach this year.

“Neil’s focus was to bring his grandfather’s sefer to light,” Rabbi Aaron Kotler, CEO of Beth Medrash Govoha says. “Living in abject poverty, his grandfather didn’t have the zechus. But Neil does. He sees it as a privilege. How can he not?”

Neil became a ben bayis at Rabbi Aaron Twerski’s home. “I remember taking him to my uncle, the Bobover Rebbe ztz”l,” Rabbi Twerski says. “Neil asked him about taking a year off, to learn in Eretz Yisrael. ‘It’s up to your wife,’ the Rebbe told him. ‘She’ll be the one sacrificing for it.’ ”

It seems Neil has a special connection with chassidus. In 1996, while making the career switch from lawyer to banker, a shaliach of the Tosher Rebbe in Montreal arrived at Neil’s office, inviting him to meet with the Rebbe. Making the risky transition from the relative safety of selling his services as a lawyer, to the business of investing and risk-taking, Neil appreciated the opportunity to discuss his career change.

“I was there within a few days,” Neil remembers. “I spent two hours with the Tosher Rebbe, from two to four a.m. It felt like undergoing a spiritual x-ray. The Rebbe understood who I really was in that first meeting. He demonstrated a deep and sophisticated understanding of the inner workings of some of the world’s largest financial institutions. I was impressed by the Rebbe’s grasp of international finance, clearly achieved without the Wall Street Journal. From then on, the Rebbe took me under his wing. I didn’t speak Yiddish, so his gabbaim translated our many conversations.”

Neil’s relationship with the Tosher Rebbe lasted 20 years, until the Rebbe’s passing in the summer of 2015. “I loved the Rebbe like a father, and consulted with him frequently on personal, family, and business matters,” Neil recalls. “Deals that appeared impossible to execute turned around and got done. I don’t think I could have gotten where I am without the Rebbe’s active role in guiding me both spiritually and in business.”

“Neil has cultivated relationships with many of the leading gedolei Yisrael,” his wife Judy relates. Especially vivid was the night when Neil Auerbach acquired his sefer Torah. Rav Rafael Abuchatzeira brought the precious cargo by plane (the sefer Torah got its own first-class seat) and the roshei yeshivah of Lakewood, chassidic rebbes, as well as many non-affiliated Jews, all danced together.

“It doesn’t matter who they are, Neil humbles himself and is fully dedicated to them,” Judy says. “People who wouldn’t have the opportunity to come together like that were united by a common bond.”


Maximizing Rewards

Clean energy has experienced explosive growth just as most of the world’s largest economies have found themselves with a surfeit of traditional energy. Consequently, energy suppliers have dropped their prices, forcing clean-energy suppliers to keep pace. Prices have fallen dramatically, and the pace of decline has been dizzying.

“We’re heading toward an exciting place, where clean energy is abundant, environmentally benign, and incredibly cheap,” Neil says. “But until we get there, we’ll see some companies go through boom-and-bust cycles, and others struggle to keep pace with lower prices.”

This universal truth that a tzaddik falls seven times and rises, and that success is an outgrowth of failure, is one Neil speaks about with humility and frankness. “I spent a good part of my career with success that was l’maalah miderech hateva. But I learned my most important lessons through experiencing disappointment. When things are going well, a person may experience stress but may not learn much. Resilience is taking a punch, accepting unanticipated challenges, and working your way through them.”

Navigating the trends requires finesse. “My job is to understand these trends, and to make decisions that minimize the potential risks and maximize the potential rewards,” Neil says. “Investing in these volatile and challenging markets has made me a much better investor than I was. I have learned priceless lessons from adapting to harsh market conditions and I share those lessons to convey a deeper understanding of these markets when I talk to people around the world.”

Neil’s global business activities have given him a unique opportunity to conduct business with people who rarely interact with frum Jews. Nearly eight years ago, Neil and a delegation of other business leaders from the clean-energy sector were invited to accompany President Obama on his first visit to China. Since then, Neil has been to China almost 40 times. “My secretary has become an expert at finding me kosher food wherever I go,” he says.

The Chinese are fascinated with Israel, Neil explains. “The technology, innovation, and intellectual property coming out of a country of seven million, as compared to a country of over a billion, astound the Chinese.” That fascination, which was on display recently with Prime Minister Netanyahu’s successful visit to China, is sparking a wave of Chinese investment in Israeli technology companies. Neil is planning a new venture with some well-heeled Chinese companies interested in importing Israeli technology. “The wave has already begun, but it’s still early. Israel is in a great position for attracting significant investment from China, as Chinese leaders recognize that they lack the culture of innovation that drives new technology development. We’re going to play a role in that investment wave. We’re already getting into gear.”

Ironically, Neil also says that as a frum Jew, it’s fascinating to conduct business in Israel. “Although there are many shomer Shabbos Jews in the Israeli workforce, there are relatively few chareidim in executive offices of Israel’s largest banks and companies,” Neil explains. “I enjoy exploding myths and breaking stereotypes. I take special pride in doing business in Israel as a frum Jew. In Israel, I’m viewed as chareidi. This gives me the opportunity to be a bridge between so-called chilonim and chareidim.”

Neil says that in fact, all frum people are “ambassadors” for the frum community and for the Torah itself. “It’s an awesome responsibility,” he says. “I am keenly aware that the way I conduct myself in business speaks not just to who I am, but to who we are. Hopefully, when I retire, I’ll be able to look back at how I impacted the daled amos of my business dealings with the confidence that I filled my role as ambassador well.”

(Originally featured in Mishpacha Issue 663)

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