At the H3 Business Halacha Summit, the world of business meets enduring inspiration
Photos: Agudath Israel of Illinois, Langsam Photography
They joined the world of business and finance while remaining dedicated to halachic and spiritual principles without compromise. They’ve all learned in yeshivos, yet today’s complex business world raises issues that are often uncharted waters for a nation historically more used to poverty than wealth. Is there a guidebook for this new generation of business people who are dedicated to raising the bar in halachic compliance?
Like so many other corporate events, the recent H3 Business Halacha Summit offered relevant speeches, industry-specific exhibits and a gala dinner attracting hundreds of businesspeople seeking both the content and connections often made at such conferences. Yet the similarities ended there. The participants who’d converged on the luxury Renaissance Schaumburg Convention Center Hotel outside Chicago weren’t concerned about bottom lines. Their aspirations were instead geared upward — it was the top line they were looking to expand, hoping to up it several notches, as rabbanim and poskim gave words of encouragement and fielded questions, and successful businessmen gave advice not just how to maximize profits, but how to share them as well.
The annual summit began in 2018, when Agudath Israel of Illinois planned a small, rather tepid business halachah conference as an ancillary event to the biennial Agudah Midwest Convention, in order to focus on improving halachic standards in business. The feedback, though, was overwhelming, as companies across various industries implemented changes to their operations to ensure halachic fidelity. Today, it’s taken on new dimensions. Because it has also become a guidebook for a new generation of frum people blessed with wealth who have been thrust into a world of new rules and opportunities. How to inhabit the role of a Torah-oriented balabos, in addition to writing out checks for worthy causes?
“Reb Bentzion Fishoff escaped Europe and came to America where he built up an import/export business, and eventually became the chairman of Metropolitan Bank, serving as a successful banker into his nineties,” popular author and lecturer Yisroel Besser told the 700-strong crowd at what was in fact the third such summit this year, coming on the heels of similar events in Mexico City and Toronto.
“Reb Benzion once related to me how the first generation of survivors were just trying to stay alive, rebuild, and find the emotional bandwidth and headspace to recreate after the destruction. Then, in the 1960s, people started to save a little, then invested, and slowly Yidden started to make money. One of the things Reb Benny did was to bring others into his deals. I asked him why he did that — isn’t the nature of business to try to keep success private and within the club? He didn’t deny the question, but shared something profound: First of all, he said that people who live Torah have to have an ayin tovah, so if one can’t want another Yid to have success, there’s something wrong. But then he told me something else — that the more Yidden you bring in, the more zechusim you have, and maybe it will be in that zechus that a deal that would have otherwise done poorly will do well. You can go to any business seminar and hear some entrepreneur, motivational speaker or former athlete — but they’ll never tell you this, because we speak a different language.”
This Is a Yeshivah!
“The first 20 years of my business, I would ask a rav every time I had a sh’eilah and I patted myself on the back for doing so,” said Mr. Reuven Wolf, real estate investor and president of Read Property Group, who presented as part of a panel of prominent philanthropists. (On the panel were Reuven Wolf, Bentzion Heitner and Rabbi Dovid Schnell, all well-known philanthropists who have leveraged their considerable business success to fuel various efforts in askanus. Mr. Wolf and Mr. Heitner chair the Vaad Hatzalah for Ukrainian Jewry and Rabbi Schnell is the president emeritus of Agudath Israel of Illinois as well as a member of the Board of Trustees of the national Agudah.)
But that proud self-endorsement changed shortly after he started showing his deals to a new chavrusa he was learning with.
“I came to the sad realization that my sh’eilos were the small problems, but the big sh’eilos were the ones I didn’t even realize. Rabosai, there is only one eitzah: Just as we wouldn’t dream about going into a deal without a lawyer, every business needs to have a rav on retainer.”
It’s because, he said (quoting the Shulchan Aruch: OC 231), all of one’s actions should be l’Sheim Shamayim. “If we’re working to support our families, there is no bigger l’Sheim Shamayim than that, but what is the heter to work to create wealth?” The answer, he said, quoting the Mishnah Berurah, is that even when work goes beyond simply eking out a living, one can consider it l’Sheim Shamayim on two accounts: if the amount of tzedakah given continues to grow with his portfolio, and if his intentions are to support his employees, contractors and vendors.
Mr. Wolf recalled how, a few years ago, he partnered on a building project with a yungerman who learned with Rav Dovid Feinstein b’chavrusa every day.
“One day he called me and told me that Rav Dovid wanted to visit the construction site. I called the construction manager, a chassidishe fellow, and told him we were having a surprise visitor coming — not the bank, but Rav Dovid Feinstein! He called all the subcontractors, and put together a beautiful spread like only chassidim can. Rav Dovid walked into the construction site, looked around at all of the subcontractors — they were all hemishe yungeleit — and his face shone. He said, ‘This is a construction site? This is a yeshivah!’”
Mr. Wolf echoed the mission statement of the summit: the opportunity businesspeople have to be marbeh kevod Shamayim in the world at large. He also gave a positive forecast for the economy: “Right now, interest rates are up and business is down,” said the seasoned businessman, “but in the 38 years that I’ve been around, this has been the fourth downturn and each time, HaKadosh Baruch Hu brought it back bigger and better than before.”
Not Worth the Fight
Two fundamental principles that have served Canadian businessman Mr. Bentzion Heitner well throughout his career are forgiveness and paying people on time.
“Always be mevater,” he urged, describing how when a disagreement breaks out, dragging it out drains both sides and serves only the interests of those watching the spectacle. “I grew up in Australia where, on the psak of our rav, I attended an all-boys non-Jewish school as opposed to a co-ed Jewish school, and all it would take to get 300 boys riled up was the word ‘fight.’ When that word was heard in the courtyard, you had an audience in the hundreds around the two sparring boys, all there to enjoy the scene and no one attempting to calm things down. And it’s the same thing in business… everyone is busy enjoying the fight. It’s just not worth it.”
Regarding paying employees on time, Mr. Heitner said that it spills into philanthropy as well. “I managed to sell my business for almost a billion dollars,” he said, “and I never had an accounts payable. I got a bill, I paid it. And the same goes for tzedakah. You make a pledge, you pay it.”
A Little Humility
Rabbi Dovid Schnell, president of Agudath Israel of Illinois and one of the founders of H3, spoke of the importance of Yidden gathering together to give each other chizuk not only in halachic compliance but in making Yiddishkeit a priority in general. He recalled several instances where change was effected by individuals taking the initiative to ask sh’eilos.
Rabbi Schnell also suggested the learning of the Igeres HaRamban once a week as a way of instilling middos tovos, particularly humility. He was once speaking to an employee of his father — who was affectionately known as “Jack” Schnell — who mentioned that he’d named his baby daughter “Jackie.” It was right after Jackie Kennedy had died, and Rabbi Schnell asked the employee if the name was after the former First Lady. “No, we named her after your father,” he said. “Your father is one of the finest, humblest people I ever met, and I want my daughter to bear his name.”
Learning on the Job
A defining feature of any business conference is the array of various sponsoring vendors that line the conference floor. But unlike typical business events, the wares at H3 were not software programs guaranteed to double your firm’s efficiency and declutter your Monday morning meetings. One booth promoted Daf Hashavua, the learning program that spends a week on one daf. Another table touted Kinyan Mesechta, a division in Rav Dovid Newman’s umbrella of Torah programs, a third booth advertised Oraysa, a daily program whose amud-a-day pace falls in between Daf Yomi and Daf Hashavua, and yet a fourth advertised Torah AnyTime, the revolutionary app that allows users to access Torah shiurim on demand. Perhaps the most impressive booth belonged to Toraso B’Umnaso, an organization that sends chavrusas into places of business to learn with the host company’s employees for 20 minutes a day. In the middle of negotiating purchase agreements, reviewing an operational transfer, or adding up numbers from a Medicaid pending claim, it all stops and for 20 minutes, a Gemara is placed on the desk and the boardroom is turned into a beis medrash. At the start of H3 in 2018, the Torah B’Umnaso directory included about 70 companies, yet its client base has since expanded by a whopping 40 percent — over 30 companies signed up at the summit alone.
Gate of Trust
Every summit participant walked away with a complimentary gift — a newly printed Shaar Habitachon in English, l’illui nishmas one of the pillars of the Chicago community, Reb Yaakov (“Jack”) Rachenbach.
According to Rabbi Ari Strulowitz, director of operations for Agudah of Illinois, “as we discussed the dedication opportunities, one of the options was this newly published sefer, and the publisher was excited to do a special run in honor of Jack. There were a few other options as well, but when my partner Moshe Davis called the family, we were told that as nice as any newly-published sefer would be, Shaar Habitachon was by far the preferred choice. That’s because about a year and a half ago, Chaim Rachenbach learned this sefer with his father every day on the way to work. Shortly before Reb Yaakov got sick for the last time, they made a siyum on this very sefer.” The sefer encapsulated the memory of a man who was devoted to his community, his family, but above all else, to Hashem.
It was still early — around 9:30 p.m. — when the networking began. An elegant dessert table lined the wide corridor while two violinists played in the background, as friends, colleagues, and co-workers introduced one another. Yet within a few minutes, the hum of friendly talk was drowned out by another sound. A gathering had spontaneously formed around a grand piano off to the side, as songs began to pour forth from a crowd in tailored jackets and expensive watches: “Achas sho’alati me’es Hashem… Shivti b’veis Hashem kol yemei chayai — there is only one thing I request — to dwell in the House of Hashem all of my days.”
Rav Hirsch explains that Dovid Hamelech wasn’t referring to the physical dwelling in the actual House of Hashem, for even the Kohanim were not constantly in the Beis Hamikdash. Rather, the phrase “beis Hashem” describes the conception of fulfillment of life’s duties that can turn any place into a “beis Hashem.” Thus, Dovid Hamelech’s plea means not only the few hours I spend in the actual beis medrash, but rather everywhere and at all times, my goal is to spend all my days living a life of “beis Hashem.”
For the crowd, it was a collective fervent wish: Wherever I am, let me be able to make it a “beis Hashem.”
Fill the Void
As chairman of Outerstuff, the leading manufacturer of licensed sports apparel for all the major sporting leagues and university teams, Mr. Sol Werdiger, chairman of the board of Agudah and a beloved askan, shared stories of attending some of the most high-profile events on the American calendar. True to his Gerrer roots, he brought up a Sfas Emes that discusses the concept of the void created in the Luchos that were engraved by Hashem in relation to hilchos Shabbos. Can making a void be considered a positive act of creation? Based on the Sfas Emes, Mr. Werdiger suggested that where a void does exist, our mission is to fill it and reveal the presence of HaKadosh Baruch Hu — no matter where one finds himself.
“Just a few weeks ago, my family and I were in Salt Lake City for the NBA All-Star Game,” he related, “and whenever we go to one of these places, we bring Chumashim and siddurim and make a big Shabbos event for all of the frum people in the area.”
Some key NBA personnel were present over the weekend, invited by the Werdiger family to partake in their seudah. One of those employees made a beeline for Sol, thanking him profusely. The man explained that for years, he worked in a large, public accounting firm. Although it was owned by Jews, he was advised not to wear a yarmulke to work. “One day, an offer came in from the finance department at the NBA,” explained the man, “I went down for an interview, and then after my meeting, I hesitantly explained that I was an Orthodox Jew and would have to take off for Shabbos and Yom Tov — and that my religion also required me to wear my yarmulke at all times.” The HR manager looked at the potential employee with an incredulous look: “We know Sol,” the manager said, “and of course you can do whatever you need to for your religion!”
“Your tafkid is to fill the void, not just to write the check,” Mr. Werdiger said, addressing the many frum men of means who are still navigating what their role is besides giving a lot of tzedakah. “Of course, you have to make Hashem a partner in your work and support mosdos. Today, there is more Torah, more chesed than ever before, but if there is one area that is lacking, it’s the willingness to go out and bring Hashem’s presence into places where it wasn’t felt before.”
Mr. Werdiger related how he once took part in a kiruv program and invited families to his company’s headquarters. “The kids get very excited when they see us designing the jerseys and creating the Superbowl t-shirts, and there was a family there whose boy kept on asking me what I ate when I attended the NBA Championship and the World Series or Superbowl when they were held far from frum communities. I kept telling him how we bring kosher food along. A few days later, I was in my office and my secretary told me there was a very irate caller on the other end, who was insisting that she put him through to me. I took the phone and it was the father of that boy who kept pestering me about kosher. He screamed into the phone, ‘Sol! You owe me fifty thousand dollars!’ I asked him what happened and he explained that he had planned an elaborate bar mitzvah celebration for his son, but ever since they visited my office, the son was insisting that if Sol can eat kosher in all these locations, they can eat kosher at his bar mitzvah here in New York City. But apparently the kosher caterer wanted another fifty thousand dollars.”
Mr. Werdiger wasn’t sure if the man was serious — fifty thousand dollars to upgrade an affair meant the affair must have been really over the top in the first place. But the man sounded serious and so Sol decided to undertake the additional cost. “Give my secretary the wiring instructions,” he told the man. “It would be my family’s honor to upgrade the event to kosher.” The phone was quiet for a moment and then the father broke down sobbing. “Sol,” he said, “I don’t need your money. This bar mitzvah is in the Pierre Hotel in Manhattan and is costing me a million dollars. But Sol,” the man continued, crying throughout, “this is going to be the first kosher affair my family is having in a generation!”
Mr. Werdiger’s final message, though, was directed to businesspeople in all industries, not just the star-studded sports world.
“I’m in the outerwear business,” Sol said, “and once, for three winters in a row, it was unseasonably warm, leading to a significant downturn in coat sales. I was left with a warehouse full of coats and our line of credit with the bank was in jeopardy, as they extended it only against our accounts receivables.”
One day, he got a call that the bank wanted to meet with him. Mr. Werdiger quickly placed a call to his CFO, Reb Yonah Blumenfrucht a”h, and told him to prepare projections to show the bank. His trusted accountant held his ground. “Sol,” he told him, “we’re ehrilche Yidden. We don’t give false reports.” The two went up to meet with their banker, and handed him their reports. The banker stared at them in disbelief. “This is what you’re giving me?” he asked. “I never saw reports like this — you’re putting your whole business at stake!” But then the banker went onto admit that he never saw such honest paperwork, and worked out a reprieve for the company.
The audience applauded, but Mr. Werdiger stopped them. “Wait!” he said, “the story isn’t over.” Several years later, one of the largest private investment banking companies approached Mr. Werdiger’s company for a multimillion-dollar deal, and Mr. Werdiger went with Mr. Blumenfrucht to meet the firm where the company was supposed to start their due diligence.
“There were 25 guys there from some of the biggest accounting and compliance firms ready to start reviewing our paperwork, racking up hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees and taking months to review,” Mr. Wergiger recounted. “Suddenly someone looked at us. It was Bob, the banker who we had given those reports years back. ‘Sol? Jonah? Is that you?’ he asked. It turned out he left the bank and was now the chief development officer for this company. ‘Gentlemen,’ he told the team, ‘due diligence is cancelled! I saw these guys give in reports that threatened their entire company. They could have been out of business yet they wouldn’t lie! Every word they say, every document here is the truth. We’re ready to go into this deal immediately!’”
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 953)
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