From the Other Side of The Desk
By Rafael Hoffman
As much as the Orthodox community’s reach has grown in diverse areas of public life, that expansion and its development is easy to miss by those who are part and parcel of it.
In an effort to help gauge this phenomenon, Hamodia interviewed several high-level professionals from outside the Orthodox world in the hope that their perspectives could help highlight what might be missed or taken for granted by those on the inside.
Mind Your Business
In 2013, James Thomson was working as Amazon’s head of services when he helped organize an event for sellers on the forum. Standard preparations were made for a tech trade show, but there was one unexpected glitch in the planning.
“We didn’t have any kosher food or a place to accommodate prayer,” said Mr. Thomson. “When we saw how many sellers coming were Orthodox Jews, I realized that this was a total miss on our part and that we had to find ways to accommodate them.”
Since leaving Amazon and moving on to other consulting and networking roles in the internet sales world, Mr. Thomson’s connections and admiration for Orthodox entrepreneurs has only grown. Eytan Weiner and Jon Goldman came to him 12 years ago to help start their company Quantum Networks, now a leader in online retail. His first private consulting clients Ari and Mendy Minkowicz now run Prune Danish, which developed a unique approach to maximizing impact on online markets.
As the Orthodox population has multiplied and gained greater confidence in recent decades, its presence and contribution to a diverse list of sectors in the commercial world continue to grow.
Mr. Thomson said that in his arena, increasing numbers of Orthodox entrepreneurs are not nearly as impressive as what he described as the unique models they have brought to online sales.
“Most sellers 10 years ago would go to a brand, buy product, and resell it, pretty standard. Then I started to get to know Orthodox sellers who were really good at finding different sources of product they got from other countries and from other places where there was supply that was not on most people’s maps. Their nimbleness and cleverness really impressed me.”
One operation that was equally unique was one started by an Orthodox businessman who set up a system to repair and resell returned products. Mr. Thomson visited the fellow’s warehouse and recalled thinking, “I’ve never seen anything like this.”
“People go to business school, get an MBA and you feel like you know the models that are out there, but if you look at what a lot of what [Orthodox sellers] have done you say, ‘Oh my, nobody would have thought of this,’” he said. “Their approaches work very well, but if you tried to explain them to an MBA class, it would confuse them.”
Across sectors, what those from outside the community who admire its success point to is an exceptionally sharp ability to navigate uncharted waters.
The reputation cuts across fields. Ted Zangari chairs the real estate department at Sills Cummis & Gross, one of New Jersey’s most influential law firms, and sits on the executive committee and board of directors of the state’s Chamber of Commerce. Twenty years ago, when working on a project to entice real estate investors to move more of their business across the Hudson from New York to New Jersey, he quickly became acquainted with many Orthodox-owned companies that would make up a large portion of those who took advantage of incentives to invest in the state.
Since then, many Orthodox real estate developers have added themselves to his client list.
“In one sense, clients are clients and people are people, but I marvel at the entrepreneurial spirit, level of creativity, and work ethic of the Orthodox community,” said Mr. Zangari. “Not sure what drives it, but at the end of the day, their commitment to family and providing for it is paramount; that deep sense of obligation seems to bring out a lot of productivity.”
The willingness, or preference, to walk outside of the business world’s plodded paths, Mr. Thomson said, plays a major role in the community’s commercial success.
“Too many people take comfort in getting a corporate job, getting paid, and not having to worry about much,” he said. “These folks are more comfortable taking calculated risks in new business and finding ways to make them work; an entrepreneur has to believe in himself.”
Brock Pierce, a cryptocurrency baron who sits at the top of a number of diverse enterprises, was so taken with some contacts in the Orthodox community that he hired Boro Park resident and Community Board 12 Cshairman Yidel Perlstein to serve as his chief of staff.
“He hit marks with me,” said Mr. Pierce. “He’s a natural problem solver who knows how to get things done and find the solutions we need.”
His affinity for the community is such that as Mr. Pierce decided to weigh in to the political arena, he chose another Boro Park native, lobbyist, and publicist, Ezra Friedlander, to guide him through the halls of power in New York and Washington, D.C.
Mr. Pierce said that resourcefulness was a trait he admired in many Orthodox Jews he had dealt with in business and government affairs.
“The Jewish people have faced a lot of challenges over the course of their existence, and they have years of learning how to cope with and overcome those challenges. It goes from historical challenges right down to figuring out how to get kosher food when you’re in a place where there’s a lack of it; I think that’s built a useful skill set.”
Mr. Zangari pointed to the rigorous demands of Torah life that produce what he saw as a particularly driven and industrious community.
“They achieve so much all while balancing religious observance, family life, and work,” he said. “Their daily regimen should be an inspiration for everyone else and anyone who says they’re too busy to do something should feel very uncomfortable using that excuse through the prism of the work-life balance that Orthodox Jews maintain.”
Religious values in and of themselves are part of what Mr. Pierce said attracted him to work with Orthodox Jews.
“I consider myself a man of faith, so I have a deep respect for those that are religiously observant,” he said. “I like to spend time with people whose values are aligned with my own, who are charitable and who care about service and giving back.”
The interconnected nature of the Orthodox world was something that Mr. Thomson said was another quality that carried significant advantages for their dealings in the business world.
“I’ve never seen a group of people that network like Orthodox Jewish sellers; they network all over the world. They compete, but the families all know each other. They can go to battle by day, but at the end of the day they have tremendous respect and really look out for each other; it’s not typical.”
That informal networking has led to some formal alliances, like the New Jersey Jewish Business Alliance, founded and run by Dovid Rosenberg, and for which Mr. Zangari serves as legal counsel.
The alliance started as an organization to advocate for Jewish-owned business interests in Hudson County and, in the span of a few years, has expanded to include a growing list of companies around the entire state.
“I tip my hat to David Rosenberg; if he had a JD next to his name, he’d be in my law firm,” said Mr. Zangari. “He took a small niche trade organization and grew it to be a force around the whole state; it’s been amazing to watch it play out.”
Mr. Thomson echoed a sentiment of other interviewees — that Orthodox businessmen were not only competitive in his sector but had brought much innovation to the table.
“I consider myself very fortunate to have been able to work with so many of them,” he said. “I’ve really gotten to know some of them well and they’ve opened my mind to a lot of ideas that I would never have thought of otherwise.”
In Times of Crisis
Trials of illness, mental health issues, and other medical challenges have spawned a cadre of individuals and organizations in the Orthodox world who advise and advocate for patients through times of crisis.
This service has been a lifeline for countless families in need. It has also led to unique relationships between good-hearted community members and the highest level medical professionals.
Dr. James Church, who serves as the director of research and section head of Hereditary Cancer and Familial Polyposis for the Division of Colorectal Surgery of Columbia University Medical Center, has worked for around a decade with Chaim Medical Resource and was in awe of its work.
“I have decades of experience both in the American system and in New Zealand, but I’ve never seen such an organization, whose only mission is to facilitate the best care to the people they serve,” he said. “I’m impressed with the concept, but also with the knowledge they have and the length they go to. It’s unbelievable, but on some issues, they know more than a lot of doctors.”
Dr. Heather Symons, Clinical Director of Pediatric Blood and Marrow Transplant at Johns Hopkins University Hospital and an Associate Professor of Oncology, also remarked about the level of knowledge that Chaim’s employees have about the illnesses and treatments their clients are dealing with.
“When I first worked with them, I couldn’t believe they didn’t have formal medical training,” she said. “I wish every patient had this type of resource.”
Relief Resources, which advises on mental health issues, has also built a group of admirers among the most skilled practitioners in its field.
“They could probably do a lot of the work we do themselves, that’s the level of knowledge that they have,” said Dr. Lori Evans, who specializes in child and adolescent psychiatry at NYU Hospital. “They’ve educated themselves and when they don’t know, they bring in the experts they need to make sure their information is correct; it’s a very high level of professionalism.”
An aspect of such organizations that also receives high praise is their exceptional level of dedication to the patients they serve.
“I clearly remember a time I called Rabbi [Binyomin] Babad at 2 in the morning about a patient who needed more care; he answered his phone and helped,” said Dr. Evans. “It sends a message to clinicians that they are always there to help us and that we have to do the same for our patients.”
Dr. Martin Drooker, a psychiatrist at Mt. Sinai Hospital who also serves as an Associate Clinical Professor, has worked with Relief for close to two decades. He said that the organization’s level of commitment has multi-pronged advantages.
“I have found no other referral service that rivals them in understanding of illness and treatment or in dedication,” he said. “They have a lot of staff members who have been there for many years, which has a great deal to do with the quality of services they can provide.”
Dr. Drooker also lauded the organization for its effectiveness in working against the “stigma of mental health care.”
Dr. Symons says that Chaim’s stick-to-itiveness and deep knowledge of treatment options is not only invaluable to their clients, but helps give patients the strength they need to confront the illnesses they are battling.
“They do their homework in looking for therapies that could potentially help patients. They’ve built up a lot of connections in the medical community and are well connected with academic centers as well. On multiple occasions, they’ve put me in touch with someone working on a new clinical trial or therapy,” she said. “They’re very good at communicating with families and setting up conference calls between them and doctors that sometimes are across the country or the world. It gives families a lot of peace, knowing that they’re leaving no stone unturned.”
The work of Jewish advocacy and lobby groups in the halls of power stretches back millennia, but as the contours of government have evolved, so have their strategies and approaches.
While primarily focused on the community’s needs and interests, in many instances advocates’ success, broad network, and good name have led their talents to be drafted for an eclectic list of causes.
Moshe Margareten, founder and president of the Tzedek Association, first gained public recognition following passage of the 2019 criminal justice reform bill he took the lead in lobbying for. Last year, his efforts to aid those in captivity extended to the other side of the world when he used his skills and political relationships to help rescue dozens of people trapped in Afghanistan facing great threats to their safety from the ruling Taliban government. The list included the nation’s last known Jew, Zebulun Simantov, but extended to female judges and athletes, as well as some who had aided the West in its struggle against terror there.
The uniqueness of a Chassidic Jew from Williamsburg leading the charge to rescue this diverse group caught the attention of Nebraska Congressman Don Bacon, who discussed Rabbi Margareten’s work in a speech on the floor of the House of Representatives.
“Let me stress the novelty of this: An Orthodox Jewish organization, led by Orthodox Rabbis, is working day and night to save the lives of Muslims, Christians, and people of other faiths — primarily women and children — because they live by the value of ‘out of many, we are one,’” he said. “And it is a lesson to us in Washington and to all of us throughout the world. We must come together more often for the greater good. Despite our differences, we must unite as creations of Almighty G-d and do what we can, together, to make this world a better place.”
Robert Carrol serves as a member of the New York State Assembly, with a district that includes Park Slope, Ditmas Park, and sections of Kensington, Boro Park and Flatbush. He recalled working with Jewish community advocates on issues spanning affordable housing, food insecurity, funding, and one particularly tricky trash pickup issue in Boro Park.
“I believe the Orthodox community is very well organized and many other communities would do themselves a great favor if they were equally organized,” said Mr. Carroll. “They have some really smart and conscientious advocates on a multitude of different issues. How far across the board they scan is unique.”
About as far as you can get in electoral politics from Mr. Carroll, an urban progressive, is Arizona Congressman Paul Gosar, a firebrand populist Republican. Yet, his chief of staff, Thomas van Flein, had similar positive reviews on the professionalism and effectiveness of Jewish lobbyists, specifically referring to his work with Ezra Friedlander on an array of foreign affairs issues.
“They’re just exceptionally thoughtful, try to be fair in their presentation and explain all the angles,” he said. “I think the community is very well represented and with a lot of hard work, does a good job of getting their messages out.”
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