Making a kiddush Hashem means presenting the Ribbono shel Olam, His Torah and His people in the best light possible. As chairman of a public company, I serve as one of the ambassadors of the Jewish people. But I’m not unique—anybody who interacts with the world beyond the Jewish community is an ambassador. It’s a practicality of life. In our society, it has become the obligation of every Jew in the workforce to view him or herself as an ambassador.
You need to remember that your colleagues are always watching you because of what you represent. Keep in mind that whatever circumstance you find yourself in, whatever activity you’re involved in, whatever words you use, reflect not just on you, but on the entire Jewish people. You represent something much bigger than yourself.
Most everybody with whom I interact in the business world knows I’m an Orthodox Jew. I sit at the business table negotiating a deal, and the first thing they see is “Orthodox Jew;” then and only then do they see the business person at the table.
We have an obligation toward our fellow Jews as well. There is rarely a a member of the Jewish faith with whom I interact that I don’t encourage to join the local Partners in Torah program. When a secular Jewish friend of mine took on a new position heading a national company in the Michigan region, he called to ask for a meeting. I met with him at his office and as the meeting ended, he said, “You know, Gary, it was so nice of you to give me two hours of your time. Is there anything I can do for you?”
“I’m glad you asked. I was just thinking about it,” I replied.
“Great, what could I do for you?”
I said, “I’d like you to spend an hour with my rabbi.”
“Doing what?” he asked.
He said, “Gary I would do anything in the world for you, but I am not going to learn Torah. I have no real background or interest in Torah. . .” He was pretty adamant, but in the end, he relented. I took him to meet Rabbi Avi Cohen, a member of the Partners in Torah team in Detroit. He spent an hour with Rabbi Cohen, which ended up turning into a warm, loving chavrusa that has lasted nearly fifteen years. My friend told me years later that it was the second most important meeting of his life, after meeting his wife.
To make a kiddush Hashem, it’s critical to realize that everything you’re doing, all of the effort that you put into your business life, is the necessary hishtadlut; but the Almighty controls everything. If you keep the right perspective regarding the source of your success, you act differently. You will not have to be the toughest guy in the room and you do not have to be the guy who makes the most money. You can leave a few dollars on the table. My rebbi, Rabbi Avrohom Abba Freedman, zt”l, used to say that being a workaholic is not aligned with a Jewish hashkafah [worldview]. One doesn’t have to be a workaholic in order to be successful, because success is not in your hands in any case.
I heard from Rabbi Leib Kelemen that it’s inappropriate to be a multitasker. When you are speaking with someone, Hashem wants you to be focused on that individual; that’s part of loving your fellow Jew. To do otherwise, he said, is assur [forbidden]. You shouldn’t be checking your e-mail while speaking to someone on the phone just because you can get away with it. This is all part of making a kiddush Hashem; if you’re talking to someone in a business setting and you’re looking down at your text messages, that’s disrespectful.
My own role model when it comes to making a kiddush Hashem at work was my maternal grandfather, Manuel Merzon, a”h, who emigrated from Russia in 1918 as a sixteen-year-old. On the eve of World War I, he was sent by his parents to his brother in Detroit. He was the first lawyer to wear a yarmulke in court in Detroit in the ‘40s. (I wrote a book called Raising the Bar, which is a collection of some of his divrei Torah.)
My grandfather was a very devoted Jew who wasn’t motivated by wealth or fame; the Ribbono shel Olam was everything in his life. When you carry yourself that way, you become the greatest ambassador. His righteous behavior and the way he associated with the non-Jewish community had a dramatic influence on those around him and on me as well.
At one point, my real estate company was one of many teams bidding on a high-profile project for a significant piece of real estate in Detroit owned by the city. Then Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer and his team were interviewing each of the bidders. The mayor’s office called the team leaders of all the bidders to inform us that the mayor would be personally interviewing each team on Saturday at the mayor’s residence. On Sunday the bidders would meet with his team, and on Monday the mayor would make a big public announcement divulging which team won the project.
When the mayor’s staffer told me the interview was on Saturday, I asked, “Is it possible to do it on Sunday?”
“No, the mayor has made it very clear that he is only going to do interviews on Saturday,” replied the staffer. “He needs a day to decide before making the announcement at 9:00 am Monday morning. There’s no other time.”
“I unfortunately can’t be there,” I said.
“You know if you don’t come, you’re disqualified,” he warned.
“I’m a Sabbath observer and therefore it’s impossible for me to be there,”
So he said, “Okay, let me call you back.”
About an hour later, a higher-level staffer, whom I happened to know, called me. “You know, Gary, we would arrange to put you up in a local hotel, and we would carry your material. You don’t have to violate any Sabbath rules; we’ll take care of you completely,”
“No, it’s not just the particular rules about Sabbath,” I said. “I don’t do any business on Saturday. I’m at home with my family and for me it would not be appropriate to make a business presentation on the Sabbath.”
“You know,” he said. “We’re trying everything we can to accommodate you. You’re a great guy, and you have a wonderful presentation, but I regret to tell you that you’re going to be disqualified if you don’t come on Saturday.”
“Okay, I accept that and no hard feelings,” I replied. “I understand completely, and send my regrets to the mayor; we’ll work on another project together.”
About an hour later, the mayor himself calls me: “Gary, this is Dennis.”
“Hello, Mr. Mayor, how are you?”
“I want to apologize,” he said. “I would never ask anybody to violate his religious beliefs to participate in a business deal, and especially not you. You’re Orthodox and everybody knows it; we should’ve known in advance. I am canceling all the interviews for Saturday. I’m going to make the announcement on Tuesday, and we’ll do the interviews on Sunday and Monday and you’ll bring your team then.”
So the mayor changed the day. Oh, and by the way, we won the project.
Of course, not everything works out perfectly, but that too is part of the kiddush Hashem. The Almighty ultimately decides what is good for us in every circumstance and we always need to be confident in that comforting realization.
Gary Torgow is the chairman of Chemical Financial Corporation, the holding company for Chemical Bank, which is the largest bank headquartered in Michigan. He is a senior vice president of the Orthodox Union and chair of OU Kosher.
Nechama Carmel is editor-in-chief of Jewish Action.