WEST BLOOMFIELD, Mich. (JTA) — Sheldon Yellen, the CEO of BELFOR Property Restoration, never expected to be a reality television star when he signed on for an episode of the CBS program "Undercover Boss."
Posing as an employee of his company to get a taste of life in the trenches, Yellen earned an Emmy nomination for the episode.
Prior to the awarding of the award, he said that win or lose he was honored to have been nominated. His episode of “Undercover Boss” was up against some stiff competition for Outstanding Reality Program and lost out to “Deadliest Catch,” which focuses on the rough-and-tumble life of deep-seas crab fishermen.
But for the CEO, posing as "Tom Kelly" was an eye-opening experience. Yellen, who typically has taken his recent fame from the show and Emmy nomination with humility, said he learned a great deal from going undercover and plans to change the way he relates to his employees.
As Kelly, Yellen flew his private jet to Norfolk, Va., to do some demolition work, which included removing a dead animal from behind a wall. He traveled to Denver and hung drywall on the ceiling. He worked with a cleaning technician and a water technician, squirming through a tight crawlspace under a house.
After listening to the water technician explain how she couldn’t pay all her bills and complain that no one at the corporate level would even know who she was, Yellen surprisingly broke character. He told her his identity and they embraced. At the end of the episode, which attracted 13 million viewers, Yellen provided these employees with retroactive pay raises and other perks.
Yellen is slated to talk about his "Undercover Boss" experience as the guest speaker at a joint Selichot service for several Connecticut congregations on Saturday night at Congregation Rodeph Sholom in Bridgeport. He will speak, too, about his humble upbringing being raised in Detroit by a single mother who was forced to go on welfare after his father’s deteriorating medical condition led to spiraling drug addiction.
Prior to the Emmy Awards, Yellen spoke to the Connecticut Jewish Ledger about his Jewish upbringing.
"I put my Judaism aside for years," he said. "I had no time for it; I was trying to survive and take care of my mom and my brothers. I dropped out of college twice to send two of my brothers to college, and I took care of my mom all along the way."
But after moving to Charleston, S.C., and starting his own family, a hurricane destroyed a local synagogue.
"For some reason [I] took it upon myself to fix their synagogue in time for the High Holidays. I committed 300 guys to do a $200,000 job in nine days," Yellen told the Ledger. "They invited me to the services and I’d never been part of the High Holiday services. They gave me a special recognition, and from that day forward I became very good friends with the president of the synagogue and his wife, and started to realize more and more that I wanted to associate with Jews more, before anyone else."
It was not until Yellen’s wedding rehearsal that he began to understand the power of philanthropy in the Jewish world. Noticing a plaque on the bathroom wall in the synagogue dedicated to his soon-to-be wife’s family, he asked his future father-in-law why their names were listed there.
His father-in-law explained that the family had donated $25,000 to help build the bathroom.
“You gave $25,000 to a synagogue?" Yellen said. "Are you crazy?”
“That’s what you do when you’re Jewish," his father-in-law responded. "You’re gonna get there one day, don’t worry, kid.”
He has devoted himself to the community good in recent years. In the past year he has rescued a local Jewish country club in financial disarray and pledged to maintain its Jewish heritage. He also has funded a boys’ yeshiva in Toledo, Ohio, and moved it to a new location in his hometown so it would have enough space to accommodate its students.
Following Hurricane Irene, Yellen made headlines when he donated the use of one of his private jets to a stranger who had to travel from Detroit to New Jersey to attend the funeral of her brother-in-law, an EMT who died while trying to save others in the hurricane. The woman and her family were not able to find a flight to New Jersey following the hurricane and began to drive. Yellen heard about her situation and met the woman on the road to escort her to his plane, where a pilot was waiting for her.
"I didn’t do anything anybody else wouldn’t have done," he said.