The story of the Jewish student at Columbia University who wrote a letter a few years ago to Warren Buffett, asking for an internship at Berkshire Hathaway, the Omaha insurance and investment firm where Buffett is CEO, is already lore in parts of Omaha’s small-but-close-knit Jewish community.
Multi-billionaire Buffett receives many such missives, but he liked something about that letter. He offered the student an internship. And when Ian Jacobs, an Orthodox Jew from Toronto, finished his MBA at Columbia two years ago, Buffett hired him as a personal assistant.
"Obviously, Warren was impressed with his skills," says Carol Katzman, editor of the city’s Jewish Press newspaper. "Warren is a pretty good judge of character."
Jacobs (Shami to his friends) has an inside seat to history, watching as Buffett, ranked as the second-richest individual in the world, recently paid $4 billion for 80 percent control of an Israeli machine tool manufacturer, and this week announced that he is signing over much of his $44 billion fortune to charity.
And Jacobs, 29 and single, will probably accompany his boss to Israel this fall to inspect Iscar, the firm in the northern town of Tefen.
"Warren said he’s going to take Shami," said Katzman, who, like many residents of Omaha, knows Buffett on a first-name basis.
Jacobs, contacted at his Omaha office, declined to be interviewed or to discuss his upcoming travel plans.
"He’s very modest. He’s very sweet," Katzman told The Jewish Week. "He doesn’t come across as a brash, aggressive, Wall Streeter."
Jacobs, a clean-shaven, Sabbath-observant, kosher-keeping member of the Orthodox community who always wears a kipa, has quickly become a leading member of Omaha Jewry, serving on the board of the community day school. He is president of Beth Israel Synagogue, Omaha’s largest Orthodox congregation.
"Shami is taking Beth Israel to new levels," said Rabbi Jonathan Gross, the synagogue’s Teaneck-born spiritual leader. "Because of him Beth Israel has flourished."
After buying Iscar, Buffett received several copies of an Israeli, Hebrew translation of his biography to autograph, Katzman says. Non-Jewish, a self-described agnostic, Buffett turned to Jacobs.
"He didn’t know how to autograph" the book, Katzman says. "He had to go to Shami. ‘Where do I sign the damn thing?’" she quotes Buffett as asking Jacobs.
Jacobs, of course, knows Hebrew. "He pointed out where the front [page] is."