A rabbi and a private equity guy walk into a Starbucks in Times Square around 8:30 p.m. on a Monday. The rabbi, sporting a dark beard and a pocket-sized Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers), orders a grande coffee with soymilk. The private equity investor grabs an iced coffee and a turkey sandwich, and pays for them both.
The two take a look around the crowded cafe and decide to head up the escalator to The Westin’s plush lobby, where they settle comfortably in maroon chairs and begin studying the section of the Mishna (codified oral law) that deals exclusively with the ethical and moral aphorisms of the Sages.
“Wow, this is strong stuff,” remarks the private equity investor.
“Yeah, and the coffee’s not bad either,” the rabbi replies.
OK, so that’s not exactly the conversation that took place when Rabbi Adam Jacobs of Aish NY met last Monday for a weekly learning session with Lionel Leventhal, a partner at Paul Capital Partners who manages one of the largest health care-focused private equity funds.
But scenes like this are becoming increasingly common in Starbucks, office buildings, hotel lounges and boardrooms around Manhattan.
The catalyst? Aish NY’s Executive Learning Program, which makes rabbis available for regular office visits to busy lawyers, doctors and business executives.
“We travel to them,” says Rabbi Jacobs, a director of the Executive Learning Program, “So there are no excuses.” He is one of four rabbis at Aish NY, the New York chapter of the larger Jewish education organization, Aish HaTorah, who are “on call” — trekking at all hours of the day and night to add a jolt of Judaism to the lives of busy professionals, many of whom are smart, educated and successful — but haven’t cracked open a Bible since Hebrew school.
About 90 percent of the Torah study sessions are one-on-one, says Rabbi Jacobs, who has been studying Kabbalah, philosophy and Talmud with executives for the past seven years. In recent years, the number of participants in the Executive Learning Program has tripled to more than 40, he says, attributing the growth to the convenience of the program and word-of-mouth referrals.
After small talk about the market (“I tried e-mailing a friend at Bear Stearns, and the e-mail bounced back,” Leventhal tells Rabbi Jacobs), the rabbi opens Pirkei Avot to Chapter 1:16, a particularly apropos mishna. Leventhal reads aloud in English: “Rabban Gamaliel said:
Appoint for yourself a teacher and remove yourself from doubt, and do not give excess tithes by estimating rather than measuring.” He reads it again slowly, deliberating the meaning. Then he begins his questioning and analysis.
“It’s not saying that you shouldn’t give excess tithes,” Leventhal says.
“Right,” Rabbi Jacobs responds. “The question is, how are you supposed to conduct your giving?”
They ponder the fact that sometimes giving excessively, in a way that is unexpected, can be counterproductive. They then focus on the injunction to appoint a teacher for oneself — one that Leventhal adhered to when he began learning with Rabbi Jacobs on a friend’s recommendation two years ago. “You’ve got to call this guy,” his friend, Jeff, had told him.
“He plays in a rock band and he’s a rabbi and he’s been so helpful.” After a little nagging, Leventhal did just that. He began learning Talmud, which he had never had access to back in Hebrew school.
“Even rabbis need teachers, right? That’s why they learn in pairs,” Leventhal says.
“We strive for truth derived at through logical bickering — even if it’s uncomfortable,” Rabbi Jacobs replies. “If you want to be successful, you have to be open to examining your flaws. Often, people don’t understand themselves as well as others do.”
That’s why, Rabbi Jacobs explains, Abraham instructed his servant, Eliezer, to find a wife for his son, Isaac. “Abraham probably knew his son better than anyone else, so why’d he send his hired hand?” Rabbi Jacobs asks. “Because someone else might be more observant.”
The learning is less a religious practice and more a philosophical one, Leventhal says. “It helps me clarify the way I make decisions.” There are also professional benefits. “Seventy-five percent of my day is spent negotiating,” he says. “This helps me understand people more. For example, it’s not about you winning and everyone else losing. You want both sides to feel like they got what they want.”
When it comes to the Executive Learning Program, that’s certainly true. Although the Executive Learning Program has no tuition or cost, the executives make an average donation to Aish of $10,000 each. And in the past year, five executives, including Leventhal, have joined Aish NY’s board. “Their programming is expanding at a faster rate than their funding,” Leventhal says. “So I’m helping them think about how to restructure the organization and improve their planning.”
For his part, Leventhal says the sessions have increased his appreciation of Judaism. A trip to Poland last November with 40 recent college graduates, two Holocaust survivors and Aish rabbis was a “pretty moving experience,” he says. “I realized how much more connected [to Judaism] I have been since I started learning.”
Deborah Finkelstein Moelis and her husband, Jeff, sit in their yellow kitchen with Rabbi Stuart Shiff, an opened Artscroll chumash on the table and silver candlesticks displayed on a shelf near the window. It’s 10 p.m. and the apartment hums with the breathing of their two sleeping children.
“Samuel started wearing a yarmulke,” Moelis tells the rabbi, speaking of the couple’s 3-year-old son. “He’s so proud of himself. We took a family trip to West Side Judaica and he picked out a Bob the Builder one.”
Their children are a motivating factor in the couple’s decision to learn with Shiff on a regular basis, says Moelis, a senior associate with Handel Architects. “Our son goes to Hebrew school and he is almost surpassing us with his Jewish identity,” she says. “So we learn more about the holidays, so we can explain what Chanukah or Passover is to our children in a little more depth.”
Although they usually learn that week’s Torah portion, this week their conversation flits around in spirals as they touch on several of the “big questions” that rabbis have been grappling with for centuries — from “How do we know there’s a God?” to “If there is a God, how could He have allowed the Holocaust to happen?” They even share parenting tips.
Moelis and her husband, who owns a property management company, got involved with Aish when planning their wedding ceremony with Rabbi Jacobs before their 2003 nuptials. “Learning the significance behind the rituals enriched the experience,” she says.
After they married, the couple attended Monday night learning sessions at Aish’s headquarters on the Upper West Side, where dozens of people learn in pairs in a single room. When their son turned 8 months old and became too rowdy, they thought they would have to stop going. But then they found out about the executive learning program and the “house calls.”
“It’s a real privilege having a rabbi come to your home,” says Moelis. “You get caught up in the day-to-day stuff; this elevates the conversation.”
Besides, she says, it’s more interesting than watching TV for an hour.
Lawrence Benenson, an executive vice president at Benenson Capital, says that bimonthly learning sessions with Aish’s Rabbi Chaim Sampson are a lot like group therapy. Sampson serves not only as a spiritual adviser but also a sounding board who shares his thoughts on how best to resolve business issues and deal with relationships.
“Life isn’t any less complicated than driving a car or performing open-heart surgery,” Sampson says. “Everybody needs a teacher. Yet often, we lunge into life saying ‘I’ll give it a spin,’ without taking any driving lessons.”
During a Wednesday afternoon session, Sampson discusses the weekly Torah portion, and explains the concept behind the tabernacle. “Inspiration fades; this was the Almighty’s way of helping the Jewish people maintain that inspiration,” he says.
Then he turns to Benenson and his friend, Scott Perrin, who usually joins the learning session, and poses a question: “We get a lot of insights in life, but we live in a society focused on the physical as an end unto itself. So how do we grow, how do we retain those insights?”
The room grows still. Then Benenson speaks up. “We get a rabbi from Aish HaTorah to come in every couple of weeks.”