Swimming against the tide

By Chandrea Serebro

I had the chance to chat recently to a prominent businessman and member of the religious community the other day, and I told him I was doing an article on the challenges of being religiously observant in the corporate world. How hard it must be, at times, but how it must also bear amazing rewards to be that beacon of light. A great responsibility, which I am sure, can be very tough at times. A chozer b’teshuva (someone who was not raised religiously), he told me the amazing story of how 35 years ago he had a successful retail business operating seven days a week. His family had become shomer Shabbos and he was running the business and working on Saturday, until the time came when he took the decision to close the business on Shabbos so that he could devote himself to the day as well. It wasn’t an easy decision – a large portion of the profits derived from Friday afternoon and Saturday trade. Where was the money going to come from now? But, he says, the time had come to make a decision he could no longer ignore, and in a leap of faith, he did it. Expecting major losses for the first while, he spent the next year restructuring the business into a wholesale business and putting major effort and energy into other aspects of the business to try and counteract this decision that seemed so wrong on a practical business level. Within the very first year, however, instead of the business seeing a loss, it actually doubled its profits. Uncompromising in the belief that he was doing the right thing, he took the step no matter which way it would turn out, and Hashem helped him along.

I didn’t fit the bill

A management consultant is often perceived as someone who is young, has no attachment such as family or even a partner, loves to travel, and enjoys working throughout the night. Rabbi Eitan Kagan doesn’t fit that bill. As a rabbi with a wife and two children, Kagan had the opportunity to join Deloitte, a chance he jumped at. After all, management consulting in the largest global professional firm has its plusses – working with the top business leaders across Africa, helping organisations solve their vast business issues, constantly being challenged to meet the clients’ expectations, working with a team of highly committed people, and of course the opportunity to travel across Africa and often beyond the African continent is exciting and presents an enormous growth potential. “I had travelled across the globe beforehand and was (and still am) keen to continue exploring, but I did believe that it was time to build my family and support them to reach their dreams.” And so began Rabbi Kagan’s foray into the business world. “My first major project required absolute commitment as I was seconded to one of the mines in Witbank for three months and hardly had the time to sleep or to interact with my family. I was the newbie and was to be sweated until the next project. Despite this, I grabbed the project with both hands and found it extremely riveting and exciting. I have subsequently worked on many projects outside Johannesburg in interesting places such as Durban, Cape Town, East London, Kenya, Namibia, and Botswana. The Kenyan experience was fantastic. Although I was away for three months I was able to return home every two weeks for a family Shabbos.”

“The question you may be asking yourselves,” and indeed, says Rabbi Kagan, everyone did, “is how does my wife put up with my work and how do I have a relationship with my kids?” And how does one maintain their Torah studies as a rabbi in far flung places and working on important projects? He puts it down to boundaries, something he is a firm believer in, having been charged with what he calls “a deep insight and ethic into the purpose of life and what my task is in this world.” “I aspire to greater wisdom and certainly to deeper understanding of Torah. I have an ingrained concept from Chasidus that every moment is an opportunity to elevate the world. This includes one’s interactions with others, whether they be Jewish or non-Jewish.” So, through his work and travels, he gets the chance to interact with other people, not only setting an example of what Jews and Judaism are about but, in keeping with this philosophy, to try and elevate them as well. “In Kenya, I spent time with the Chabad Shaliach in Nairobi. There I got to be an example for other Israelis that a frum Chossid who learns Torah can be working in a strong business position and yet not compromise his Jewish standards.”

Rabbi Kagan is proud to be a Jew, to wear a beard, to keep kosher, and to have tzitzis hanging out of his shirt. “I believe that people respect my standpoint even if it means I swim against the tide. I work with many Jews and try to have them over for Shabbat meals or lay tefilin on them, where possible. I also get the most interesting questions from people in the streets when I travel and I always have an opportunity to be a Kiddush Hashem.” Others, he says, appreciate his work ethic. “When I clock off at a certain time to go to Mincha every day, they know that I have not let them down in the project.” Of course, this means planning and scheduling, structuring his team well to ensure their output, and managing time well, a fundamental principle of his. “Clients are interested in delivery and respect that we have a priority to go home and be with our families. The work is of a much higher value when one takes into account his personal life. I do not waiver unless I am under extreme pressure. I believe that putting one’s priorities – Hashem, family, exercise, etc. – first and allowing work to support these are principles for success.” And these are life values that have stood Eitan in good stead too. “Being confident and secure about these priorities and being transparent with my leadership team about who I am and what I stand for” is essential to live in this “cutthroat business world” that, he says, he deals with every day. “I would not, however, advise any ‘frum’ business person to state these facts on a first interaction with a leader,” says Rabbi Kagan half-jokingly. First, he explains, there needs to be an element of trust, so that the leaders can rely on one’s work being strong and that the client will be happy. “Lead by example, don’t let the team down by your priorities. Make people see that work can be done effectively, while you are feeding your soul and making time for your family. Even if you have to pick up your laptop once everyone is sleeping, which is what I usually do.” Then you can reap the rewards for standing fast by your choices.

“Maimonides in Hilchos Talmud Torah lays out clearly how a Jew should balance his life between work and spirituality. He says one shouldn’t work more than four hours per day, albeit that those times were quite different to ours. However, the Lubavitcher Rebbe clearly states that by taking more time away from the important things of life as a result of working too hard, one actually diminishes one’s financial blessings. I may be an idealist, and I don’t always manage to attain the Shalom Bayis and general balance that I would aspire for, but I believe that the challenge of at least trying to be on the path of balance is as important as actually achieving the balance.”

Open dialogue

Dani Nerwich took a decision very early in her career never to apologise for who she is, a decision that has served her and her religious observance well over the years. An Industrial psychologist heading up an HR division at a big South African corporate, Dani is also an observant Jewess, something she has never taken lightly, yet something which she has always found a way to integrate into her professional life. “I have always been very open and upfront about my religion and observance, but never imposed my requirements on anyone in anyway. I decided at the outset that consistency is key to commanding the respect and understanding of my colleagues.” And so, over the years, the face of Dani’s Judaism has always been the same, portraying a consistent approach to kashrut and Shabbos that she has never deviated from and which has become synonymous with how she lives her life. “I have also adopted a very open approach towards my colleagues and the diversity that exists amongst us, and I encouraged my colleagues to engage with me in any dialogue about Judaism, kashrut, Shabbos, and even the mikveh that they are curious about. Now, many years later, my colleagues are quite well-versed, and are known to wish me a good Shabbos or shana tovah at the appropriate time.”

Through this candid and accessible approach, and perhaps even by virtue of it, Dani has been fortunate not ever to have encountered any anti-Semitism from a non-Jewish counterpart. “If anything, the respect, tolerance, and support from my organisation has been overwhelming,” even going beyond the call of duty to ensure that she is accommodated; be it good meals equivalent to the non-kosher ones or ensuring that functions and conferences end early enough on a Friday for Dani to make it home in good time for Shabbos. Being observant in a corporate is an opportunity, one that in some way,Dani might not have had otherwise. It’s a chance to represent the larger spectrum, to be an example of who and what you come from, and by being open, consistent, unentitled, and being a corporate mentch… it’s an opportunity, says Dani, to be a be a Kiddush HaShem (to sanctify G-d’s name).

Not too busy for Torah

Laurence Rapp is a busy man. As CEO of Vukile Property Fund and Chairman of the SA Real Estate Investment and Trust (REIT) Association, husband, father of three kids, and staunchly committed to his religious observance, Laurence is not only busy, but he is also passionate about what he does. With a love for business and property, his vast experience in the business world has given him the edge and made him the business leader he is today, but this passion has always extended to his religious observance and this has never been negotiable. As driven as he is to spending much of his time, energy, and effort on his professional growth and performance – and one can imagine that commandeering a R15.6 billion Property Fund and overseeing the 8th largest REIT market in the world requires this in copious amounts – his commitment to his yiddishkeit does not take a back seat. Running a public company with a kippah firmly on his head often attracts comments and even a few raised eyebrows from his fellow Jewish peers, says Laurence, but, he says, “I am who I am”, and he is “firm” on what he stands for. He has never felt pressured to take it off, whether locally or even abroad (except when recommended to do so by the Chairman of the Jewish Community of Istanbul, Turkey, who stopped him on the streets to offer him this sage advice in a country plagued by virulent anti-Semitism). And this unfaltering display of his Judaism has brought much nachas to the general Jewish community when they see him making a public address on TV as a proud Jew to whom they can look up as an example to follow in this regard. But he hasn’t experienced any major issues with his outward display of his religion, neither from his non-Jewish colleagues nor from the broader community, despite the experiences of others out there who cannot say the same thing.

Laurence has generally found people to be understanding and respectful of him and his Judaism, and accommodating of his needs (he even sat through a lunch meeting aboard a multi-million Dollar yacht in Russia eating his kosher meal out of foil containers with plastic cutlery, and which had been delivered by a bodyguard out of a black limousine), and never a hindrance to his Shabbos and holiday observances. In this respect, says Laurence, he recognises that he has had it relatively “easy” throughout his career, which is a blessing, but which might also result from the fact that he is a man who is uncompromising in his principles, and would not stand for it any other way. He attributes this in part to “forward planning” and some clever manoeuvring of his daily schedule to include enough time to dedicate at least two-hours daily to Torah learning and davening with a minyan, so that when he gets to work at 8 am he has already woken early to check his emails, perused the morning news, and clued himself up on the local and international markets before going to shul and learning with his chavrusa. He then spends a productive day at work before being back for mincha/maariv and further learning (in the same Beit Medrash as his son, to show him “a strong role model” and that one can be successful in business as well as learning at the same time) before going home to be with his family. Yes, at times it is surely a feat of extreme organisation, energy, and effort to get it all in, but Laurence puts it down to “important life choices” that we all have to make. He relates how, in his previous position, he was short-listed in the running for a prime senior position, but he had to turn it down because he “didn’t want his life to be defined by the position”.

Early on in his career he approached his rabbi for advice on balancing his career aspirations with his Torah learning, whereupon the rabbi told him to keep growing in Torah and, while in the workplace, to act as a Kiddush Hashem, an example to all in everything that he does. And, in fact, this air of morality that his yiddishkeit gives him does, in some sense, open doors of opportunity, in that, explains Laurence, the outward indication that you are behaving in accordance with a higher moral code gives people some awareness that you are behaving in accordance with this as well. Sadly, despite the optimism and resoundingly positive experience Laurence has had, he can recall an instance when he noted some anti-Semitic rhetoric in a board pack that was passed around at a meeting, pointing to the ignorance and depth of the stereotype mentalities that exist out there, but overall his colleagues were as saddened as he was by it. “I don’t take for granted what I have been through” – he knows what goes on in the world, but he just tries to find the balance between living a Torah observant life in the corporate world and finding success, while still being seen as a fitting representative of the Jewish people.

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