January 8, 2004
How to Be Richand LiveSoulfully
There was a time when Adlai Wertman measured his success in dollars -- how much he made for the company, how much the company paid him, how well he spent the money.
Four years ago, Wertman, 44, left his job as an investment banker, and his wife, Janet, left hers as a corporate attorney. They sold their Manhattan apartment and Connecticut country home and moved to Pacific Palisades with their three children. They lowered their monthly credit card bill by 80 percent.
Janet is now a grant writer for nonprofits and Adlai runs Chrysalis, a $6.5 million agency that helps 2,000 homeless and impoverished people a year get jobs. His preoccupation with money now has only to do with raising enough to make payroll and keep the organization running.
"My measurement of success is no longer money; it is about lives being changed and people being saved," said Wertman, "and that is very gratifying."
Wertman exemplifies what Rabbi Steven Leder hopes people will think about after they read his new book, "More Money Than God: Living a Rich Life Without Losing Your Soul" (Bonus Books), set to hit stores at the end of this month.
"All of us to some degree or another feel that our net worth says something about our self-worth," said Leder, sitting in his office at the Westside campus of Wilshire Boulevard Temple, where he is senior rabbi.
Leder has taken the lead on a topic that is high on the minds of many Jewish leaders: how to get people -- including both the extremely wealthy and those of more moderate means -- to think both about how they spend their money on themselves and disperse it to others, and how that use of resources intersects with the values that guide their lives. It is a topic most people don't discuss even with close family, but one that is a leading source of stress and problems.
Nowhere is that more true than in Los Angeles, with its supersized display of materialism, where the pursuit and disposal of income can become a full-time distraction.
In the Jewish community, the usual upper-middle class expenditures are augmented by the high cost of living a committed Jewish life -- from synagogue membership to private school tuition to kosher food to just keeping up with the Schwartzes. It is a reality that can lead even those who thought they were comfortable to feel as if they never have enough.
The median household income in the Jewish community is about 30 percent higher than the average U.S. household, according to the 2000 National Jewish Population Survey. While it is hard to pin down numbers on how many Jews are in the ranks of the wealthiest Americans, it is fair to assume that the number is out of proportion to the Jewish population, especially in Los Angeles, where Jews figure prominently in the upper ranks of the entertainment, apparel, real estate and financial services industries. Almost half the names on a list of the 100 wealthiest Angelenos, published by the Los Angeles Business Journal in 2002, are Jewish.
Leder described "More Money Than God" as a long sermon on money, not just for the wealthy but for anyone who thinks about money (which is everyone). He preaches but does not scold as he addresses money's role in marriage, how to teach kids to value money but not idolize it, how to approach wealth and, of course, the importance of tzedakah, both for the recipient and the giver. The book is a weave of wisdom and stories, both from traditional sources and from anecdotes gleaned from Leder's 16 years at Wilshire Boulevard Temple, as well as from his childhood with a demanding father, who made his sons work hard for their money.
"I don't have any illusions about the book," Leder admitted. "I don't think it is going to completely turn around someone who has crassly materialistic and shallow values through and through. But I think more importantly, it gives good people the support and encouragement to be even better, and that in itself is a positive thing."
While the press, including a piece in The New York Times Sunday Styles section, has focused on the irony that the rabbi to some of Hollywood's biggest earners is preaching about money, Leder said it never occurred to him to worry about offending synagogue donors.
"Who is going to stand up for these good Jewish values if not the rabbi?" he asked.
Judaism has a long and complex relationship with money. The religion values the pleasures of the material world, but also recognizes that money is merely a means to achieve a higher purpose.
"We don't think money is the root of all evil. On the contrary, it is the root of all good if used in the right way," said Rabbi Avi Shafran, director of communications for Agudath Israel of America, an Orthodox umbrella group based in New York.
For Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, defining "excess" is always relative, but he asks congregants to make sure their monetary behavior fits into the overall picture of their value system.
"Money is one of those resources, along with time and health, that goes along with the question of what is your bigger purpose in life," Feinstein said. "Do people have a sense of purpose? Then money fits into that."
It is no easy task, balancing the need and desire to earn money with the appropriate way to actually use it.
Wertman said he tries not to be judgmental but often has a hard time living with one foot in the Palisades and one on Skid Row, where Chrysalis is based.
"It's hard for me some days, when I've barely made my $100,000 payroll that week and I've got $100 left in the bank, and at the end of the day, I go to dinner with friends who are perfectly willing to drop $1,000 on dinner and bottle of wine. I find it hard to accept that as justice."
He said he tries not to judge those who spend on themselves, as long as they also acknowledge their responsibility to others.
The dichotomy between lavish spending and generous giving often manifests itself most prominently at weddings or bar mitzvahs. Rabbis have spent some time reining in over-the-top parties, and many hosts now make giving a part of the simcha, whether through food-basket centerpieces or donating some of the gifts.
Around 20 prominent leaders in the Orthodox community signed a letter advising people to downgrade weddings, Shafran said. It limited the number of guests to 400, the band to five pieces, the appetizer buffet to fruits and cakes and the meal to three courses -- soup, main and dessert. It discouraged the use of centerpieces that get thrown away. While such detailed restrictions are beginning to have an effect in the tight-knit communities of Brooklyn, other rabbis have to rely on more general guidelines.
Leder engages families planning bar or bat mitzvahs in an exercise where he draws a line down the center of a board and asks families to list on one side the values being promoted in the synagogue service and on the other those on display in the evening party.
"Money is one of those areas where the disparity between professed values and real values is most prominent," Leder said. "The best kind of life is where there is no disparity between your professed and your lived values."
One family, after going through the exercise with Leder, decided to go from a $40,000 bar mitzvah to a $10,000 party and give the rest to charity. Leder advised the family to include their son in the decision of where to direct the tzedakah.
Wendy Mogel, a child psychologist who is writing a book on privilege and pressure, said that involving children in decisions about tzedakah is key in helping them be grateful for what they have.
Parents, she said, are up against a mighty marketing machine and need to muster their courage to refrain from giving children everything they want -- even if they can afford it. Parents must also remind themselves not to resent their kids for making them feel as if they are being deprived.
"If they have everything their heart desires by the time they are 14 -- both consumer items and experience -- what reason do they have to want to grow up?" asked Mogel, who also wrote "The Blessing of a Skinned Knee" (Penguin USA, 2001). "I'm not saying buying things is bad, but that instant satisfaction can become kind of an addiction. If you are feeling angry or anxious or even happy, do you mark it or alleviate it with stuff, or do you learn other ways to handle it or celebrate or feel better"?
In fact, recent studies show that children of privilege who have been handed everything can't function when they grow up and leave home, she said.
There is also a growing recognition that heirs to great wealth -- especially a few generations down the line -- often end up with serious emotional and psychological problems.
"Born Rich," the recent HBO documentary produced by the heir to the Johnson & Johnson fortune, exposed for the first time the struggles involved with knowing you never have to work a day in your life.
That reality, in some measure, will come to bear on the Jewish community, as the parents of baby boomers die and leave sometimes significant estates to their children.
In Los Angeles alone, about 9,000 Jews will inherit a total of $2.5 billion annually for the next 10 or 15 years, according to Pini Herman, who has conducted many studies of the L.A. Jewish community through Phillips and Herman Demographic Research.
Leder believes that if people -- those with a lot of money and those with modest means -- are confronted with the needs that are out there, they will respond in a charitable way.
Active participation in tikkun olam (healing the world) "has to inculcate a deeper sense of gratitude and responsibility," Leder said. "I'm one of those people who believe that if you create the right environment with the right values, good things will happen."
Those things have already begun to happen, thanks to the book.
One member -- someone who is not particularly wealthy -- read "More Money Than God," then sent Leder $1,800, telling him to give it to a family in need. The day before, a struggling single mother had come to Leder for comfort and support. Leder sent her the money.
"It was almost mystical," Leder said of the match.
"None of us can escape this charge to be thoughtful about what we do with our resources," Leder said, "because all of us have more resources than someone else.