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Jewish Journal

New York bigwigs pay $10,000 for private Torah tutoring

by Brad A. Greenberg

August 6, 2008 | 3:02 am

Photo
Rabbi right to your door (NYT)

The New York Times, in tomorrow’s paper, checks in on Aish HaTorah’s dial-a-rabbi program for the richer and even richer. It’s a good article, well written, on target and surprising as can be. (Did you know the cost for these weekly Torah studies at your home or office or home-office runs about $10,000 a year?)

Still, despite the fine reporting and a few good quotes—“I think of this as similar to my yoga class, only much, much more satisfying”—I prefer the Talk of the Town piece on this topic last fall. Like the NYT article, The New Yorker begins with Rabbi Stuart Shiff but instead of jumping around takes the reader through one meeting:

“What this program does is it blows away all the excuses,” Shiff explained recently, in one of Aish’s conference rooms in midtown. “We have almost a postal carrier’s motto: nothing stops us.” It was 9:30 A.M. on the day before Hanukkah, and Shiff—who was wearing a black velvet yarmulke—had a meeting with Seth Horowitz, the former chief executive of Everlast, the boxing-supply company (which he had just sold for a reported hundred and sixty-eight million dollars). Horowitz, who is thirty-one, started studying with Shiff eighteen months ago. “I just needed to talk to someone,” he said, turning off his iPhone. “I’ve gained so much knowledge. This is the beauty of the program—the rabbi comes to your office, you discuss the Torah, and you talk about life.”

They had been reading Genesis 37, where Jacob arrives with his sons in Canaan. “ ‘Jacob settled in the land of his father’s sojournings,’ ” Shiff read. “Now, there’s an interesting extrapolation in the rabbinic commentary. It says vayeshev—that Jacob wanted to dwell. The extrapolation is that he wanted to have a life of ease. He didn’t want to have pressure or issues.” Then disaster happens: Joseph, Jacob’s favorite son, is sold as a slave into Egypt. “It’s a very strange thing here,” Shiff said. “All Jacob wanted was some peace and quiet. What’s so wrong with that?”

Horowitz leaned back in a swivel chair. “It’s kind of the opposite of what we’re here for? Free will? Our opportunity to choose between good and bad?”

Shiff’s exegesis abounded with business-world metaphors: in prison in Egypt, Joseph mistakenly puts “all his trust in his network,” but he later rises to become “like the vice-president” of a company. Shiff had an appointment at eleven, at Bear Stearns. He arrived in a cluttered corner office where an executive in pinstripes was yelling into a telephone. A secretary sat nearby. She explained that although she was not Jewish, she enjoyed listening in on Shiff’s weekly visits. “I love everything about the Jewish faith,” she said. “I think it has a lot of wisdom.” The executive hung up the phone. “Basically, I’m a quasi disbeliever,” he explained. “I like talking to the rabbi, because I challenge him on a lot of the stuff. I like to ask my questions, which are mostly about the rigidity of religious beliefs. I’m probably his worst patient, if you want to call me a patient.”

The full article can be read here.

Maybe I’d be found hypocritical if I had the funds to afford it, but this program seems to make religion way too convenient for my comfort, merely a small part of your daily schedule that actually makes time for you. Essentially, religion is UPS and your teacher is that guy with the whiteboard and bad haircut.

Obviously, we don’t know if the bigwigs who participate in Aish’s Executive Learning Program, who sometimes delayed from meetings by financial crises and personal-training sessions and All-Star baseball games, are active in a synagogue. It’s likely they are members somewhere, and their visiting Torah tutor may be a supplement to what they’re learning on Saturdays. But I imagine in many cases this program serves as a substitute, which returns us to my complaint in the previous paragraph: How, if you can’t make time for God, could you make the time and sacrifices to do what he commands you?

But the important thing to recognize, and its easy to overlook, is that this program, despite its cost, is not for the devout. It’s for the cultural Jew looking to identify more with the religious tradition of the Jewish people, which corresponds with Aish HaTorah’s mission of in-reach.

That much seems evident from the NYT’s story, which spoke with more participants and offered an honest perspective of where these high-earning professional are coming from. More excerpts are after the jump:

in most cases, the one-on-ones are sought by men — very few women are among the program’s clients — who consider their Jewishness a work in progress.

Some are not sure they believe in God. Most are believers, but not sure they want to be tied to the crowded calendar of observances that constitute observant Jewish religious life. Two of four men interviewed last month said their tutorials began not long after the death of their fathers. One said he became a participant soon after he married a “very secular” Jewish woman. All seemed interested in exploring the intersection of religious ethics and the aggressive pursuit of material success.

(skip)

“We did classes at Goldman Sachs for years,” said Rabbi Brad Hirshfield, president of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, adding that his program ended sometime in the early 1990s. “I think there is no greater thing, as long as the participants don’t look at the rabbi as another sort of personal trainer, another means of self-improvement.”

Lionel Leventhal [pictured], a partner in the hedge fund Paul Capital Partners, bent over almost double peering into the Bible in his lap, trying to find the lines that his tutor, Rabbi Jacobs, was reciting in the busy lobby of a Midtown hotel the other night. They went there after finding all the seats taken in the Starbucks downstairs.

Mr. Leventhal, who specializes in health care acquisitions, said, “I guess what I don’t understand — what does it mean here where it’s saying not to worry about food and shelter, because if you live a holy life it’s all taken care of?”

Rabbi Jacobs explained what the Torah says in this regard. He spoke for many minutes about what it all meant, his voice just audible in the din of the lobby.

Mr. Leventhal listened closely, his chin in his palm.

“That’s a tough statement,” he said when the rabbi finished. He did not seem to buy the notion of holy unemployment.

“In fact, it’s a very complicated concept,’” said Rabbi Jacobs, launching an explication of “the famous dialogue between two rebbes” of ancient times who took opposite views on whether and how much one could mix work with a life of Torah study.

Mr. Leventhal perked up, and resumed delving into the book on his lap, as if to learn quickly who won that argument.

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