Sheldon Yellen – CEO and Mensch

Yesterday morning, we heard the words from the Torah portion Ki Tavo, which included the blessing that God shall make us the head and not the tail. This blessing is often repeated on Rosh Hashanah Eve and some even have the head of a fish on their holiday dinner table as a reminder of this blessing. According to the Torah, it is good to be the head.

That’s not always the case in the business world however. CEOs may have been blessed to be the “head” and not the “tail,” but it oftentimes seems like more of a curse. Over the past decade we’ve seen many disgraced CEOs who are not good examples of doing what’s right. We certainly wouldn’t consider the corporate heads of Enron, Tyco, Adelphia or WorldCom to be role models for our children.

There are exceptions. There are CEOs who demonstrate strong leadership skills along with ethical behavior. Several years ago I gave a sermon about Aaron Feuerstein, the CEO of Maden Mills, who after his entire plant burned down spent millions of his own money to keep all of his 3,000 employees on the payroll with full benefits for 6 months. Feuerstein consistently did the right thing even when it was difficult and he was faced with significant challenges. He claimed his strong ethical behavior and sense of justice as a corporate head were due to his faith and Talmud education.

Photo courtesy of Belfor

There is another CEO, who like Feuerstein, is striving to be a mensch and give back to his community. Sheldon Yellen, the CEO of Belfor is not your typical CEO. Tonight he’ll be at the Emmy Awards, where his episode of “Undercover Boss” is nominated for an Emmy. Sheldon went undercover in the CBS reality show “Undercover Boss” and received an education about how hard his employees work and how difficult it is for them to make ends meet. Yellen was so moved by all the lower-level employees he met that he eventually broke down and revealed himself as the CEO of the international disaster restoration company that is based in Michigan. The episode is up for an Emmy Award in the category of Outstanding Reality Program.

Yellen’s episode of “Undercover Boss” is a long shot to win an Emmy tonight against the other nominees including “Hoarders,” “Antiques Roadshow,” “Deadliest Catch,” Kathy Griffin’s show, and an episode of “MythBusters” guest starring President Obama. But while Yellen may not win an Emmy tonight, he is quite deserving of a mensch award.

In the episode of “Undercover Boss,” Sheldon demonstrated strong moral character and was able to show his emotions on national TV. Sheldon learned a great deal about his employees, their passion for the job, and how hard they work to support their families. He came off as an inspirational leader and the episode proved to be an important lesson for the upcoming Jewish holidays. I’m not the only rabbi who noticed that Sheldon’s experience of going undercover is a lesson for all of us as we approach Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Sheldon recently received a phone call from a Connecticut rabbi asking him to be the guest speaker at the community’s Selichot services this year. In his typical humble fashion, Sheldon couldn’t understand why the rabbi would want him to speak. However, he agreed and will be the featured speaker at Congregation Rodeph Sholom in Bridgeport this Saturday night. He’ll speak about his journey from a challenging childhood in Detroit to becoming a wealthy businessman and philanthropist. He’ll also talk about system of values he draws on as a CEO.

Yellen and his three brothers were raised on Welfare by their mother in Detroit during the 1950s. Their father was a great person, but became sick and eventually developed an addiction to methadone after having nine stomach operations in the course of only two years. Growing up in an affluent Jewish community in which he and his brothers had to work from a very young age and with a father who was in prison (for dealing drugs) was difficult for Yellen. He told me that his mother didn’t have enough money to belong to a synagogue or send Sheldon to Hebrew School, but right before he turned thirteen she decided that it was important for him to have a bar mitzvah. An Orthodox synagogue agreed to let him have a bar mitzvah, but he didn’t have the Hebrew background. He was called to the Torah for his aliyah with the blessings transliterated in English on a piece of paper. The Orthodox men were expecting him to actually read from the Torah. It is a memory that has lasted with Yellen to this day.

In the past year Sheldon Yellen has made lasting contributions to his community. He bought a financially distressed private Jewish country club in order to keep its Jewish roots alive. He also funded a Toledo, Ohio-based yeshiva that had run out of living space for its young students. He was able to donate enough money so that the yeshiva could move into a new facility in suburban Detroit with enough room for both study and living quarters for its students. Yellen has also committed himself to Torah study at the local Detroit Kollel. The Jewish education he missed out on as a child is now one of his top priorities.

In addition to his philanthropy, Yellen has proved himself to be a very generous individual on a personal level. Recently, Michael Kenwood, a 39-year-old New Jersey volunteer EMT, was killed during Hurricane Irene while trying to save others’ lives. That hero’s sister-in-law is Amy Margolis of Birmingham, Michigan. When Amy and her family were unable to get a flight to New Jersey for her relative’s funeral because of the hurricane, they had no choice but to get in the car and drive. She was already on the road making the Michigan-New Jersey trek when she received a call from Sheldon Yellen who offered to meet them on the road and escort them to the airport where they would board one of his two private jets.

Margolis was quoted in the Detroit Jewish News saying that Yellen’s act of kindness makes him a mensch and an angel. “I didn’t do anything anybody else wouldn’t have done,” Sheldon Yellen said.

In an era when CEOs don’t always do the right thing and often act immorally, it is refreshing to see Sheldon Yellen demonstrate that a CEO can also be a mensch and a role model. While he might not win an Emmy Award tonight, he certainly has made a positive difference in his own company and in his community. He’s made a fortune restoring properties, but Sheldon Yellen might just have enough integrity and generosity to restore the reputation of our nation’s disgraced CEOs.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller