The past few years have seen the introduction of a new social class to Israeli society - wealthy Ultra-Orthodox people. While these individuals are quite affluent, they shun the hedonism as well as the materialistic trappings of their secular counterparts.
Instead, they observe all the traditions and restrictions of haredi society and continue to maintain close ties with their less well-off haredi brethren.
The list of prominent haredi businessmen includes Chaim Fink, who recently acquired Shemen Industries and subsequently granted his first interview ever, Lev Leviev, whom the media basically ignored until he purchased Africa-Israel, and Shaya Boymelgreen, who leaped from relative obscurity to buy the Ezorim construction company from Nochi Danker.
In addition, a significant number of haredim – including many diamond dealers – are undisputed members of Israel’s economic elite yet somehow manage to fly beneath the media’s radar.
Part of the community
According to haredi advertising executive Rachel Bolton, haredi businessmen go to great lengths to avoid ostentation. “The rich haredi needs his community,” she explains. “He needs his prayer quorum to read the Torah three times a week.
“His contact with the regular community requires him to live modestly. Otherwise, the community will reject him. The congregation will be scared of him and will isolate him. Therefore, the rich haredi will drive a fancy car but not a limited model.
“No haredi in Israel has a private yacht,” Bolton continues. “That would invite conversations in the community, in the synagogue. Not just common gossip, but in a manner which would distance him from the nation. Almost no one owns private jets, and those that do - offer them to patients requiring operations abroad.”
The difference between wealthy haredim and secular Israelis extend to their children. “The haredi upper crust’s offspring do not really benefit from the prosperity. The very prosperous will provide an apartment, nice vacations, jewelry. They’ll ‘buy’ a good son-in-law, but they won’t give out handouts or monthly salaries,” Bolton says.
“They try to keep their children within the accepted framework until the wedding,” notes Eitan Dobkin, general manager of the McCann-Erickson advertising agency’s haredi division. “It’s important to them to worry about not doing anything that will potentially harm a wedding match. In general, only after the wedding do they allow them to join the family businesses.”
Furthermore, affluent haredim send their children to the same educational institutions as do the rest of the haredim. There is no such thing as an exclusive yeshiva for the rich.
In general, haredi attitudes to wealth are unique. “The haredi sector doesn’t analyze or scrutinize the well-heeled haredi based on his private life,” observes Avraham Rachtshefer, CEO of Minahalim Nachon, a haredi business monthly. “They check how much he contributes to the community and to those around him. Almost every top-line rich man identifies with a specific organization, tzaddik (righteous individual), or institution to which he donates.”
Another difference is that although wealthy haredim are respected, they do not receive the community’s highest honors or accolades. That distinction is reserved for the sector’s spiritual leaders.
Most haredi businessmen strive to cultivate close ties with the community’s most distinguished figures. Whether they do so for spiritual reasons or in order to advance their careers is open to debate. Cynics may perhaps decry the magnates’ motives, but, indisputably, Torah scholars occupy a higher rank than the tycoons.
“We like money; we even like it very much, but I neither have nor did I ever have a desire to amass piles of it,” one of the new wealthy haredi businessmen insists. “Besides the issue of the business game and besides the personal enjoyment, the question is what gives me pleasure. I have donated Torah scrolls. That gave me a good deal of pleasure as well as satisfaction. You know when you donate a new Torah scroll to the synagogue where you pray that it will be read from each time. What more is there? It’s a special feeling of joy, a sense of exaltation and spirituality.”
Shimon Glick is an American-haredi diamond dealer and real estate entrepreneur. Recently, he hosted Rabbi Aharon Shteinman, a leader of the Lithuanian haredi community, in his New York home. In addition, Glick underwrote, to the tune of one million dollars, the plane fares for the rabbi and his entire entourage. Thus, in one fell swoop, Glick managed to achieve fame and glory, even outside his hometown.
Nevertheless, according to Bolton, much of the capital is lavished on the women. “The wife is the main beneficiary of the money,” Bolton states. “She purchases expensive jewelry, clothes, shoes and handbags for herself. Generally, the wife doesn’t work. And her job is to care for the house and the nuclear family. Also, she deals with all the family issues pertaining to the extended family and the married children.”
Buy yourself a son-in-law
Religion plays a dominant part in wealthy haredim’s lives. As such, most of them do not take any business steps without first consulting with a rabbi.
For instance, according to Sholem Fisher’s relatives, the happiest day of his life was the day that his son married the Erloi Rebbe’s granddaughter. Fisher, an Erloi hassid, is Mathew Bronfman’s partner in the Blue Square chain, deals in real estate in New York, and owns candle factories in Israel and abroad. He credits the Erloi Rebbe, whom he reveres, for his success.
Another old haredi custom is once again becoming increasing popular. In order to marry off their daughters, many wealthy haredim “purchase” eminent Torah scholars from prestigious yeshivas.
“Among the hassidic public, grandchildren of the Grand Rebbes marry each other, and among the Lithuanian public, the ‘blue-bloods’, the sons of the yeshiva heads, are often ‘bought’ by the leaders of the financial aristocracy,” Rachtshefer asserts.
The “price” for pedigreed and talented Torah scholars is an apartment in one of the popular haredi neighborhoods, where high-end apartments can run up to 250-400 thousand dollars.
Occasionally, a rich father-in-law will establish and support a yeshiva or kollel, in order that his exceptional son-in-law can continue learning Torah in the future.
Yet, Dobkin believes that the main difference between wealthy haredim and secular Israelis is that the former are happier. “Religion stabilizes you, it gives you something to lean on,” he muses. “When you are sitting in front of a page of Gemara, it doesn’t matter how much you have in the bank.”