Money and meaning in Omaha

I fully expected to be immersed in the intricacies of money-making when I attended the Berkshire Hathaway shareholder meeting last month in Omaha, Neb. Actually, calling an event that attracts close to 40,000 raving fans a “meeting” is ridiculous. As a friend of mine says, it’s more like a Woodstock for capitalists.

The money part of my weekend did not disappoint. Although I much prefer subjects like philosophy, Judaism or the Lakers, I admit I was spellbound by the sight of Berkshire’s 83-year-old billionaire founder and leader, Warren Buffett, sharing his folksy financial insights with thousands of groupies.

What was I doing spending my weekend in a Midwestern town that is as far from Pico-Robertson as Manhattan is from Idaho? I was invited by my friend Selwyn Gerber — who owns a thriving wealth management company in Century City that follows Buffett’s basic principles — to experience a “once-in-a-lifetime” journey into a unique world of ethical and business success.

As a curious journalist, I couldn’t resist.

Just to give you an idea of Berkshire’s success, if you had invested $1,000 in the company when it started 48 years ago, today it would be worth a little over $5 million. I saw so many happy faces on the streets of downtown Omaha, I figured everyone there had made that exact same investment.

In any event, the real surprise of my Omaha journey was my encounter with the movement of another leader who’s also known to have plenty of groupies: the Lubavitcher Rebbe.

Selwyn had arranged for all of his guests to attend Shabbat services and meals with the local Chabad, which is when things got … hmm, a little interesting.

Imagine walking for 10 long blocks, as the sun is setting on a Friday night, surrounded by throngs of really happy Midwestern-looking people carousing in bars with names like Barley Street Tavern and Dundee Dell, and then, suddenly, finding yourself in a Chasidic shtibl being greeted by happy Jews with long beards and black hats saying “good Shabbos” over and over again, as a large photo of the Lubavitcher Rebbe hangs behind them.

That is when you say things like, “I love my life.”

Or, at least, I love this country.

As the Chabad emissaries greeted us joyfully in their Omaha shul, I couldn’t help thinking of darker days a century ago in places like Russia, when their movement was forced to hide underground and barely survived anti-Semitic pogroms and persecution. To see how Chabad is flourishing today in far-flung places like Utah, Idaho and Nebraska is a tribute not just to the movement, but to America.

In the heartland of America where we spent our weekend, the back-and-forth between the Chabad shul and the Berkshire money festival felt, at first, like a total disconnect. But as the weekend progressed, something dawned on me.

The two organizations are not that far apart.

My friend Selwyn raves about Berkshire not only because of its incredible success, but also because it has strong human values and a concrete approach to investment. There’s nothing trendy in Berkshire’s portfolio of companies — the group invests in things that people will always need and in people whom they can trust to run things.

In the same way, is any Jewish movement today as untrendy as Chabad? 

Since the late Rebbe transformed Chabad many decades ago into an outreach movement, it has focused not on popular trends but on timeless rituals like putting on tefillin and lighting Shabbat candles. How much more untrendy or concrete can you get?

It’s not a coincidence that there’s also a strong human component to both organizations. As Buffett spoke about “the Berkshire way” at his convention, you could feel his genuine affection for humanity. It’s no surprise that he has already committed to donating his fortune — upward of $40 billion — to charity.

That same genuine affection greeted us at the Chabad in Omaha. As a former client in the ad business used to say, “I don’t care how much you know until I know how much you care.”

Well, as they do in all their outposts, before showing us how much they know, the people of Chabad show us how much they care.

Even as they are engaged in different worlds, Chabad and Berkshire remind us that human principles are human principles — whether we’re dealing with creating wealth or creating meaning.

Chabad has mined the old treasures of Torah rituals, and, by serving them with deep, unconditional love, has helped bring meaning to Jews around the globe.

Berkshire has mined an old-school approach to business and, by acting with humanity and common sense, has brought wealth to investors around the globe.

It’s easy to complain about how America can sometimes fail to live up to its great ideals. But thriving organizations like Chabad and Berkshire Hathaway are examples of just the opposite: They demonstrate how the combination of American opportunity, hard work and strong human values can bring out the best in us.

We can see it in the folksy Omaha billionaire who dared to challenge the world of business, and in the brave Lubavitcher Rebbe who dared to send his emissaries anywhere in the world where Jews might need a hug and a Shabbat meal.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at