Warren Buffett’s Jewish Connection

Warren Buffett is not a Jew; in fact, he describes himself as an agnostic.

Still, the billionaire investment guru, who made big news in May when his Berkshire Hathaway corporation bought an 80 percent share in the Israeli metalworks conglomerate, Iscar, for $4 billion, for years has been making his mark on the U.S. Jewish community back home — although sometimes in a roundabout way.

“Proportionally, if you look at the number of Jews in this country and in the world, I’m associated with a hugely disproportionate number,” said Buffett, the second-richest man in the world. His life, he added, “has been blessed by friendship with many Jews.”

The Israeli government stands to reap about $1 billion in taxes on Buffett’s purchase of Iscar. Shortly after announcing the deal, Buffett said he was surprised to learn that a Berkshire subsidiary, CTB International, was purchasing a controlling interest in another Israeli company, AgroLogic.

In Israel — which Buffett plans to visit in the fall — the hope is that the deals will have longer legs: Buffett himself has not ruled out future purchases there and, considering his status as a leading investor, observers say others also may take a look at Israeli companies now that Buffett has done so.

“You won’t find in the world a better-run operation than Iscar,” Buffett says. “I don’t think it’s an accident that it’s run by Israelis.”

Among the first companies Buffett acquired after launching Berkshire Hathaway, the Omaha-based investment and insurance giant, was The Sun Newspapers of Omaha, then owned by Stan Lipsey, one-time chairman of The Jewish Press, Omaha’s Jewish newspaper.

“At the time, the Omaha Club did not take Jewish members, and the Highland Country Club, a golf club, didn’t have any [non-Jewish] members,” Lipsey recalled. “Warren volunteered to join the Highland” — rather than the Omaha — “to set an example of nondiscrimination.”

Buffett happily recalls the fallout from his application.

“It created this big rhubarb,” he said. “All of the rabbis appeared on my behalf, the [Anti-Defamation League] guy appeared on my behalf. Finally they voted to let me in.”

But that wasn’t the end of the story, Buffett said. The Highland had a rule requiring members to donate a certain amount of money to their synagogues. Buffett, of course, wasn’t a synagogue member, so the club changed its policy: Members now would be expected to give to their synagogues, temples or churches.

But that still didn’t quite work, Buffett recalls with a laugh, because of his agnosticism.

In the end, the rule was amended to ask simply that members make some sort of charitable donation, and the path to Buffet’s membership was clear.

“He’s an incredible guy,” said Lipsey, today the publisher of the Buffalo News. In 1973, The Sun won a Pulitzer Prize in local investigative specialized reporting for an expose on financial impropriety at Boys Town, Neb.

“Warren came up with the key source for us knowing what was going on out there,” Lipsey said.

Buffett himself researched Boys Town’s stocks to bolster the story, Lipsey added.

In the 1960s, Omaha Rabbi Myer Kripke decided to invest in his friend Buffett’s new business venture. Their wives had become friendly, he said, and the foursome enjoyed playing the occasional game of bridge together.

“My wife had no card sense and I was certainly no competition to Warren, who is a very good bridge player and a lover of the game,” said Kripke, rabbi emeritus of Omaha’s Conservative Beth El Synagogue. “He’s very bright and very personable and very decent. He is a rich man who is as clean as can be.”

Kripke, father of the noted philosopher Saul Kripke, bought a few shares in Berkshire Hathaway and quickly sold them, doubling his money, he said.

Recognizing a good thing when he saw it, he bought a bunch more shares in his friend’s company, shares that by the 1990s had made Kripke — who says he never earned more than $30,000 a year as a rabbi — a millionaire.

Asked if he credits Buffett with his financial success, he didn’t hesitate.

“Entirely, yes,” he said. “I never had much of an income.”

The Sun newspaper group was not Buffett’s only early purchase of a Jewish-owned company. In 1983, sealing the deal with a handshake, Buffett bought 90 percent of the Nebraska Furniture Mart from Rose Blumkin, a Russian-born Jew who moved to the United States in 1917.

In 1989, he purchased a majority of the stock in Borsheim’s Fine Jewelry and Gifts, a phenomenally successful jewelry store, from the Friedman family.

“He has many friends in the Jewish community,” said Forrest Krutter, secretary of Berkshire Hathaway and a former president of the Jewish Federation of Omaha.

Buffett’s former son-in-law, Allen Greenberg, is a Jew, and now runs the Buffett Foundation, much of whose work has dealt with reproductive rights and family-planning issues. Buffett’s personal assistant is Ian Jacobs, who goes by his Hebrew name, Shami.

Buffett himself counts the late Nebraska businessman Howard “Micky” Newman and philanthropist Jack Skirball as among his “very closest friends.”

Further, Buffett said his “hero and the man who made me an investment success” was Ben Graham. Graham, along with Newman’s father, Jerry, ran a New York fund called Graham-Newman Corp.

“After besieging Ben for the three years after I received my degree from Columbia, Ben and Jerry finally hired me,” Buffett said. “I was the first gentile ever employed by the firm — including secretaries — in its 18 years of existence. My first son bears the middle name Graham after Ben.”

Buffett “is very much honored in the Jewish community,” Kripke said.



In September, vice presidential candidate Joseph Lieberman came under fire from many Jewish organizations for telling a radio talk show host that there is no Jewish prohibition against intermarriage.But according to a survey released this week, Lieberman’s comments reflect the beliefs of the majority of American Jews. In short, according to the survey, “the Jewish taboo on mixed marriage has clearly collapsed.”

More than half of American Jews disagree with the statement, “It would pain me if my child married a gentile,” and 50 percent agree that “it is racist to oppose Jewish-gentile marriages,” according to the American Jewish Committee’s (AJCommittee) 2000 Survey of American Jewish Opinion.

It was the first time the annual phone survey of 1,010 Jews – which tracks Jewish attitudes about Israel, anti-Semitism and political issues – asked for attitudes about intermarriage.

Findings on Israel and political matters were consistent with recent years – showing strong attachments to Israel, concern about anti-Semitism and generally liberal political views, with 75 percent reporting they planned to vote for Al Gore for president.

On intermarriage, 78 percent of respondents said they favor rabbinic officiation at Jewish-gentile marriages “in some form and under some circumstances,” while only 15 percent are opposed to this.

But the majority of American rabbis do not officiate at intermarriages: Conservative and Orthodox rabbis are forbidden to do so, while an estimated half of Reform rabbis refuse to officiate.

Only the Orthodox, among the various groupings of American Jews in the survey, maintain strong opposition to mixed marriage – and they do so by a large majority. Eighty-four percent of the Orthodox surveyed said they would be pained if their child intermarried, compared to 57 percent of Conservative Jews, 27 percent of Reform Jews and 19 percent of those who said they are “just Jewish.”

The denominations are self-identified and do not mean the respondents are actually affiliated with synagogues belonging to that movement.

In 1991, shock waves rippled through the American Jewish world when the National Jewish Population Survey reported that 52 percent of Jews who had married between 1985 and 1990 had wed non-Jews. That number was disputed as too high by some sociologists, but most agreed that intermarriage rates were still significant.

David Singer, who as the AJCommittee’s director of research oversees the annual survey, called the findings “very, very dramatic.”

“This is the amcha speaking, and what we hear is rather eye-opening,” he said, using the Hebrew expression for the grass roots. “This constitutes a tremendous challenge to people and groups that want to maintain the opposition to mixed marriage.”

The AJCommittee has issued statements opposing intermarriage.

Rabbi Alan Silverstein, who has written several books for the Conservative movement on how to respond to intermarriage, said he is disturbed, but not surprised, by the survey’s findings.

But he noted that statistics on intermarriage can be misleading because there are such sharply divergent attitudes in the Jewish community. Unaffiliated and intermarried Jews, of which there are a growing number, are far less likely to oppose intermarriage, he said.

That obscures, he said, the fact that the majority of synagogue-affiliated Jews – particularly Conservative and Orthodox ones – remain opposed to intermarriage, even if they would not disown their children for marrying gentiles.

“On something in which there’s such a split between demographic sectors of the population, one overall number is not helpful,” said Silverstein.

But on the basis of the survey findings, he predicted his Reform colleagues will face increasing pressures to officiate at intermarriages of their congregants.

Already, a number of Reform rabbis say it is difficult to find a pulpit job if one is unwilling to perform a wedding for a Jew and non-Jew.

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Reform movement’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations, said the survey illustrates the need for the Jewish community to welcome intermarried families, something his movement does.

“We can’t pretend it’s a reality different from what it is,” said Yoffie, adding: “In the unique climate of this wonderful, diverse, democratic, open culture of ours, there’s going to be intermarriage.”

But he said the survey should not be read as a sign that the American Jewish community is just assimilating. While there may be widespread acceptance of intermarriage, there is “also a revival of religious life at every level,” Yoffie pointed out.

Kenneth Hain, president of the Rabbinical Council of America, an organization of Orthodox rabbis, said he is “saddened,” but not surprised, by the survey. “From an Orthodox perspective, it really does affirm our resolve to try to do more to make Jewish tradition meaningful to people,” he said.

The finding reaffirms the need for more Jewish education, said Hain. “To appeal to Jews on ethnic grounds, or simply sentimental grounds, or even family attachment grounds” not to marry gentiles is “generally to no avail.”

Ed Case, the publisher of InterfaithFamily.com, an Internet magazine, or Webzine, serving approximately 12,000 readers, said he is pleased to learn of the widespread acceptance among Jews for the intermarried.”Rather than bemoaning intermarriage, which is just going to be increasingly common, the smart and productive thing for the Jewish community to do is to reach out,” said Case, who is himself intermarried.”One of the things our readers say that puts them off is that they have had hostile, unwelcoming reactions from individual Jews or Jewish organizations,” said Case. He said he hopes the survey encourages Jewish organizations to be more inclusive of intermarried Jews.