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

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.