Ethics in the Boardroom

by | in President's Message

During the past year, the Jewish world has been rocked by devastating news about financial improprieties. We have watched in horror as the story of Bernie Madoff unfolded; while not observant himself, Madoff clearly identified with the Jewish people. On television, we have seen images of Orthodox Jews—including rabbis, lay leaders and prominent business people—being led away in handcuffs. All of this has created a terrible chillul Hashem, desecration of God’s name. While we believe in the Torah’s principle that there is no such thing as a perfect person (“ain tzaddik ba’aretz asher ya’aseh tov velo yecheta”), we must strive to follow the dictates of the Torah as it instructs us in the pursuit of what is good and right in the eyes of God (“veasitah hatov vehayashar be’einei Hashem”).

To raise awareness about the importance of business ethics, the Orthodox Union (OU) recently sponsored an extremely timely and important seminar. Called “Honest to G-d: Infusing Our Lives with Integrity,” the seminar, coordinated by our Department of Community Services and the Pepa and Rabbi Joseph Karasick Department of Synagogue Services, was held in OU shuls in various communities. The seminars have included prominent speakers such as Rabbi Steven Weil, OU executive vice president; Rabbi Hershel Schachter, rosh kollel of the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary; Dr. David Pelcovitz, chair in psychology and education at Yeshiva University’s Azrieli Graduate School of Education and Administration; Charles Harary, first vice president of residential operations and legal counsel to RXR Realty and an associate vice president of the OU; Rabbi Cary Friedman, assistant director of the OU’s Department of Day School and Educational Services; and Rabbi Aaron Kahn, professor of Talmud at the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary. Additionally, in September, the OU, in partnership with the Rabbinical Council of America and Yeshiva University, sent a letter to rabbis across the country asking them to address Jewish ethics in at least one of their High Holiday sermons. Yet another intiative is a series of online shiurim we will be offering, in conjunction with Bais HaVaad Institute of Talmudic Law based in Lakewood, New Jersey, on halachot pertaining to business and finance.

Sometimes it takes a crisis to reawaken us to our fundamental beliefs. We in the Orthodox community should be the role models for Jews throughout the world. Our Torah is not limited to halachot about prayer, study and the observance of rituals—it is a Torah that encapsulates all of God’s teachings. As such, Torah is not only relevant in the beit midrash, it is relevant in our boardrooms and in our daily lives.

It seems that as a people we have lost our way, and we must return to the lifestyle that the Torah has intended for us. We must remember that as an “ohr lagoyim,” light unto other nations, our role is to be the conscience of the world.

Our Torah is not limited to halachot about prayer, study and the observance of rituals, it is a Torah that encapsulates all of God’s teachings.

There is much we can do to promote ethical behavior on both the organizational and individual levels. As a charitable organization entrusted with using donor money to support our myriad programs for the community, the OU is committed to maintaining the highest ethical standards. To this end, the OU recently adopted a new policy—unanimously approved by our Board of Directors—ensuring the integrity of our governing body. Every OU officer and board member was required to sign a letter stating: In the event that I or an entity controlled (by virtue of management or equity ownership) by me is charged with a crime, this letter will serve as my resignation from all positions with the Orthodox Union, without further action on my part.

Of course, this is not meant as an automatic presumption of guilt. Rather, it is a proactive step on our part to ensure that the OU does not unnecessarily get pulled into any controversy unrelated to our mission.

Additionally, to avoid conflicts of interest, we have made it mandatory that each officer and board member sign a document stating that he or she has no outside activities, financial or otherwise, that may interfere with his or her ability to govern the OU.

The OU also tries to be as transparent as possible. While there is certain proprietary information, generally speaking our board members see everything we do. This system of checks and balances ensures greater accountability and avoids granting power to a select few. We have also set other critical safeguards in place; for example, all financial transactions are overseen by several individuals in several different departments.

How many times have we read about well-meaning directors of organizations who, over time, have fallen prey to the temptations of their jobs? I believe that we have not taken seriously the commandment of not placing a stumbling block before the blind (“velifnei iver lo titein michshol”). When people believe they are not sufficiently supervised or will not ultimately be held accountable, potentially disastrous events occur that can create a chillul Hashem.

On the individual level, there is much we can do to promote ethical behavior as well. First, we must find role models for our young people to emulate. We should encourage those who have unfortunately strayed from the derech hayashar, the right path, and had to pay a heavy price, to speak in our schools and shuls about the pitfalls of unscrupulous behavior. Our youth especially could benefit from hearing these personal accounts. Our schools could also spend more time teaching the precepts in the Torah that deal with economics and business, an area that is currently not sufficiently emphasized.

Second, we must stress that, as Orthodox Jews, our goal should always be to create a kiddush Hashem, sanctification of God’s name. Last year, as part of an OU delegation, I met with President George W. Bush. As we walked into the Oval Office, the president smiled and said, “What a pleasure it is to meet to meet the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” That’s how the world sees us—as the heirs to the Biblical patriarchs and matriarchs. We must make sure that our behavior reflects our lofty lineage.

We have the ability to change the world. If we took this responsibility seriously, we would act differently not just in the way we treat our business partners, but also in the way we stand in line in the grocery store, the way we drive our cars and the way we interact with our fellow man. The antidote for chillul Hashem is kiddush Hashem, and the ability to perform a kiddush Hashem is available to all of us on almost a daily basis.

Oftentimes, it’s the small things that count the most. When I travel, which I frequently do in my position as president of the OU, I see my trips as a golden opportunity to be mekadesh shem Shamayim, to sanctify God’s name. I try to leave a positive, lasting impression so that someone might say later, “I don’t know much about the Jewish people but I once met a Jewish man who was one of the most courteous people I’ve ever met.” Thus, while waiting to board a plane, for example, I make it a point to find someone who needs help with his carry-on bag. I get smiles and much gratitude in return. But more importantly, I know that my efforts are simple and effective ways to sanctify God’s name.

When we act honestly in our day-to-day lives and treat people with respect, we eradicate some of the negative perceptions that, because of recent incidents in the media, people may have about religious Jews. Young people are especially influenced by the media. For many of them, images of hypocrisy in the Orthodox Jewish world lead to disillusionment and disenchantment with the religious way of life.

Living in a world of instant communication, in which every word that one says can be posted on YouTube or blogs in a matter of minutes, presents both a challenge and an opportunity. Through the power of the Internet, we have the unprecedented potential to make a tremendous kiddush Hashem or, God forbid, the opposite. We must take our responsibilities seriously and become genuine paradigms of ethical behavior.

In the weeks and months ahead, the OU will continue to find new ways to stress the importance of ethics. I welcome your suggestions on how to share this message even more effectively with the Jewish world. Please feel free to e-mail me at ssavitsky@ou.org. The future of our people and our good name are at stake.

This article was featured in Jewish Action Winter 2009.

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