From the Boardroom to the Beit Midrash—And Back Again
In the pages ahead, we profile an unusual group of talmidei chachamim; unusual because they combine an extreme devotion to Torah even while immersed in the corporate and business worlds.
In Parashat Ki Tavo, the Torah warns that terrible evil will befall the Jewish people “because you did not serve Hashem, your God, amid gladness and goodness” (Deut. 28:47). Unlike most commentators, the Ari HaKadosh, Rabbi Isaac Luria, interprets the Torah’s warning as meaning that evil will befall the Jewish people not merely because their worship of God lacked joy, but because it was not the greatest joy in their lives.
To be a true eved Hashem requires a total, all-encompassing commitment, and indeed, only such single-minded focus can produce extraordinary results. This kind of intense commitment to learning and spreading Torah is evident in the lives of every one of the personalities we chose to profile.
The people you will read about were selected for tangible, superlative achievement. They represent the extreme of a larger group—working people who take their commitment to Torah study very seriously. The Gemara tells us that Hillel “mechayev et ha’aniyim.” Hillel demonstrated that one could learn despite crushing poverty, thereby removing the excuse that many poor people had used for not learning.
We can argue similarly about our profilees. They have destroyed the myth that only full-time learners continue to make progress in the quality of their Torah study. They obligate many of us to upgrade our expectations of ourselves.
By Yitzchok Adlerstein
Winner of the Jerusalem Prize for Torah Literature for an original Torah work. A successful businessman and philanthropist. Combine both accomplishments in one person, and you have convincing evidence that laypeople can make time in their busy lives to excel in Torah study.
People who know Zvi Ryzman (or Zvika, as he is universally known) would instantly associate him with those accomplishments. People who know him well know that the description completely misses the mark.
Ryzman would bristle at the notion of “making room” for Torah growth. You don’t “make room” or “find time” for Torah. Torah learning and teaching is what he is about; it dictates his business style and how he manages his time. Ryzman chose the business world deliberately as the best way for him to make a Torah contribution. And his output cannot be linked to a single work—he is constantly introducing new ones.
Ryzman has the mind, the training and the familial example to find a full-time niche in Torah learning. His father, Rabbi Yehoshua Heschel, was a rosh yeshivah in the Tomchei Temimim Lubavitch yeshivah in Warsaw. (He was not Chabad by birth or affiliation—his familial ties were to other Chassidic groups—but the Lubavitcher Rebbe at the time asked him to serve as rosh yeshivah nonetheless.) He survived the camps, while his wife-to-be evaded the jaws of the Nazi monster by fleeing from one European country to the next, often with false identification papers. After the War, he tried beginning life anew in Czechoslovakia. The death of Czech statesman and diplomat Jan Masaryk and the communist takeover led him to abandon the fruits of his labor and make the run for freedom. A few years in Switzerland and Belgium followed, but he was not to sink roots in Europe again. New York was an option, but Rabbi Yehoshua Heschel could not control his enthusiasm for a Jewish state and instead made aliyah. He enrolled in university, served a shul, built a business, gave shiurim—and wrote eight sefarim. He did not, however, return to the role of rosh yeshivah, and he refused thereafter to be called “Rabbi.” He preferred to see himself in a much smaller niche, with laypeople who made Torah learning a major focus of each day.
Ryzman could have gone either way. His educational background offered both possibilities. He attended the famed Yishuv HaChadash high school, where students studied Torah until 5 PM, followed by three hours of secular studies. He continued his full-time learning at the Chevron Yeshiva, but, moved by the events of June 1967, he enlisted in the Israel Defense Forces, joining the Nachal Chareidi program. In the years that followed, he earned a degree in political science and economics at Tel Aviv University, while attending both a kollel and the Ponovezh Yeshiva. Along the way, he returned to Harav Chatzkel Sarna at the Chevron Yeshiva to ask for semichah (ordination). The famed rosh yeshivah demurred, citing Ryzman’s departure from the yeshivah. Ryzman challenged him: “Either I know the material, or I don’t.” Harav Chatzkel accepted the point, and assigned his son Harav Chaim to test him. They battled an entire evening, but Ryzman remained standing on his feet, having earned Yoreh-Yoreh, Yadin-Yadin ordination.
Like his father, however, Ryzman decided that he wanted to leave his impact on the community in a different way. He reasoned that the path towards becoming a rosh yeshivah had by this time been well marked and well trod; he wished to become an exemplar for all those who would not become professional rabbis and teachers, showing them that excellence in Torah was within reach.
Chazal tell us that Heaven leads people on the road they wish to take. The rest of Ryzman’s story therefore amounts to a textbook study in Divine Providence. On a brief visit to New York, he met Betty, now his wife of close to forty years, and they moved to her native Los Angeles. After a brief time working for his father-in-law, Ryzman struck off on his own, partnering with an associate in a close-out business. He worked the Pacific rim, offering eagerly gobbled-up dollars. But when President Nixon devalued the dollar, their business plan came to a quick and rude halt. The partners had no choice but to close up, dividing the assets. One of them was a small eyelash company that neither of them wanted. They drew lots, and Ryzman lost.
Ryzman quickly learned the business, taking to the road to hawk his products and build up his brands. His strategy of acquiring other cosmetics businesses and aiming at market control through acquisition of the strongest companies with the best consumer name recognition worked; today he is the president and CEO of American International Industries (AII), a leading manufacturer and distributor of beauty and skin care products.
Today, AII employs scores of people. Despite the size of his business, Ryzman spends much of his day learning Torah. He makes a point of being on top of his entire operation, in touch with all facets via his computer. He adds physical presence twice a day with a personal walk-through. Where some people micro-manage paper clips and coffee creamer, Ryzman conserves time. (Spontaneously, as I interviewed him at his home, he looked at his watch and said, “You know, it will never be 10:30 PM on this Thursday night again.”) He responds to everything that requires a response as soon as he sees it. “Why should I have to spend time reading the same e-mail message twice?,” he asks.
Ryzman credits his early school years at Yishuv HaChadash for his appreciation of the value of time. Students there worked long, and worked hard. They could not survive without the discipline of producing within the limitations of the time available. He is troubled by the fact that today, in some yeshivot, there are few standards and no tools to assess the quality of productivity. To compensate, Ryzman has quietly supported the scholarship of many young talmidei chachamim whose work he thought deserving of publication. Seeing a work through all stages of publication, he believes, can give some minds the discipline they need to make the transition from good to great.
In any ordinary week, Ryzman gives three complex shiurim in Gemara and halachah to a group of fellow businesspeople, all with considerable yeshivah background and training. Once a month, he offers original thought on some non-halachic topic. Once a year, he bundles these presentations together in a new volume of Ratz KeZvi; it was for one of these volumes that he received the Jerusalem Prize. By now he is up to seven volumes, with one of them recently translated into English and released by ArtScroll Publications as The Wisdom in the Hebrew Months (2009).
Ryzman has contributed to many institutions and non-descript individuals, but he has a special penchant for advancing Torah study. He is on the Board of Governors of the Mesorah Heritage Foundation (the parent body of the Schottenstein Talmud), the Board of Directors of Touro College and is one of two chief funders of HebrewBooks.org (see Bytes & PCs, “Software Quickies: Mini Reviews of New Notable Jewish Software,” Jewish Action [spring 1997]), which provides free online access to tens of thousands of Torah works. He supports Olamot, an international project that is to a novice shiur-giver what frozen challah is to the new baker: you have most of what you need in front of you. Missing only are the final steps. Olamot offers the structure and source sheets for an in-depth treatment of a halachic topic. The presenter must prepare, understand and personalize the material to make it work, but he need not start from scratch. Ryzman figures there are thousands of laypeople who wistfully remember the intensity of learning they experienced in their yeshivah days, but rarely have an opportunity to push their minds the way they did when they were younger. Olamot is intended for them, not for rabbis. It encourages small groups of laypeople to gather regularly for a few well-structured hours in a beit midrash, plowing through sophisticated material.
Ryzman continues his own learning apace, weighing in on topical halachic issues. When Yeshurun, an important Israeli halachah journal, devoted space to the implications of ovarian transplants, Ryzman dueled with internationally respected figures in the halachic community—the only non-rabbi to contribute.
He still takes his message on the road. When Chevron Yeshiva, his alma mater, recently brought together alumni from many decades, he was one of the graduates selected to deliver a speech. He visits many Torah institutions and is frequently asked to speak. Part of his message always is, “Whatever you do, you must become a talmid chacham. Besides being obligatory, it will help you in anything you turn to. I owe my business success to the quality of my thinking, which was developed entirely through immersing myself in Torah literature.”
Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik offered an elegant hesped, eulogy, for Rabbi Ze’ev Gold, co-founder of Yeshiva Torah Vodaath and head of the World Mizrachi movement. Rabbi Soloveitchik called Rabbi Gold an “ish Rosh Chodesh,” an embodiment of Rosh Chodesh. All our holidays amply demonstrate their specialness through the laws that govern them. Their outer, discernable forms manifest their inner nature. Rosh Chodesh is very different—there are no restrictions on labor, no special meals. Yet it is still a special day. Its unique nature lies in its unexpressed—and often unnoticed—inner core, which operates entirely within a mundane, secular framework.
Ryzman points to the eulogy, because its message strongly resonates with him. His non-rabbinic garb masks the serious talmid chacham behind it, moving incognito in a mundane world with the hope of infecting it with his inner passion for Torah.
Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein is director of Interfaith Affairs at The Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, a member of the Jewish Action editorial board and a founding editor of Cross-Currents.com.