From Bear Stearns To Bava Metzia

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31 Jul 2008

The title of this article is From Bear Stearns to Bava Metzia, but it’s really about some life lessons I’ve picked up over the last few months since my company – that I was with for 20 years and that was in business for 86 years – disappeared in the midst of a financial crisis and panic – making me a “Bear Stearns refugee,” but more importantly a “kollel boy.”

I am used to presenting to a financial crowd, so I will use my standard approach in my 25 years on Wall Street and start with my conclusions, and then work back to the beginning. This is the opposite style of most Torah commentaries, but I’m still new at this kollel life (being full-time in an institution for the studying of Talmud).

My conclusions? G-d runs the world. Your prayers are answered so think carefully about what you pray for. Think about your legacy. Every benefit has a cost and every cost has a benefit. Handling tests – it’s easier than you think.

Lesson #1: G-d runs the world

When Bear Stearns collapsed, it shocked the world. It was not the normal course of events. Companies that are in business for 86 years without so much as a losing quarter (except for the last one) don’t go out of business and they don’t go out of business overnight. I have been amazed at the level of fascination with our demise and the circumstances surrounding our last days.

Many people have asked me if I knew or sensed what was happening. Actually, it was just the opposite. We knew we were having a bad year, but we were in cyclical business. We’ve had good years and bad years. In fact, my area – equities – was having a good year and the firm was profitable again – highlighting (we thought) the strength of the business model. We just weren’t going out of business….

But then, we did. We went out of business. Whose fault was it? Was it our new CEO? Our ex-CEO? The shorts? The press?

I developed a different perspective. Let me digress with a reference to tehillim, psalms. The backdrop for the third perek of tehillim is rather unusual. Dovid Hamelech thanks Hashem during the rebellion of Avshalom. As I heard from Rav Yissocher Frand, the normal course of events is not for a son to rebel against the father. Usually it is a political opponent or an aide. But these circumstances – the rebellion by his son Avshalom – were extremely unusual. To Dovid, that was a sign that this rebellion was outside nature, outside teva, and that Hashem was watching over him and was involved in Dovid’s life and that G-d runs the world.

What happened to Bear Stearns was outside teva.

Until the demise of Bear Stearns, I knew what my schedule was going to be – more or less – for the next year or so. I was working on projects through the year 2010. I was firmly in control and I knew what the future would be.

But it wasn’t to be. I learned that I was not in control. For many of us, we went through – l’havdil (if you can compare) – many of the signs associated with shiva (first seven days of mourning for the deceased). We were in denial, we were angry, we were depressed. Finally, we began to accept our situation.

I, too, went through these stages. I was in denial. I was angry. I was depressed. Because I was not in control.

I’m passed that now but I was only able to get beyond it because I came to realize Who is in control of the world. The events at Bear Stearns are all part of His plan. You can be angry with His plan but it doesn’t change His plan. At one level, it’s like going to a museum and getting angry at the exhibits. But that is a rather silly reaction because it doesn’t change the exhibits so you may as well enjoy the museum.

Lesson #2 – Your prayers are answered so think carefully about what you pray for

We are relative newcomers to Teaneck. We moved here about three years ago. I think the most important force one faces in life is peer pressure – for better or worse – so you have to focus carefully on what the peer pressures are where you live and work. In Teaneck, there is peer pressure to learn. Everyone does it. Every shul competes to have the best learning. The batei medrash (halls of study) are thriving and the shiurim attract crowds. That is one of the main reasons that we moved here.

I had often thought about taking some time off for learning. While my children are “frum (religious) from birth,” Nancy and I are ba’alei teshuva, we turned to embrace Orthodox Judaism – I have done many things, but I essentially see myself as a bit of an idiot savant, that is, I have “done the daf” for over 10 years and attended multiple shiurim, but I had never learned the basics: tefilla (prayer), gemara (Talmud) without English on the other side, Chumash with Rashi and other meforshim (commentaries).

I thought about taking a sabbatical. But I would only do it with these two conditions: I could not take off after a good year, since I needed just one more good year. And I could not take off after a bad year since I really needed a good year to take off. Outside of these two mutually exclusive conditions, I would take time off to learn.

I had started talking to Rabbi Eliyahu Roberts, Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshiva Gedola of Teaneck, several months ago. He and I had started learning gemara about once a week – on laws of taking interest – but I realized it was not enough to get me to where I wanted to be. So we began to talk about learning at the yeshiva with some of the boys one or two mornings a week. I think we started to talk about this last November or so. But – when it came down to it — I could never find the time.

Hashem found the time for me. He cleared my entire schedule. Hashem opened up all of my mornings. Arranged a sabbatical year for me, so to speak.

As I mentioned a moment ago, I saw what happened to Bear Stearns as an “act of G-d.” As we learn though, we never know what G-d’s plan is and I certainly don’t know why Bear Stearns went out of business. But I knew that the message – whatever it is – is that something is supposed to change. It’s not business as usual. Ironically, I had a position if I wanted it at the new firm. In fact, the person who did what I did at JP Morgan coincidentally resigned the day Bear went out of business – for entirely unrelated reasons. So I could have glided from one spot to the next – from one vine to the next – with nary a glitch. But the emails we get from Hashem aren’t always so clear. That is where prayer comes in.

But Hashem does answer prayers. Sometimes it is murky and unclear and sometimes it is a smack on the side of the head.

So that is how I ended up learning two hours a day at Yeshiva Gedola of Teaneck with my excellent chevrutot (study partners).

Being in kollel is not as odd as you think. While there is a generational difference, we recently had a grandchild, so I can talk strollers and pediatricians. Just not about diaper changing. I leave that to the next generation….

Lesson #3 – Think about your legacy

I was on Wall Street for 25 years including 20 years at Bear Stearns. I had some great calls and made people a lot of money (and may have lost people a lot of money at times as well). I was on the Institutional Investor All-Star team for 16 years, the Wall Street Journal All-Star team for nine years.

But that is not what I will be remembered for from my years at Bear Stearns. The frum world remembers me for running the Bear Stearns minyan (prayer group) – thanks to an email from one of the participants.

Just a bit of history. When Bear Stearns was at 245 Park Avenue, there was a minyan in the stairwell – owing to its legacy as an Olympia & York building. That changed when we moved to a new building at 383 Madison. With tighter security, there was no common area for the minyan so we stopped meeting. A few months after disbanding, a summer intern from YU asked me if I could get a minyan going. In the new building I was able to get the conference room next to my office and we were off and running.

In fact, word got around and we started attracting outsiders from nearby firms. Then – after a few weeks – I got a call from Human Resources at Bear.

“I heard you have a minyan at Bear,” he said.

“Sure, do you want to attend?”

“No, but there is a problem. There were issues around security with outsiders coming to a ‘secure’ floor.”

“What can we do?” I asked.

I left it in their hands and in Hashem’s hands.

It turns out that there is a law that requires a company to provide its employees with reasonable accommodation for prayer. So while the company did not want an official “Bear Stearns minyan,” they agreed to give me a room every day for prayer – for the “Andy Neff meeting” — and to which I could invite some of my friends to enable me to have a minyan. Hence the minyan, where we regularly had 20-30 people and, on a fast day when we had a sefer Torah, we would have more than 100 people.

Here is the final irony. Bear Stearns is gone. But the minyan – which started at 245 Park — lives on. Roughly one third of the attendees were from JP Morgan, which owned three buildings adjacent to our headquarters, so we simply transferred the management of the minyan over to JPMorgan. A perfect plan for how to make Bear Stearns go away without interfering with the ongoing minyan.

Lesson #4 – Every cost has a benefit and every benefit has a cost

Wall Street is a great place to have a career – especially from a financial standpoint. Moreover, there is the prestige associated with Wall Street and the power, and so on and so forth. What’s wrong with that?

In Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers), perek dalet (fourth chapter), first mishnah, Ben Zoma asks: who is wise – the person who learns from everyone else. Who is strong? The person who controls himself. Who is rich? The person who is happy with what he has. Who is honored? The person who honors other people. What is it that ties all these comments together? What ties them together is that each of the middos – wisdom, strength, wealth, honor – can only come from you – no one else can really provide it for you because if you depend on others for these attributes, then they all go away when the external forces, the people go away.

There is a cost to being on Wall Street – and probably in other high-powered positions. You lose track of priorities. You live with such stress all the time that you don’t know what it is like not to have stress. The analogy I use is of a scuba diver who lives from oxygen tank to oxygen tank, not realizing that all the oxygen in the world is available to him five feet above on the surface.

There is a gemara in Pesachim – and again in Bava Batra – that says Olam hafuch rai’si, that in Olam Haba we see that the World to Come is inverted from this world. That was a hard gemara for me to understand until I left the high-powered world. In that world, what you think is important loses its importance. The things I feared losing the most were the small things: a secretary, car services, etc. The thing I had given up most easily was time – time with family, quality and quantity time. And that, I realize, has the most value.

I’m not saying that effort is not required and that you shouldn’t devote time to your work – just that there are ways to do it without stress. And – much of it seems so unimportant in retrospect. And also, as we saw in the comments on B’nei Reuven and B’nei Gad, you need to keep your priorities straight.

Lesson #5 – Handling tests – it’s easier than you think

At one level, I believe that I am fortunate to have this test at this stage in my life.

We learn that Hashem never gives us a test that we cannot handle. To me, conversely, that says that I was not ready to handle this test until now. I feel thankful that I have matured to a level that I can handle something like this.

Moreover, for many of us, our careers are our lives, or close to it after our families. The loss of a career is devastating at many levels – some of which I have noted already. And financial turmoil is another nightmare.

But the positive for me is learning that I can deal with it. It’s a new reality, but I am ready for the next reality.

Many ask what the key is to a Jewish community. To some, it is the kosher pizza restaurant. To others, it is a lot of shuls. But what really makes the community whole is the Torah it propagates. Being able to bring Torah to the world is a valuable asset – and I am skilled at identifying undervalued assets.

Andrew Neff was a leading securities analyst on Wall Street including the last 20 years at Bear Stearns, recognized by Institutional Investor and the Wall Street Journal as an All-Star. He now learns in the Yeshiva Gedolah of Teaneck in the morning.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.