Feuerstein speaks about living Torah values

BY KEREN DOUEK, STAFF WRITER

Rabbi Shmuel Greenwald, director of education at Aish HaTorah in St. Louis, says he personally remembers hearing about the story of Malden Mills and the New England fabric manufacturer whose CEO, Aaron Feuerstein, rebuilt the mill after it was destroyed in a fire and continued to pay his workers even when there was no work for them to do.

“It was something I think which hit us deeply, and I think in a time right now when we have the Enron trial going on and various other types of affairs going on, it is very nice to hear this kind of a story,” Greenwald said as he introduced Feuerstein to a crowded room as part of the 2006 Aish HaTorah St. Louis Jewish Speakers Series.

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According to Feuerstein his ethical values stemmed from a solid upbringing, and his Jewish roots and connection with the Torah, and he particularly remembers one day in the 1930s when as a child at the dinner table he listened to his father speak of his experiences working at the age of 14 in his father’s factory.

“My father explained to us he was shocked to see my grandfather going around each evening at the close of the workday and paying each worker at the end of the day in cash the amount of money that was due him,” Feuerstein said.

When Feuerstein’s father tried to explain to his dad that this was not the way business was done, and that he should pay his employees by check the following week, his father’s response was, “It is against the Torah.”

“I, as a little boy, thought how could this possibly be against the Torah?” Feuerstein said. Following his public school classes the next day Feuerstein went to his maternal grandfather for his regular Hebrew lessons and asked him the question, and his grandfather opened the Torah to Vayikra (Leviticus).

Feuerstein read: “‘You have no right to oppress the working men, the poor and needy from amongst your brethren and the stranger, the non-Jew in your community. Every single day you have to pay him his wages because he is poor and the expectation of those wages is what keeps his soul alive.'”

On Dec. 11, 1995, Feuerstein was at a surprise birthday party arranged by his daughter for his 70th birthday. Nobody told Feuerstein about the fire that at the same time was tearing apart his mills, “because my daughter did not want to disturb the party, nor disturb her daddy,” Feuerstein said.

Once he was notified, later in the evening, the family went to the scene and found what he describes as a “ghastly sight.”

“Three major buildings of the mill complex were burning to the ground. All of the fire departments of Lawrence and all the areas of northern Massachusetts were fighting the fire, alas to no avail. All of our workers, their families and a large percentage of the Lawrence community were there. Their faces with tears in their eyes displayed their despair. That was because they were witnessing the destruction of our mills; their last hope for employment in the city which had lost its manufacturing status to cheap labor elsewhere,” he said.

Feuerstein noticed that the fourth building was enveloped in smoke but still standing and thought that perhaps if the critical machinery in that building could be salvaged, the company could be salvaged. He was told that he was a dreamer and that all of the buildings would burn to the ground before the morning.

“I was at the mill the very next morning at 7 a.m.,” he said, “and the fourth building was standing. It had been saved. The company was saved, not as a result of the fire department, they considered the task impossible. It was as a result of 29 dedicated workers in our security and maintenance departments who fought the fire all night and saved the building. As a result of their courage and sacrifice hope was restored. It is no wonder that I maintain that our workers are our greatest asset.”

Feuerstein said in today’s business world the entire emphasis is placed on the profitability of the shareholder, but “we must remember our commitment to the other stakeholders — the worker, the community, and the environment. The welfare of the other stakeholders is absolutely critical for the health of our economy.”

“If the self-dignity of the worker was important 3,000 years ago, in the Torah, how much more so is it important today in our global and world trade economy where outsourcing via offshoring is not merely considered ethical but it is actually demanded by the financial world in order to maximize profitability to the shareholder.”

Keren Douek is a staff writer and can be reached at [email protected]