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Aaron Feuerstein:  Recalling a True Mensch (January 2016)

Last month the Boston Globe reported in its Business section the closing of the Malden Mills factory in Lawrence.  Malden Mills was a huge textile factory whose primary product was Polartec, one of the country’s top winter apparel brands.  Polartec announced that it was moving its manufacturing operations in Lawrence and moving the work to plants in Hudson, NH, and Tennessee, undoubtedly due to cheaper labor and manufacturing costs.

The announcement of the closing came on the eve of the 20th anniversary a fire that destroyed most of the factory.  The factory could have and, by good business sense, should have closed then, not 20 years later.  But the owner of the factory at that time was Aaron Feuerstein, who, now at 89, is no longer involved in the business.

The logical and expected business move would have been to take the insurance money and close up shop.  Instead, he defied business logic and decided to rebuild, a process that took many months, if not a year. And during this rebuilding period, he decided to do something else that defied all business logic:  he continued to pay his workers, somewhere in the neighborhood of 300 people, and maintain their health insurance. This took most observers by surprise, including his workforce, and he became their hero. 

His actions, because they were so unexpected and atypical, attracted extensive local and even national  media coverage.  He spoke of his decision based on his considering his workers stakeholders and part of the family and not merely “a pair of hands.”  Feuerstein, an Orthodox Jew, also spoke of the Jewish values that he learned from his parents and from his Jewish education that drove his decision, values like hesed (loving kindness, or compassion) and doing the right thing. 

I recall images of Feuerstein on local TV at home praying in the morning wearing his tallit and tefillin.  I remember him citing Rabbi Hillel’s teaching from Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers, a tractate of the Mishnah, 2:6), “In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man.”  “Man” here is understood as “a worthy person,” or, as we Jews prefer, a “mensch.”  Feuerstein referred specifically to this teaching as a primary influence on his wanting to do the right thing by his workers, the “menschlich” thing.

Aaron Feuerstein’s words and actions twenty years ago were an embodiment of a principle in Jewish thought called Kiddush Hashem, sanctifying God’s name.  When a Jew does something good in the public arena, he or she sanctifies the name of God, for the deeds of each Jew are a reflection of the Jewish God and Torah.  Conversely, when a Jew does something wrong or bad in the public sphere, that is an act of Hillul Hashem, of desecrating God’s name in public.

If Feuerstein had done what he did for his employees, that alone would have been Kiddush Hashem.  But for him to attribute what he did to Torah, to Jewish values, how much more so!  He walked the talk, so to speak, and in so doing, did a great thing not only for his employees, but for his people and tradition.  He was, and is, a true mentsch! 

Sun, November 17 2019 19 Cheshvan 5780