We're accustomed to distinguishing between rabbis and laymen, but this distinction is a function of our contemporary, specialized, and segmented labor market. It is a distinction without history or merit in Jewish life. Jewish law mandates that business people dedicate time to acquiring wisdom and to involvement in community affairs. So too, rabbis are obligated to make a living in business or as professionals. (Maimonides was a doctor.)
The Talmud suggests that the first question asked in the afterlife -- of rabbis as well as laymen -- is, "Were you ethical in business?" The second question, posed to laymen as well as rabbis: "Did you set aside time to learn Torah?"
Dick Horowitz embodies this ideal to an exceptional degree. One of the outstanding professionals in the insurance industry, Dick has written over $4 billion worth of insurance for his clients.
The first question asked in the afterlife is, "Were you ethical in business?"
But the lion's share of Dick's time and income goes to helping people. He serves on the board of Aish HaTorah, as well as other Jewish communal organizations in which he plays an active managerial role. He spends many hours weekly counseling young people about their future, and teaching a marriage class. And in a society where charity is a virtue honored in the breach, Dick and his wife, Bev, give 30 to 50 percent of their annual income to charity.
There was little in Dick's background to suggest his emergence as a prominent philanthropist and model of professional probity. His story reinforces the conviction that a financially deprived childhood is a challenge but not a sentence. And it encourages those of us for whom "doesn't work to potential" is a regular report card mantra.
Aish.com interviewed Dick in his Beverly Hills office.
Aish.com:You are now a wealthy man, respected as both a businessman and philanthropist. Did your upbringing lead you naturally to these achievements?
Dick Horowitz:I think we're all a product of our environment. I grew up in a public housing project in Hartford, Connecticut. My father was a milkman and then he became a peddler. He would drive around with a carload of stuff, selling everything from underwear and socks, to refrigerators and engagement rings. That business died when discount stores opened, so he went back to being a milkman.
In the project, all the kids hustled for money. By age 13, you were working summers as a caddie, mowing lawns, or in the tobacco fields. In the winter you worked shoveling sidewalks and setting up pins in the bowling alley. And a lot of people in the neighborhood, including myself, played cards for money and hung out at the bookmakers. When I went to college it was primarily at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas where I worked as a dealer in gambling casinos.
So, yes, I was a product of my environment. It was primarily the influence of my wife which helped me to go in the opposite direction! Though she grew up without much Jewish observance, she had absorbed and lived with a strong sense of Jewish morality. Gradually these traits rubbed off on me.
Aish.com:You give away a sizable percentage of your annual income to charity. How do you decide where to put your money?
We want the highest rate of return, something that will profoundly impact the rest of their life.
Horowitz:Many people write checks to charity without knowing where the money's going. My wife and I approach it like a business. Hard work and God's help earns this money. We want our highest rate of return. If we're helping an individual, we try to do something that will have a profound impact on the rest of their life. For example, we've made it a priority to try to get young people to visit Israel. We'll loan them money, give them airline tickets, help them arrange a leave of absence from work, sublet their apartment, whatever it takes.
Aish.com:Why the emphasis on getting people to Israel?
Horowitz:We were always proud of being Jewish, but it had zero impact on our life. But then, like a lot of people my age, the '67 war galvanized me. Everyone was terrified that Israel was going to lose. Someone asked one of the Israeli generals how long the war would go on, and he said, "Six days." When they asked, "How can you be so sure," he said, "Because that's all the ammunition we have."
I knew then that Israel was central to the Jewish soul.
Aish.com:Did anything else solidify your commitment?
We were shocked that American Jewry was losing tens of thousands of young people each year.
Horowitz:In the mid-'70s, a study by a Harvard demographer showed that American Jewry was losing tens of thousands of young people each year. That figure shocked us. We felt we had to do something. But we couldn't conceive of investing time, energy, money -- and most importantly, emotional commitment -- in a process that had continuing and accumulating losses.
So I decided to go find an organization that could significantly reverse these numbers.
Aish.com:How do you determine which organizations to support, and where to put your resources?
Horowitz:I apply business criteria. First, look for an organization with a track record of success and making a significant impact. Then, is the organization getting a good rate of return on money invested? And finally, be sure that the organization has the leadership and infrastructure in place, so that given additional funds, they would expand the nature and scope of their activities to make a significant difference in the Jewish world over the next 50-100 years.
When I sit with an organization's directors, I ask multiple questions: Why were you formed? Who are your founders? Where did they get the idea? Where do you get your teachers? How many students do you have? Where do you get your students? How do you train your students? What happens to your students after they leave? What's the impact on them? What's the impact on their families?
Aish.com:What other factors go into evaluating an organization?
Horowitz:As a businessman, nothing is more important than developing leadership, people who can take responsibility and do the job. Otherwise you have an inherent self-limitation. Andrew Carnegie was asked, many years after he founded U.S. Steel, whether given the changes in the economy and sociology of America, if he could be so successful again. And he said: "Give me the same handful of associates that I had running U.S. Steel, and yes, I'll do it again."
So we want an organization that is not only affecting individuals, but is also developing them into leaders who will in turn affect others.
Aish.com:You're the North American President of Aish HaTorah. How did you get involved with Aish?
Horowitz:In 1980 I took a fact-finding trip to Israel, to check on a new innovation, the Baal Teshuva movement, the return to Judaism among young adults. In my research, I found a strange pattern. Of the schools dealing with issues of Jewish assimilation, almost all of them had either been founded by Rabbi Noah Weinberg himself, or by an associate of Rabbi Noah Weinberg, or by a student of Rabbi Noah Weinberg.
Imagine if I was buying a construction company in Los Angeles, and checked out different companies, and found out that most of them had been founded by the same person or one of his associates, and they were all using that person's business techniques and philosophies. It would be an excellent indicator of where to invest. So we went with Aish, and we haven't been disappointed.
Aish.com:In your years of combating assimilation, what has been your biggest insight in terms of strategy and approach?
Horowitz:Originally there was a general sense of apathy that was infecting Jewish life, and focused on how were the Jewish people going to survive. If you look at Jewish organizational life in America, most people focus on the "how" -- how will Israel survive, how will the Jewish community stem assimilation, etc.
Jewish knowledge leads to Jewish pride, which leads to Jewish survival.
Aish showed me it is more effective to raise and answer another question: "Why? Why should the Jewish people survive? What can Judaism do for me?" Once you teach people the "why," and "what's in it for me," most of the "how" takes care of itself. Jewish knowledge leads to Jewish pride, which leads to Jewish survival. It flows naturally.
Aish.com:As a life insurance professional, what changes have you seen since the events of September 11?
Horowitz:September 11 has people rethinking their mortality. So as far as the insurance industry is concerned, you're seeing a lot more 27-year-olds buying term insurance, who otherwise would never have considered it.
Aish.com:Let's get back to the principle of charity. Jewish law says to give a minimum of 10 percent of your income to charity. But you give much more.
Horowitz:The first year Bev and I made any reasonable amount of money, we gave 10 percent. That was the hardest money we ever gave, because we were just barely making ends meet. Since then it's gotten easier and easier. The following year we made more money, so we gave 15 percent. We kept increasing it gradually, pushing ourselves to expand our giving, but not to the point where we'd feel deprived and resentful. For the last 15 years, we've been giving 30 to 50 percent of what we make annually.
Aish.com:Why don't you keep more of your money in the family?
Money is like manure. Either you have a big smelly pile, or you spread it around and make things grow.
Horowitz:Someone once said that money is like manure. If you put it in a big pile, all you get is a big smelly pile. If you spread it around, you make a lot of wonderful things grow. We don't understand the philosophy of people who just accumulate money. If you give too much money to your kids, you ruin your kids. And if you happen to get lucky with your kids, you'll ruin your grandchildren, and eventually the money's lost. Very few families keep money for generations.
Being involved with Aish and the Jewish people has helped us raise two wonderful sons, which brought us two fabulous daughters-in-law, and already six beautiful grandchildren.
So we don't really worry. The Jewish concept is that if you take care of the Almighty's children, He'll take care of your children. This philosophy has worked for us.
Aish.com:What personal satisfaction do you get from your charitable acts?
Horowitz:The satisfaction comes in knowing we've made an impact. We often get beautiful letters, primarily from young people who we've assisted in going to Israel, saying how we've helped change their lives. We read them, and then Bev puts them in a box. We've never gone through the box, but we figure that's the legacy for our children and grandchildren.