As a senior executive of French-owned BNP Paribas Bank, one of the largest banks in the world, Jean-Marc Orlando held a position on Wall Street with which few could compete. Living in affluent Scarsdale in Westchester with his wife Barbara, a physician, and three daughters, the family was living the American Dream.
That is, until one day he suddenly found himself unemployed, dismissed after complaining about a training video he’d found offensive. Fortunately, after three years in court, a judge agreed that Jean-Marc had been subjected to a hostile work environment, and awarded him an undisclosed settlement.
It all began in July of 2011, when Jean-Marc was in Amsterdam to attend an off-site mandatory training seminar for his bank’s employees. As he was sitting in the conference room, he found himself watching a subtitled film that portrayed Hitler as the CEO of Deutsche Bank, one of BNP Paribas Bank’s competitors, and the Nazi soldiers around him as Deutsche Bank executives. The video showed Hitler in a bloodcurdling fit of rage, screaming and cursing at his underlings upon hearing the news that BNP Paribas had gained an edge in the foreign exchange market.
Jean-Marc told him that he was deeply offended, especially since his family had suffered at the hands of the Nazis. The same video was played a second time.
As a Jew, Jean-Marc was hurt to the core. Despite the fact that that particular film clip had been parodied numerous times by others (it was adapted from the 2004 movie Downfall), he found it unconscionable that he was being forced to watch it. As a high-ranking employee seated among over 100 other senior-level executives, he couldn’t simply get up and walk out. All he could do was remain frozen in his seat until the bitter end.
During the intermission, Jean-Marc’s manager, who had coproduced the film, casually asked him what he’d thought of it. Jean-Marc told him that he was deeply offended, especially since his family had suffered at the hands of the Nazis. Nonetheless, the same video was subsequently played a second time, despite his complaint.
As US Magistrate Court Judge Andrew Peck would later rule, the video “was not played in a vacuum. Orlando testified at his deposition that his colleagues made a number of anti-Semitic comments during his tenure at BNPP.”
Moreover, the judge cited an internal bank document noting that “there is a clear difference between an individual choosing at his discretion to watch a film about Hitler or YouTube footage of this clip on his own time and being forced to watch it twice as part of a training program (where he cannot switch it off or leave if it makes him feel uncomfortable).”
From that day on, Jean-Marc endured nasty comments and retaliation at work. “They gave him a poor performance appraisal, cut his bonus by 90% and wrote him up as a bad employee,” explained Jonathan S. Sack of the Manhattan law firm Sack and Sack, who represented Jean-Marc in the lawsuit. “They forced his job into oblivion and made him either quit or take a job back in Paris at 8% of his total compensation, which was ludicrous. He had brought up his three kids as Americans – they hardly spoke French – and his wife had made a tremendous sacrifice to move [to New York from Paris, where they’d originally lived], losing her license as a medical doctor and having to re-school from scratch. He wasn’t going to just pick up and move back after 22 years.”
Within three months of his complaint, Jean-Marc, whose work history was exemplary, had lost the very job for which he had emigrated to the United States.
Within three months of his complaint, Jean-Marc, whose work history was exemplary, had lost the very job for which he had emigrated to the United States. He decided to file a lawsuit against BNP Paribas North America, as well as his former supervisors. As required by law, in order to have the right to sue, he first filed a claim of discrimination with the US Equal Employment Commission (EEOC) and was given the go-ahead.
Surprisingly, it was hard to find a willing lawyer, especially a Jewish one. The first one he retained was hesitant, seeking to downplay the anti-Semitism involved. But in a stroke of good mazel, as Jean-Marc puts it, he was introduced to Jonathan Sack by a friend who had also filed a discrimination lawsuit for having been fired by Barclays Bank.
In the beginning, the lawyer insisted that even though he was Jewish he had no personal interest in the case. But as time wore on (it took almost three years to settle), he eventually admitted that he would give it as much time as it required – without a dollar up front – simply because he was convinced it was the right thing to do. It was not only a personal battle, but a battle for the klal.
After a Federal Court declined to dismiss the case, on the very eve of the trial BNP capitulated and settled the $40 million discrimination and retaliation lawsuit. Jean-Marc’s lawyers called the judge’s decision “a resounding victory in the fight against anti-Semitism in the workplace.” The case was actually precedent-setting, forever equating swastikas and other symbols of Nazism with illegal workplace conduct.
From the Frying Pan into the Fire
Sadly, Jean-Marc Orlando, who was raised in France, was no stranger to anti-Semitism. As a child, whenever he visited his grandparents in Tunisia for summer vacations, it wasn’t unusual for him be taunted for being Jewish as he frolicked on the golden beaches. His own grandmother, Hannah Sarfati, had narrowly escaped death at the hands of the Nazis. He had grown up hearing the story of how two German soldiers had entered her house and ordered her to follow them with her son, just a day before the Allies arrived in Tunisia.
She somehow sweet-talked them into drinking an alcoholic drink made from Tunisian figs, and after they were drunk, grabbed a frying pan and slammed it down on their heads, knocking them unconscious. Shoving their limp bodies outside she stayed up the whole night, worrying about the repercussions of what she’d done. Miraculously, with the arrival of the Allies, every German soldier fled the next day, sparing her their inevitable revenge. She always recounted this story to her family on Pesach as a symbol of her freedom.
His mother married a non-Jew and moved to France, hoping to erase any vestige of her Jewish identity.
His mother, however, did not wish to inflict the same traumatic upbringing on her children. She married a non-Jew and moved to France, hoping to erase any vestige of her Jewish identity. The couple settled in Versailles, and later gave their son a secular education. Little did they know that years later he would return to his Jewish roots and become a baal teshuvah. Jean-Marc even remembers how his mother once noticed some chasidic Jews in Paris dancing on Simchas Torah. She shut the window, rolling her eyes with disdain.
As a child, whenever Jean-Marc’s grandfather, Fradji Sarfati, visited from Tunisia, his daughter would implore him to immigrate to their French safe haven. But he would wag his finger knowingly, warning that one day Europe would also become hostile to Jews.
“When I was around seven,” Jean-Marc shares, “I noticed a packed suitcase under my grandfather's bed in Tunisia. When I asked him what it was he replied, ‘A Jew always needs to be able to leave in a hurry.’”
Jean-Marc was always fond of his Tunisian grandfather. It was he who taught him to read Hebrew, which would come in handy when he was struggling with his identity as an adolescent. Earnest by nature, the young Jean-Marc had once spent his pocket money to buy himself his first sefer: a Zohar! But it wouldn’t be until years later that he encountered some Chabad bachurim who invited him to a menorah lighting on Chanukah. He felt a surge of spirituality rush through him, instantly filling a void. He was glad about the fleeting experience, as it only confirmed what he was missing.
In 2000, at the age of 27, Jean-Marc married his Moroccan-born Jewish wife in an Orthodox ceremony. When their first child was born a year later Jean-Marc decided they had to establish a foundation for the family’s future, and resolved to keep kosher from that day on. Meanwhile, he could feel a growing anti-Jewish sentiment sweeping across Europe and recalled his grandfather’s prescient words.
Anxious about the situation, he started considering moving overseas with his wife. Not long afterward, seemingly out of the blue, his employer, BNP Paribas, called to offer him a post in their Manhattan branch, giving him only four hours to decide.
It was a difficult decision, as it would entail leaving their entire family behind. Neither Jean-Marc nor his wife had ever been to America, and their English wasn’t entirely fluent. Also, Barbara's medical degree wasn’t transferable, and she would have to repeat her studies. But within two hours they accepted the offer.
In America, the young family found themselves on their own. Almost all of the Jews in Westchester were Reform. When their second daughter was born and they went into a synagogue to inquire about naming the baby, they demanded exorbitant membership fees up front. “It was more like a country club than a synagogue,” he recalls.
Eventually, in 2005, Jean-Marc met Rabbi Benjy Silverman of Chabad of the Rivertowns, and was thrilled to find a listening ear. The Chabad rabbi became his counselor, mentor and friend all rolled into one.
“What’s the hardest thing you would have to sacrifice in order to be frum?” the Rabbi asked him early on.
Jean-Marc answered that the hardest part was spending five hours in shul on Shabbos, the one day he was off from work and could do things with his family. “Purim is easy,” he explained, “because it’s fun. Chanukah is also exciting. The Pesach Seder is an experience, and even Yom Kippur is a unique opportunity to atone for our sins. But Shabbos? Fifty-two times a year spending hours in prayer? Impossible!”
In response, Rabbi Silverman had only one request: that Jean-Marc come to shul that week “JFK” – “just for Kiddush.” He came as requested, was called up to the Torah, enjoyed having shul members shake his hand, but scooted out before Kiddush. The rabbi urged him to come again the following week for slightly longer. By then he already knew some of the other people but he still stared at the clock, watching it tick and waiting for the moment he could flee. By the third week, however, he stayed for Kiddush and realized that he suddenly had a new family. “Today,” he laughs, “I’m the last to leave!”
Jean-Marc with Rabbi Silverman
Living six miles away, getting to shul was a problem, but the not-yet-fully-observant Jean-Marc found a way around it, simply getting in his car and driving there every Shabbos morning. About a year later he decided that it was probably best to avoid the car’s combustion engine so he switched to a bicycle, pedaling his way to shul each week. As he continued to grow in his religious journey, he eventually realized that this too involved breaking Shabbos. The only permissible mode of transport, he learned, was on foot. It was time to make the commitment.
“I wouldn’t trade the trek for anything!” To him, it’s as gratifying as scaling Mount Everest.
At the age of 40, he found himself facing a 90-minute walk in each direction. Still, he was smitten by this new challenge and has been walking to shul on Shabbos for almost ten years now, rain or shine, and has been the catalyst for other shul-goers to ditch their cars. Dubbed “the walking Jews,” the four hikers meet up with each other at predetermined locations along the route. Jean-Marc’s commitment has made him a source of inspiration for other newcomers, with Rabbi Silverman holding him up as an example.
When I ask him if he would ever consider moving closer to the synagogue he exclaims, “You must be kidding! I wouldn’t trade the trek for anything!” To him, it’s as gratifying as scaling Mount Everest.
From Well-Heeled to Going Barefoot
After being made redundant in 2011, Jean-Marc went from being a successful banker to unemployed breadwinner. His wife assured him she’d put in more hours, but the change of fortune was intensely painful both emotionally and physically, and it took a toll on his health. He experienced difficulty breathing and started having panic attacks. “It was wrenching for my family,” he says.
More than once he was rushed to the emergency room, with one frightening episode in which his wife found him lying on the floor unconscious, certain that he’d collapsed from a heart attack and it was too late.
“At first I didn’t know if I should just pretend that it was a bad dream, shove it under the rug and move on. But then I realized that my mother’s desire to turn the page on our family’s past, thinking that she could free herself that way, had only backfired. I had to see this through to the end.”
His daughter recently told him something that made his day. In describing what her father had gone through she’d told a college friend, “My dad became a real Jew because of this ordeal.” It dissipated any regrets he might have had about embarking on the three-year lawsuit.
“I feel that if I had just taken things lying down and not stood up for my rights, I wouldn’t have been respected by my own daughters, who would have seen me as a failure. I truly hope to be able to serve as an example to future generations.”
Jean-Marc admits that it’s a good thing he was already observant before the drama began, as he was able to recognize the Divine Hand every step of the way. For example, the same week he was fired his wife was offered a better paying job, somewhat alleviating his dread of the future.
“As much as Jean-Marc’s emunah helped him through his struggle,” Rabbi Silverman later noted, “he also definitely made great strides in his Yiddishkeit because of it.”
Jean-Marc’s parents have also experienced a spiritual awakening, which makes his heart soar. His father, a non-practicing Catholic, even called him up several times to encourage him: “Go up to the judge and just tell him that you're a Jew, you're Orthodox, and you're proud of who you are."
The Unity Torah
Jean-Marc tells me he knew from the start that if he won his lawsuit, one of the first things he wanted to do was somehow repay Rabbi Silverman for his infinite time and support, at least symbolically. Several ideas crossed his mind, but he ultimately chose to have a sefer Torah written to unite the entire Jewish community. The hachnasas sefer Torah of this special Unity Torah is scheduled for next week.
Completing the sefer Torah
“What better way to show my gratitude than through something as eternal as a sefer Torah?” he asks me rhetorically. “A hundred years from now, when a young boy will read from it for his bar mitzvah, he will hear the story of how it came about. That legacy is surely more concrete than brick and mortar.”
But for Jean-Marc, the most heartwarming thing of all is that his mother has sponsored the Unity Torah’s cover.