Vocation in a Vacuum

February 29, 2024

With not enough role models or mentors, the working yeshivah’man gets lost in the climb

Mattis Welik

Recently, there was a work-related gathering that left many erliche Yidden in my industry confused. There are many such gatherings throughout the year, and these events are organized and attended by a supermajority of frum people. Nevertheless, the events are designed as if they are secular work-related gatherings. The setting and food are opulent and incidentally kosher, and there is no programmatic or hashkafic Torah influence.

On the one hand, I and many others in my industry readily admit that these conferences are integral to the growth and success of our businesses. On the other hand, the dearth of a Torah lens necessitates that all the challenges of working in the secular world are present in this environment as well.

Unfortunately, this issue seems to become exponentially greater the closer we get to the core of Lakewood’s emerging business society. It appears that there is a void of Torah-based direction and modeling of the yeshivah’man in the business world.

Instead of placing blame or condemnation on the organizers or attendees of such events, let’s try to understand some elements of the collective experience and explore some solutions.

Let’s work backwards. First, unfortunately, so many people still believe that their working is a second-class alternative to full-time learning. That breeds guilt and low self-esteem and is usually counteracted with an equally unhealthy aspiration to become a gvir. We need to be energizing our “transitioning yungerleit” with the knowledge and feeling that they’re equally involved in fulfilling the ratzon Hashem. The Torah goal for a frum man who is going to work isn’t just that he should support Torah; it’s for him to become an adam hashaleim (yes, even working people can and should aspire to shleimus). It’s ironic that as the kollel yungerman transitions from learning to working, instead of our system supplying the most support as he confronts new challenges, this stage is usually accompanied by a feeling dropped from his ruchniyus support like a hot potato.

Next, who are the models for the working ben Torah? Generally, people can only aspire to what they relate to; in our generation, most yeshivah boys aspire to become like a gadol of the last generation or even to emulate their rebbi or rosh yeshivah, not to become Moshe Rabbeinu or a tanna or amora. Why? They’re too distant and unknown. In the world of the working ben Torah, the same concept applies: There are anshei amanah, but they’re few, and the respect due to them often gets drowned out by the broader society’s values, which extends kavod at best to gedolei Torah but too often to less-than-respectable gvirim.

On my flight back from the most recent conference, I was sitting next to a non-Jewish woman, a resident of Ocean County, and I politely asked her if she needed help with her bag. About halfway into the flight, she garnered up the courage to ask me something that had been on her mind for quite a while: “You seem very nice, but I’ve had some really awful interactions with people in your community. Can you help me understand why people in the Orthodox community look down on people like me so much?”

After asking some questions about her specific experiences, I tried to give her an answer that appreciates both the overall values of our society and how sometimes, some members of our community may inadvertently overlook accepted cultural norms and nuances of the secular society. Coming just short of commending me for trying to make a kiddush Hashem, she thanked me for giving her a new perspective.

Ironically, one point I explained to this woman was that there’s no separation between church and state in our value system. There’s no concept of secular and mundane; we know Hashem is found in all places and directing every moment. It’s not that we don’t have to confront the mundane, but we have a mandate to elevate it, to use our involvement in the secular or working world to make a kiddush Hashem. So the notion of any gathering of Yidden is prime for this kind of elevation; ignoring that is to commit the sin of prikas ol, abandoning our obligations.

Corresponding to each of these points above, here’s a stab at reverse engineering some solutions:

  1. It’s up to each individual to carefully consider their overall goal of the pursuit of their parnassah and to use that as a guiding light in determining how they spend their time conducting business. It would be amazing to have chaburahs looking through the sources brought in Ben Torah for Life and for this topic to be a more overt conversation in our halls and conference rooms.
  2. Every person needs a role model; ideally, one with whom they can have a personal relationship. Perhaps an official mentorship program or one in which chavrusas are set up between older working bnei Torah and the younger transitioning guys could help.
  3. It’s challenging in our society to find rabbinical leaders who have firsthand knowledge of what working in the secular world is really like. This can increase the ben Torah’s feeling of abandonment in his financial pursuits. Telling stories of the greatness of being honest in business, growing in emunah, and parading the values of the common man can help to facilitate more dialogue on the topic. Perhaps our publications can do more to help on this front.
  4. Last, we have a collective and individual responsibility to do anything we can to look for ways to follow the derech haTorah and elevate any environment with actions that reveal our holy mission. Can we use the venue of a conference to examine our ethical responsibilities regarding how we conduct business, highlighting and celebrating how our businesses do, in fact, reflect the values we hold most sacred?

Working bnei Torah need to check with themselves and ensure that all their endeavors reflect a Torah-true perspective. Ultimately, it’s our job in every situation to try to fulfill the ratzon Hashem, and especially in business, if we are successful, the result is a kiddush Hashem.

Mattis Welik is the founder and CEO of Healing Partners, a specialty wound care practice serving hundreds of long-term-care facilities. He is currently learning by Rabbi Simcha Bunim Londinski in BMG and is a close talmid of Rav Ahron Lopiansky.