Sunday, September 18, 2011

Sheldon Yellen - CEO and Mensch

Yesterday morning, we heard the words from the Torah portion Ki Tavo, which included the blessing that God shall make us the head and not the tail. This blessing is often repeated on Rosh Hashanah Eve and some even have the head of a fish on their holiday dinner table as a reminder of this blessing. According to the Torah, it is good to be the head.

That’s not always the case in the business world however. CEOs may have been blessed to be the “head” and not the “tail,” but it oftentimes seems like more of a curse. Over the past decade we’ve seen many disgraced CEOs who are not good examples of doing what's right. We certainly wouldn't consider the corporate heads of Enron, Tyco, Adelphia or WorldCom to be role models for our children.

There are exceptions. There are CEOs who demonstrate strong leadership skills along with ethical behavior. Several years ago I gave a sermon about Aaron Feuerstein, the CEO of Maden Mills, who after his entire plant burned down spent millions of his own money to keep all of his 3,000 employees on the payroll with full benefits for 6 months. Feuerstein consistently did the right thing even when it was difficult and he was faced with significant challenges. He claimed his strong ethical behavior and sense of justice as a corporate head were due to his faith and Talmud education.

Photo courtesy of Belfor

There is another CEO, who like Feuerstein, is striving to be a mensch and give back to his community. Sheldon Yellen, the CEO of Belfor is not your typical CEO. Tonight he'll be at the Emmy Awards, where his episode of "Undercover Boss" is nominated for an Emmy. Sheldon went undercover in the CBS reality show “Undercover Boss” and received an education about how hard his employees work and how difficult it is for them to make ends meet. Yellen was so moved by all the lower-level employees he met that he eventually broke down and revealed himself as the CEO of the international disaster restoration company that is based in Michigan. The episode is up for an Emmy Award in the category of Outstanding Reality Program.

Yellen’s episode of “Undercover Boss” is a long shot to win an Emmy tonight against the other nominees including “Hoarders,” “Antiques Roadshow,” “Deadliest Catch,” Kathy Griffin’s show, and an episode of “MythBusters” guest starring President Obama. But while Yellen may not win an Emmy tonight, he is quite deserving of a mensch award.

In the episode of "Undercover Boss," Sheldon demonstrated strong moral character and was able to show his emotions on national TV. Sheldon learned a great deal about his employees, their passion for the job, and how hard they work to support their families. He came off as an inspirational leader and the episode proved to be an important lesson for the upcoming Jewish holidays. I’m not the only rabbi who noticed that Sheldon’s experience of going undercover is a lesson for all of us as we approach Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Sheldon recently received a phone call from a Connecticut rabbi asking him to be the guest speaker at the community’s Selichot services this year. In his typical humble fashion, Sheldon couldn’t understand why the rabbi would want him to speak. However, he agreed and will be the featured speaker at Congregation Rodeph Sholom in Bridgeport this Saturday night. He’ll speak about his journey from a challenging childhood in Detroit to becoming a wealthy businessman and philanthropist. He'll also talk about system of values he draws on as a CEO.

Yellen and his three brothers were raised on Welfare by their mother in Detroit during the 1950s. Their father was a great person, but became sick and eventually developed an addiction to methadone after having nine stomach operations in the course of only two years. Growing up in an affluent Jewish community in which he and his brothers had to work from a very young age and with a father who was in prison (for dealing drugs) was difficult for Yellen. He told me that his mother didn’t have enough money to belong to a synagogue or send Sheldon to Hebrew School, but right before he turned thirteen she decided that it was important for him to have a bar mitzvah. An Orthodox synagogue agreed to let him have a bar mitzvah, but he didn’t have the Hebrew background. He was called to the Torah for his aliyah with the blessings transliterated in English on a piece of paper. The Orthodox men were expecting him to actually read from the Torah. It is a memory that has lasted with Yellen to this day.

In the past year Sheldon Yellen has made lasting contributions to his community. He bought a financially distressed private Jewish country club in order to keep its Jewish roots alive. He also funded a Toledo, Ohio-based yeshiva that had run out of living space for its young students. He was able to donate enough money so that the yeshiva could move into a new facility in suburban Detroit with enough room for both study and living quarters for its students. Yellen has also committed himself to Torah study at the local Detroit Kollel. The Jewish education he missed out on as a child is now one of his top priorities.

In addition to his philanthropy, Yellen has proved himself to be a very generous individual on a personal level. Recently, Michael Kenwood, a 39-year-old New Jersey volunteer EMT, was killed during Hurricane Irene while trying to save others’ lives. That hero's sister-in-law is Amy Margolis of Birmingham, Michigan. When Amy and her family were unable to get a flight to New Jersey for her relative’s funeral because of the hurricane, they had no choice but to get in the car and drive. She was already on the road making the Michigan-New Jersey trek when she received a call from Sheldon Yellen who offered to meet them on the road and escort them to the airport where they would board one of his two private jets.

Margolis was quoted in the Detroit Jewish News saying that Yellen’s act of kindness makes him a mensch and an angel. “I didn’t do anything anybody else wouldn’t have done,” Sheldon Yellen said.

In an era when CEOs don’t always do the right thing and often act immorally, it is refreshing to see Sheldon Yellen demonstrate that a CEO can also be a mensch and a role model. While he might not win an Emmy Award tonight, he certainly has made a positive difference in his own company and in his community. He’s made a fortune restoring properties, but Sheldon Yellen might just have enough integrity and generosity to restore the reputation of our nation’s disgraced CEOs.


rachel kapen said...

The shining example of Sheldon Yellen shows that being a successful businessman and a mentch are not mutually exclussiveAs we say in Hebrew: ken yirbu- may there be many like him. It simply broke my heart to read how in his bar mitzvah he was unable to read his brakhot in Hebrew and they had to be transliterated. I hope that during the years he managed to learn how to read Hebrew, it's never too late, and perhaps have the proper bar mitzvah he never had because of circumstances. How about you, Rabbi Jason, conducting his adult bar mitzvah?

Jenna S said...

I have the pleasure of supplying Sheldon his daily dose of caffein most mornings at starbucks. I have many customers that are mean and never take time to even acknowledge that we are also human beings. Sheldon always brings us a dose of sunshine and always takes the time to ask how we are. He helps us out with more than generous tips as he knows that we are all in school and sruggling to survive. I recently had shoulder surgery from a work injury, and he took the time to send me a nice note and some magazines...I didn't even get that from family! I just wanted to thank you for writing such a great blog about what most of us already know...sheldon is an amazing man!

Sundus P said...

Happy Birthday Sheldon, its so nice to know you and to be able to talk to you once a week. Your a great person to know and Jenna is right you bring everyone a dose of sunshine. Thank you for being so nice to me and have a great Birthday weekend!!

Anonymous said...

Mr Sheldon , my god if they had more men like u in the world my god u just touch me so much at the time I was having a miscarriage but when I was laying in the hospital some how u ease my pain I no it may sound crazy but it's true u simply touch me if most men can open up and don't be ashame of expressing there sensitive side my god i felt in love with u to hell with Obama you're my hero love . Tracey m. Marrero,la

Richard B said...

Having gone to school with Sheldon Yellen, I can tell you his acts of morality are not just for the camera. I didn't even know he was Jewish because he never boarded the bus that took the children to Hebrew School. His difficult childhood didn't hurt him. It only served to strengthen his character.

Anonymous said...

Sheldon, my name is Tricia Thomas...I have been trying to get a job for six months now and can't even get a second interview. I just found out you have a cleaning service in Indianapolis, IN. All I need is for someone to give me a chance. I'm a very hard worker and have also worked in the hotel business cleaning rooms. If your company will help me get a job I will not let you down. Thank you Tricia Thomas

Anonymous said...

Hello All: I am trying with great urgency to reach Sheldon Yellen. Rabbi, I noticed your blog and have very important information relevant to Mr. Yellen's business, and require that he contact me in earnest.
Please reach out to me at and use Mr. Yellen as he subject line. I will call you, and discuss. But please do not consider this as spam-I assure you it is very possible the most important bit of news he may have heard about his business to date.

Thank You,

for now just call me Rocky (it's a nickname).

Anonymous said...

I watched with great interest the episode where Sheldon Yellen went under cover;I did not realize that Sheldon was Jewish until almost the end; he seems extremely sensitive to other peoples feelings and problems; since my wife is from Detroit and her Grandfather-Rabbi Nathan Rubinstein was an orthodox Rabbi in the Chicago area; he was instrumental in starting the Hebrew Union College and her grandmother was in Palestein before it became Israel, I am pleased that Sheldon overcame family hardships to be of good service to the entire community; this is not an easy task, and unless you have gone through a similar situation of family upheaval, you cannot imagine how difficult it is. We have a farm in Ada, Michigan, just outside of Grand Rapids; Al Rosenberg married my cousin Phyllis; Al and his brothers had Friendship Builders; Al would bring in all family members on the week-end to the farm; we had horses and everyone had a good time.

Roger Plafkin
Plafkin Farms-View on and
2150 Buttrick
Ada, Michigan