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At Yom Kippur, business leaders profit from reflecting on ethics

At the High Holy Days, a season for contemplating personal failings and achievements in the year past can be a time to take stock of financial practices and relationships too.

Leah Zakh Aharoni, left, a Jerusalem-based 
business coach, hosts a monthly meetup for religious Jewish businesswomen. The most recent meeting, held before the start of the High Holy Days, was devoted to ethical business practices. RNS photo by Michele Chabin

JERUSALEM (RNS) — Roughly one-sixth of the 613 commandments in the Torah, the Hebrew Scriptures, touch on business and monetary practices. The Talmud, the commentary on Jewish law, fleshes out these principals with real-life scenarios.

At the High Holy Days, when Jews contemplate their failings and achievements in the year past, these commandments carry special meaning for those in business.

That’s why in late August, two weeks before the beginning of the Jewish New Year, Leah Zakh Aharoni, a business coach in Jerusalem, devoted her monthly meetup for religious businesswomen to business ethics and invited Rabbi Yoel Domb, who teaches Jewish business ethics at Touro College, to speak.

Ne’eelah, the fervent final Yom Kippur prayer service, “is a special time to request from God the opportunity to repay our debts and fulfill our financial obligations,” said Domb.

High Holy Day prayer services contain several references to what Domb calls “monetary misdemeanors,” like delaying payment, petty theft and unscrupulous financial interactions between people.

Rachel Moore, a public relations professional and the owner of Hub Etzion, a co-working office space in Efrat, south of Jerusalem, said she was mindful of these basic money morals.

“We have petty cash at the Hub — just a few shekels,” said Moore. “It would be easy not to report Value Added Tax to the tax authority. But making sure to report everything is spiritually important.”

But the Holy Days are about more than being scrupulous about finances.

“Business is part of Judaism, and the chagim, the High Holidays, are all about introspection,” said Aharoni.

Ilana Goodman during a meeting of Aharoni’s businesswomen’s group in Jerusalem. RNS photo by Michele Chabin

Ilana Goodman, a translator and a member of Aharoni’s businesswomen’s group, said the High Holy Days inspire her to take stock of where her business is now and where she would like it to be a year from now.

“The month of Elul” – the time on the Jewish calendar where the High Holy Days fall – “makes me stop and think,” Goodman said. “Have I given enough respect to my clients and others I know? Even if someone doesn’t hire me, I want to know that at the end of our phone conversation there are good feelings between us.”

The thoughtfulness that comes with the season, said Aharoni, who earns a living coaching others, prompts her to reflect on whether her business is on the right path.

“It’s taking stock of where I am and where I want to be. I want to serve people, but am I as precise as I could be in my vision?”

Aharoni, who like many of her clients is an Orthodox Jew, offers executive coaching to many more women than men.

“This Elul, I’m asking myself, ‘Is my service as effective for men as it is for women?’ My female clients tell me I push them ahead on the one hand and hug them with the other.

“But because I’m religious I won’t hug a man either literally or figuratively. Would male clients be better served by a different coach?”

The holidays are not only about probing one’s doubts. Jonathan Medved, CEO of OurCrowd, an equity-crowdfunding platform for Israeli and global startups, said the new year is a good time to reflect on his company’s bottom line, but also on the important role startups and their investors can play in building society.

“Rosh Hashanah is the birthday of man’s creation. Our job is to be partners with God in that creation,” Medved said.

Rachel Moore. Photo courtesy Hub Etzion

Moore feels her High Holy Day insights make her a better businesswoman, and a better mother. “I strive to be transparent, patient, clear and honest with my clients and co-workers,” she said.

“Now,” the mother of eight said, “I need to apply that same level of thoughtfulness and patience I give to my clients to my husband and children.”

Eytan Buchman, vice president of marketing at Freightos, a freight importing startup based in Israel, also checks in this time of year about how his life is going. Working at a startup, he says, “means everything happens quickly.”

“At the same time you’re evaluating the previous quarter you’re already knee-deep in planning the next one. During the holidays, I like to reflect on my work-life balance and the interplay between the two,” Buchman said.

The season can be a potent antidote to the “rough and tumble” of running an organization, said Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, president of RespectAbility, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit that advocates for the rights of people with disabilities.

“Sometimes there is competition around who gets credit for what work, who raises what money and which plan is the best for moving an agenda forward,” Mizrahi said.

As Yom Kippur approaches, Mizrahi likes to settle her personal accounts to start the new year with a clean slate. “At this time of year especially I reach out to people,” she said. She connects via Facebook and email to ask for forgiveness. “I also reach out to specific individuals where there may have been some friction in the past.

“People don’t always reach back,” she said, “but sometimes they do and it’s beautiful.”