BUILDER OF CHABAD INSTITUTIONS
October 28, 2014
Beis Moshiach in #946, Profile

Amos Barzilai was the king of Tel Aviv nightlife and became one of the main supporters who built up the mosdos of the Chabad yeshiva in Ramat Aviv and supports hundreds of other Chabad mosdos. * Barzilai speaks for the first time in an interview with R’ Shneur Chaviv about giving tz’daka, about the involvement of wealthy people in the mosdos they support, about combining the world of business and the world of Torah, about his special connection to Chassidus and to the Rebbe and more.

 

I know Amos Barzilai for nearly fifteen years, from the first day I set foot in Ramat Aviv. He is a tall man with an impressive presence and great charisma. His strong bass voice makes it hard for him to remain behind the scenes. Amos is the type of fellow who immediately turns into the hub around which events unfold.

We arranged to meet at the end of the business day at his company headquarters in an office building on the outskirts of Petach Tikva. I arrived at the end of a target day at the company. Dozens of employees filled the central auditorium and the nearby rooms. They are required to achieve certain goals by the end of the secular month. The auditorium is bedecked with balloons, music plays in the background, and lots of prizes and gifts are scattered on the tables that are meant for those employees who met their targets. Every so often the central computer shows that an employee met his target which provokes him to jump up and down and generates applause from the rest of the crowd.

From a large window in his office Amos looks out over the large auditorium. He is busy with one meeting after another. In between he comes out and apologizes that our meeting is being postponed again and again.

Although he is sitting in an office, his presence is very much felt. Just his being there is enough to motivate dozens of employees to produce just a bit more than they thought they could. But if you would meet Amos while davening, at a shiur or with a chavrusa, you would see him sitting like a humble student and learning with zest.

That’s Amos Barzilai, someone who was the king of Tel Aviv nightlife, who went on to become a businessman, and became a baal t’shuva to whom Torah, t’filla, and tz’daka are the focal points of his life; they are why he continues to make money.

Speaking of Torah, t’filla and tz’daka, tz’daka is definitely the dominant element of the three. Although the number of institutions and organizations he supports are numerous, it would be true to say that the project that he is signed up for with pride and humility is the Chabad yeshiva in Ramat Aviv which he has been involved in since its inception. It’s his baby. It is hard to imagine the yeshiva in Ramat Aviv without Amos Barzilai and even harder to imagine Barzilai without the yeshiva.

***

Amos leans his executive chair back as far as it goes and crosses his legs. If he would smoke, it would be the perfect position in which to light up a fine cigar. We went on to have a fascinating discussion for an hour that seemed like ten minutes.

“I think that in general, recently, Torah is penetrating more and more into our reality. People are beginning to see it, to feel it and to internalize it. Whether it’s in business, the media, on the street; in general, the conversation of Israelis has changed. G-dliness has entered daily life.”

DIVINE PROVIDENCE
ON IBN GABIROL

You walk around Ibn Gabirol or Dizengoff where people fill the cafes and entertainment halls, exactly where does G-dliness come into the picture. Are you telling me people are sensing G-dliness?

Definitely. Today, people are feeling and living G-dliness, even on Ibn Gabirol or the Ramat Aviv mall. They just call it by other names. One calls it karma, another calls it positive energy and a third calls it cosmic love. But all these terms say the same thing and this is because they don’t yet know the right terms for the feelings they have that come from an arousal of their G-dly soul. In my opinion, this is also one of the most powerful signs that the Geula is practically here.

Where does the average Israeli encounter G-d?

In divine providence.

And we haven’t had this before?

We always had it, but people did not pay attention to it. They did not give it its proper recognition. Today people are beginning to talk about it. Suddenly, it is seeping into awareness; it is like something you have in front of your eyes all the time and you didn’t pay attention and suddenly, you notice it.

I’ve been thinking about something lately. We say the bracha each morning that Hashem opens the eyes of the blind. Why do we word it that way? Are most people blind who have had their eyes opened? Why doesn’t it simply say that He opens our eyes?

I think that blindness is when you don’t see G-dliness in the world, it’s when you’ve experienced divine providence but you don’t notice it; that’s blindness. And when the Creator leads you through a series of events and you understand them, when you understand what it’s saying to you, when you see the divine providence, that is the opening of the eyes of the blind. This opening is being felt more and more in the Israeli public arena wherever you turn.

The HaYom Yom talks about the divine providence seen by businessmen as opposed to those who sit and learn. As someone who lives in the Israeli business world, do you see this as true in the general public?

That’s precisely what I’m telling you. Take all the business tycoons from Yitzhak T’shuva and up or down, and you see that all of them are going to rabbanim. That is a phenomenon of the past decade, that every businessman has his rabbi. Where do you have a rav from? A rav used to be the exact opposite of a businessman. Businessmen represented the material world; the business community looked down upon those who study Torah and rabbanim were considered fools. Suddenly, a rav has become someone to consult with, not just someone from whom to get a bracha. There are many businessmen today who do not sign on deals without the approval of their rav. It’s crazy, and this never existed before. G-dliness has permeated the world and I think it’s one of the signs of Geula.

SPIRITUAL BUSINESS CLUB

Whoever goes to the yeshiva in Ramat Aviv in the morning will encounter the most spiritual business club in the area. You’ll find there businessmen who don’t forgo mikva in the morning, a minyan, and Chassidus before davening and a shiur afterward. One of the founders of the spiritual morning club is Amos Barzilai.

While your peers are swimming in the pool, sitting in a cafe, or exercising at the gym, you are in yeshiva every morning, mikva, Chassidus, davening, and a shiur. What effect does this routine have on your day?

I have been davening in the yeshiva for nineteen years now, every morning, and as far as I can remember I have never been late to minyan. It’s in my blood, spirit, and soul. The Modeh Ani every morning, mikva, davening, friends, the shiur, the human interactions are a part of me. It’s the backbone of my day and I cannot do it anywhere else.

What is special about this minyan?

It’s impossible to describe a feeling. It is a G-dly experience that I cannot explain in words. I cannot imagine how my life would look without davening in the morning in yeshiva. And it’s not just me; there are others who are with me for eighteen years in this minyan and who feel just as I do. This has become our life. In general, I cannot imagine my life without Torah and mitzvos. You can’t live without it.

PERFECT INTEGRATION

A visit to the offices of Amos’ companies always fascinates me. One of the rooms is designated as a shul which services the employees and businessmen in the area. Regular shiurim take place in the conference room. The back wall of the room consists of a huge Torah library rivaling the offices of the chief rabbi.

Amos is not what is known as a chareidi and yet everything around him cries out k’dusha. There is something in this combination of a leading, seasoned businessman who publicly displays his Judaism and who is constantly integrating the spiritual and the material with a natural charm.

I’ve been in many offices of religious businessmen and even Lubavitchers and I don’t remember this intense k’dusha. You have an active shul here, a Torah library, the entire office is full of s’farim and holy objects and yet, you are not wearing a suit and hat. Tell me, who is Amos Barzilai?

You see me as I appear. I don’t look like a Chassid and not even like a chareidi but I will tell you something. I really try, 24/7 to maintain a stance of “shivisi Hashem l’negdi tamid” (I place G-d before me constantly). It would be very hard for you to catch me when I’m not murmuring some T’hillim, saying something with Torah content or at least thinking about the Creator. I am wrapped up in the Holy One blessed be He and try to remain connected to G-dliness.

How do you do that in business? You’re not sitting in kollel – how can you build up a business and run a company with dozens of employees? How can you be on vacation in Seychelles and think about G-dliness?

It’s not complicated. I was once positive that we enjoy the rain, the sun, the beach, lying in the sun and a good steak, and I suddenly discovered that I can enjoy spiritual things a thousand times more. My pleasure today in a d’var Torah, in a sicha from the Rebbe, in a maamer Chassidus, a daf Gemara, is far greater than all the physical pleasure you could offer me. So I don’t work hard for that; I just connect to Hashem and enjoy every minute of it.

If you enjoy it so much, why don’t you leave the business world to sit and learn? After all, you don’t need to worry about your mortgage …

Why should I leave? If Hashem wanted us to leave, He would have made the entire world into a yeshiva. The whole point is a dira ba’tachtonim. That is our job, the combining of spirituality and the material world and the balance between them. There are people who need to leave and be involved in Torah day and night; that is their role. But my role, as a businessman, is to instill G-dliness in the world. And it’s an enormous, indescribable pleasure.

You feel that you are fulfilling a G-dly mission where you are?

I don’t know for certain whether it falls under the heading of shlichus or not, but I do know that I am doing what I should be doing and it fills me with joy. I feel that the reality that I live in is far nicer than my dreams. It fills me with delight. Around me I see people who are running and are not happy. People who are far richer than me, who can really allow themselves endless material delights and they are not happy.

How do your employees and business partners react to the shul, the shiurim, to everything that goes on here?

Ah, nonsense. Whoever knows me knows that wherever I go, any deal I get involved in, the first thing I do is open a shul and it’s always shiurim and sifrei kodesh; it’s an inseparable part of my life.

Everyone is satisfied with the way things are. Employees come over to me, consult with me … Many of them began saying Shma in the morning, at night; some come for Mincha, some come to put on t’fillin. I bought t’fillin for some employees. I don’t force anyone to do anything, but they see that I enjoy it so much that they want a piece of it too.

T’SHUVA-T’FILLA-TZ’DAKA

Many mosdos and organizations have benefited from Amos’ largesse, but to Amos it’s not merely a matter of being generous, it’s a principle that characterizes him. It’s not easy to ask a wealthy person about his feelings, surely not about his donations, but the conversation flowed and I took the opportunity to ask. 

You know that to many, Amos Barzilai is synonymous with tz’daka …

Tz’daka is indeed an important mitzva, one of the 613, and each person takes it where his heart desires. There are people who are more magnanimous and those who are less so.

But for you it’s not about generosity; it’s a central theme of your life, right?

Right, but I don’t see it as tz’daka. I don’t feel that I’m doing a favor. From my perspective, I receive abundance from G-d and it is my obligation to Him.

I remember lines from you like you need to open the barrel and empty it out from below so G-d can fill it from above …

That was then, but I am no longer there. I started giving tz’daka because of “tithe and you will become wealthy” and “test Me,” but now I do not look forward to any reward or favors in return. I give because it is my privilege to give and it’s the most fun thing to do. As long as there is always what to give, it’s all fine.

You need to do something with money. What do I need for myself already? To get a new car? I have one already. A house? I have several. Steaks? I ate enough. So why do people continue to work and make money? For pleasures. So when you find something which is a spiritual pleasure and it turns into an enormous physical pleasure – how do I always say it – since the benefits are huge, I invest in it. Just like other people invest in other pleasures.

EMOTIONAL INVOLVEMENT

How emotionally involved do you think a wealthy donor ought to be?

A wealthy person can figure it out – if he is involved, he will have a life. If not, he will have so much money he won’t know what to do with it.

I don’t understand.

I will explain. If you are involved in a community then you have a good life. Sometimes I sit down to learn with the shluchim, with young guys, and I enjoy every minute of it. You can be disconnected and make a lot of money but you won’t have anything. You need to remember that money is a means, not an end. When you are connected to a community it gives you spiritual support and physical enjoyment.

I meant being involved administratively. Once, in a yechidus for wealthy people, the Rebbe asked them to build buildings for mosdos. The Rebbe emphasized that they shouldn’t suffice with giving a check but should be involved in the building. That way, explained the Rebbe, the rich will build according to their standards.

Each person needs to know what he can contribute. Often you can donate money but you can donate more than money. You can donate of your knowledge, your talents, your connections, your experience. It has often happened that I’ve given advice to directors of mosdos that ended up being worth a lot of money.

I think a wealthy person needs to accompany the mosad and be emotionally involved and not just give a check and leave. Of course, it is important to give the director of the mosad his space and to remember that after all, he is the director and not you.

When you give tz’daka, are you interested in how the mosad is run?

Previously I wasn’t but now I am. I am interested in how the mosad is run and what they are doing with the money. I don’t want to expand on this topic from a negative stance, but today it is important to me that the money go to the right places and be handled properly.

CHASSIDUS IN BUSINESS

It is fascinating to watch Amos learn Chassidus. The man who is a lion in his office can sit facing one of the bachurim-shluchim and learn a maamer in depth and all he does is nod. His occasional sharp insights that he offers now and then show that the learning is internalized.

What characterizes a Chassidic wealthy man?

I don’t know, but I can tell you what it ought to be. What ought to be is that one should be a Chassid without the additional title of wealth. What is a wealthy person? I don’t know. A Chassid is someone who goes beyond the letter of the law. Being Chassidic suffices; if you consider yourself a wealthy man that can confuse you.

What connection is there between Chassidus and business?

Chassidus changes your life; it affects your inner qualities and it turns you into someone else. Chassidus gives you G-dly drive in everything, in learning, middos, in your way of life and in business too. When you learn Chassidus, internalize it, and start implementing it, you can run with it in every aspect of your life; it gives you tremendous powers.

Can you say that your business is better thanks to your connection to Chassidus?

Absolutely. I have lots of employees, friends, colleagues, partners, and I spend my day in meetings. That’s what I do all day, meet with people. Boruch Hashem, people love to meet with me. I see this in everyone with whom I do business and even more with those who don’t do business with me. I push people, I give them chizuk, give them drive. It’s only Chassidus. Who am I? What can I sell? Nothing. All my meetings are just Chassidus. It’s not that we sit down and learn maamarim in a business meeting, but I take the ideas and translate them into the language of action. That is the greatness of Chassidus that it can provide you with motivation not just for davening and learning but in marketing a product and closing deals.

You are associated with various groups and many rabbis. Why have you picked Chabad?

As you know, I know many types and not just superficially, but really in depth and the path I chose is Chabad, for many reasons. One thing that greatly attracted me is the independent avoda. There is no such thing in Chabad as going to the rabbi and getting a bracha and you did your part. In Chabad, if you want to advance you must learn. Learn Chitas, Rambam, Chassidus, set times for learning Torah, set up classes in private homes. Pick yourself up, start something, bring in others, share, you yourself then become the rav who brings the bracha. This way of avoda is one of the things that captivated me in Chabad.

If we are talking about Chabad then 770 is the hub. You yourself have visited a few times…

How did someone once put it – 770 is the engine room of the ship. If you want to understand the mighty force which is called Chabad, the institution of shlichus, the depth of Chassidus, everything, then you need to go to 770 where it all begins.

POSITIVE JEALOUSY

Amos Barzilai and Chabad of Ramat Aviv have been intertwined for years. Amos was one of the founders of the yeshiva. He has completely devoted himself to it and has gotten his friends and acquaintances involved. He is one of the pillars of the yeshiva, which in the meantime has grown and become a whole array of mosdos: Chabad yeshiva, kollelim and a wide array of institutions and organizations. We tried going back with him to the early days when his involvement changed the spiritual map of northern Tel Aviv.

You and R’ Yossi Ginsburgh have been walking hand in hand for years. When did this begin?

I returned from abroad after a period in which I lived in the US. At that time, I had already started taking an interest in Judaism and my younger brother Gili suggested that I meet a young rabbi who came to Ramat Aviv. The difference in our ages was nearly twenty years and he seemed like a sweet kid but a very smart one. I had a tremendous kinas sofrim (jealousy of the Torah knowledge of others) toward him. I envied his language, his wisdom, his middos, his behavior. By the way, that has continued till today, but at the time it was incredible for me to see someone so young and so wise.

We began learning Chassidus. I didn’t know what it was. It drew me like bees to a flower. In his first three to four years in Ramat Aviv I clung to him and didn’t leave him. I was drawn to him and said to myself that I had to emulate him and learn from him and even try to bypass him. R’ Ginsburgh was my role model. He fascinated me and I put all my energy into him. I wanted to know him and get from him as much as possible.

You’ve been through many things in your life …

I thank G-d every day. I look back and see all the stops I made in life. Someone else would say that over here you went down and over here you went through a period that wasn’t great, here it was the pits and here was success.

Today, in retrospect, I understand that every stop I made in life was for the good. If Hashem would ask me, I would tell Him not to change a thing. Today I realize that even my downtimes were steps upward. I learned from everything and continue to learn every day.

Article originally appeared on Beis Moshiach Magazine (http://beismoshiachmagazine.org/).
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