When people become observant, they often face certain delicate situations in the workplace, from struggling to find kosher food at meetings to having to leave early on Friday afternoons in the winter to be home for Shabbat. But for a division president of a $1.5 billion retailer, becoming frum led to its own set of challenges, both harrowing and humorous.
Yehoshua (Harry) Looks grew up attending a synagogue affiliated with the Reconstructionist Judaism movement. He was always attracted to the intellectual side of Judaism. After he married his wife Debbie, the couple moved around; from Ohio to New York, then a stop in Boston for business school, to St. Louis, to Baltimore, and back to St. Louis. After shopping around, they eventually joined a Conservative synagogue.
Yehoshua’s spiritual journey started after his rise in the ranks of Edison Brothers Stores. At age forty, after ten years with the company, Yehoshua was promoted to president of the company’s international division. At this juncture, seemingly fulfilled in life, Yehoshua began asking questions about the authenticity of the Torah. These questions ultimately became a spiritual crisis. Based on numerous conversations with the rabbi of the Conservative synagogue, the two men began learning one-on-one together, studying the Talmud and other Jewish sources. .
With his appetite for Jewish learning whetted, Yehoshua began to ravenously search for all Jewish sources he could find and began dedicating every spare minute to learning. He traded in his daily 5:30 am racquetball match for a Daf Yomi shiur.
A common challenge for people when they become observant is figuring out what to eat at business meetings and other events, and especially how to get kosher food in places far removed from Jewish communities. However keeping kosher was generally not a challenge for Yeshoshua, and it even helped him out of several sticky situations.
Yehoshua’s position took him on frequent business trips to China to check on factories and to open new offices. Before becoming religious, Yehoshua had been an adventurous eater and eagerly partook of the food at the lavish banquets during the trips. The feasts featured a varied assortment of Chinese delicacies, including meat of questionable origin and even insects.
However one food that Yehoshua could never develop a taste for was slugs, a common item at the dinners. “The fact that I could no longer partake of the meals for dietary reasons was a nice side benefit,” Yehoshua said, smiling.
As he become increasingly religious Yehoshua began bringing canned food with him wherever he went. Noticing this, his colleagues became concerned that he did not have enough to eat. One night in a restaurant in China a coworker, assuming that he could eat all vegetables, ordered for him a plate of string beans. A few minutes later the waiter brought a plate with a beautiful bed of string beans, crowned by lobster sauce filled with fresh pieces of seafood.
Yehoshua’s craving for learning went with him on his trips. Everywhere he went, he brought a Gemarah and his Daf Yomi cassette tapes. At the end of one trip to China, his long-haul flight back to America was delayed by fog in Shanghai.. So with extra time in the airport, Yehoshua sat in the business class lounge listening to his tapes to learn the day’s daf.
Within twenty minutes he was joined by two other frum Jews who were also stranded.. Yehoshua shared his tapes with them so they could learn as well.
“Here we were waiting in the airport in Shangai, fogged in, and three yidden were learning the daf!”
Yehoshua’s religious growth came with some challenges at work. One of his superiors in the company was particularly unsettled with Yehoshua’s need to leave early on Friday afternoons in the winter. The boss began keeping track to the minute the time that Yehoshua left each Friday, and became increasingly cold to him.
One Friday the executive called Yehoshua into his office. He angrily berated Yehoshua, accusing him of slacking on the job by leaving early.. After several minutes of harsh attacks he roared at Yehoshua: “What am I going to do if your business falls apart on Shabbat and you’re not there to take care of it?!”
Yehoshua responded with composure and delivered a prefect response:
“You’re going to fire me. If my business falls apart on one day, I’m obviously not doing my job.”
Yehoshua’s boss had no rebuttal. Yehoshua calmly turned and walked out of the office and his boss never said another word to him about Shabbat.
In 1994 the Looks family took a 10-day trip to Israel to tour and study. The trip solidified the religious direction that they were heading in.
As the trip came to a close, Yehoshua, Debbie and their three children all agreed that one day they wanted to come back.
That day came much faster than they expected. In November 1995 Edison Brothers declared bankruptcy. In April 1996, the company bought out Yehoshua’s contract and he left with a severance package commensurate with his 15 years experience at the company.
With their future now wide open, Debbie suggested the family take a one-year sabbatical in Israel. They sold their house and cars and moved to Yerushalayim. The one year became two and then became a commitment to make Israel their home.. Yehoshua eventually became a rabbi. Since then he has worked in outreach and Jewish education in Israel and America, using his years of business experience to help manage Jewish organizations..
Since leaving Edison Brothers, Yehoshua’s life has taken a far different course. Now instead of overseeing the production of clothing based on ephemeral fashion trends, he is living and disseminating a product that’s eternal. And he’s working for a Boss who doesn’t mind if he leaves early on Fridays.
Michael Gros writes from Ramat Beit Shemesh, Israel. The Teshuva Journey column chronicles uplifting teshuva journeys and inspiring kiruv tales. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org
Published in The Jewish Press in July 2011