Guest post by R. Jon Gross
Rabbi Jonathan Gross serves as Rabbi of Beth Israel Synagogue in Omaha, Nebraska. He grew up in Teaneck, New Jersey and received his semikhah from RIETS. This post is cross-posted to R. Gross’s blog: Amerabbica
“There are Jews in Nebraska??”
That is the first question that every Jew from Omaha is asked when they travel outside of Omaha.The second question is always, “Do you know Warren Buffett?” It never fails. As the chief Rabbi of the state of Nebraska people also asked me things like, “does he come to shul?” and of course, “Can you get him to give money to the shul?”
I have to admit, it got to me. I started to think that there was something wrong with me in that I had not established a solid friendship with one of the richest and most sought after people in the world. After all, he does live in the same city as me. And why isn’t he one of my donors? He has plenty of cash, surely he could spare a few bucks for Beth Israel Synagogue!
Then I had an idea. (Full disclosure, it was my uncle Mark Honigsfeld’s idea. Thanks Uncle Mark!) I sat down and wrote Warren Buffett a letter. “Dear Mr. Buffett, I have a business deal that you may be interested in.” I explained that there was an ancient ban on Jews owning leaven products – chametz – over the holiday of Passover. So before the holiday we are desperate to sell – the price is low. After eight days without cake, cookies, pizza, pasta, etc. Jews are craving chametz pretty bad – the price is high. The idea is simple. Buy low, sell high. A great short term investment. I figured Warren Buffett should be able to relate to that.
I did not really expect that two days later I would get an e-mail from his secretary. Apparently Mr. Buffett read the letter and he was intrigued and wanted to know if the sale could be done at his office and she gave me a choice of three afternoons when Warren Buffett was available to see me.
I freaked out!! On the one hand, I was excited to finally be able to meet the richest man in the world and to actually do business with him. On the other hand, the sale of chametz is done the day before Pesach in the morning. Should I say, “Thanks Mr. Buffett but those times don’t really work for me. Can we do it at my convenience?” Also, she had mentioned that only the afternoon worked for him. What if I picked a date in the future and then Warren Buffett had to run off to China for business that day? After much thought, I decided that the best thing to do was to accept the earliest date possible – bird in the hand – and figure out how to make a sale of chametz six weeks early.
I called up Rabbi Senderovic of Milwaukee who is the renowned posek who I address most halachic questions to. Rabbi Senderovic is creative and I thought maybe he could help me with this problem. After some discussion it became clear that it was not worth trying to figure out how to do the actual sale of chametz with Warren Buffett.
Selling chametz early is problematic because even if the sale could be arranged so that he took procession of the chametz six weeks later, the sale could not include any chametz acquired by Jews from the time of the sale until Pesach. Selling chametz is a serious thing and I did not want to play around with it, even for Warren Buffett.
So I had a different idea. What if I just sold him some chametz? Every year I tell my shul that they should only sell valuable things like scotch or large quantities of food. The rest I encourage them to give to the local food bank.
In my office I already had three large containers of food that had been collected that was waiting to go to the food bank. I decided that I would sell that to him, with some other chametz, and then ask him if he would kindly donate the chametz that he just acquired to the food bank.
So that is what I did.
A few days later I was off to see the wizard.
Rabbi Kripke is the Rabbi of the urban legend about the Rabbi who secretly invested with Warren Buffett very early on. He knew Buffett because his wife and Buffett’s wife played bridge together. Rabbi Kripke is a great Tzadik. As his shares in Berkshire Hathaway soared he remained humble and sagely as he always was. Years after he retired from the Rabbinate he began giving away millions of dollars to various charities. Warren Buffett is very fond of Rabbi Kripke and I knew he would be happy to see him.
I also took along my former executive director, Beth Cohen. She recently took a job at the Federation as head of the center for Jewish education (and I am very happy for her although we miss her greatly) and as a going away gift I asked her to join me. I also took Rabbi Kripke’s son in law Yossi who was visiting, and my friend and proud member of Beth Israel Gary Javitch to take pictures.
In preparation for the meeting I purchased some chametz that I would give him as part of the sale. I got a challah from the Rose Blumkin Jewish Home. Rose Blumkin was a Jewish immigrant who started a business in her garage that became the largest furniture store in the world – here in Omaha. She eventually sold to Warren Buffett, so I thought he would appreciate that.
I also bought him a nice bottle of single malt scotch as an example of some expensive chametz, but also as a token of appreciation. I also wanted to give him something personal that he would enjoy. I called up my friend Shami who used to work for Warren Buffett. Shami is the urban legend of the frum guy who wrote a letter to Warren and ended up working for Berkshire Hathaway for 6 years. He recently left, on good terms, to start his own fund. Shami told me that Warren Buffet’s favorite chametz snack is Cheetos. Cheetos are not kosher, but there is no problem buying a bag of them for someone who is not Jewish. I also put aside a small box marked “Warren” in my home and filled it with some canned chametz goods.
So together our group went to visit Warren Buffett. When you walk into his office there is a sign above the secretary’s window with a quote from the wizard of Oz, “Nobody gets in to see the wizard. Not nobody. Not no how.”
When he came out I told him that there is a brachah that Jews say when we encounter someone of incredible genius from the nations of the world. So I said the brachah “she’natan mechachmato libasar vidam.”
He gave us a quick tour of his office. He showed us some of his memorabilia including an autographed sneaker from Shaquille O’ Neil. I had prepared a script that I memorized that quickly outlined the idea behind the sale and what we were doing. I financed the deal by giving him a few coins with which he would make the purchase. (Warren Buffett owes me two bucks!)
I told him that he would make a kinyan, which means he would take procession of a small object, in this case the keys to the synagogue and to my home, with the understanding that when he took procession of the keys along with them he would also take procession of the challah, scotch, and Cheetos, as well as the chametz located in the containers in the synagogue and a small box of chametz in my home.
When we sell chametz it is important that the buyer has access to the chametz. I told him that the chametz in the shul was on the left as soon as you walked in, and if he comes to my house to collect his chametz he can just ask me or my wife and we will show him where it is. He gave me the coins and I gave him the keys. I asked Rabbi Kripke to declare the sale valid. He said, “Hakol Shrir vikayam.”
I then successfully solicited Warren Buffett for a donation to the food bank.
After the sale, Warren Buffett said that he wanted to show me something. He went back into his office and came out with a contract. He explained that it was the very contract with which he acquired the Nebraska Furniture Mart from Rose Blumkin. He said that he trusted her so much he did not require any audit. He just asked her if she owned the buildings and if she owed any money. She said yes and no and Warren Buffett signed the contract with no questions asked. He paid only $1,800 in lawyers’ fees for the whole deal.
That was it.
It was great to finally meet Warren Buffett. Most importantly, I hope that the publicity helps the Food Bank of the Heartland in Omaha. But for me, I can’t wait for the next person to ask me, “Do you know Warren Buffett?” I sure do. I sold him our chametz!!