R Jon Gross / “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!

Selling to Buffett

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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!!

About Jonathan Gross

28 comments

  1. What a fun-to-read article!
    (The only typo I spotted: one takes “possession”, not “procession.”)

  2. Very interesting. Is the author the Rabbi of Beth Israel Synagogue in Omaha, as it states in the introduction, or is he the Chief Rabbi of the state of Nebraska, as he states in the essay? And what does it mean to be the chief Rabbi of a state in the U.S.? (I have some idea what it means to be a chief rabbi elsewhere in the world, but not in the U.S.)

  3. most interesting, however, an urban legend, like an old-wive’s tale, is false-it is not the same as “legendary.”

  4. Carlos on March 25, 2012 at 11:18 pm
    “Very interesting. Is the author the Rabbi of Beth Israel Synagogue in Omaha, as it states in the introduction, or is he the Chief Rabbi of the state of Nebraska, as he states in the essay? And what does it mean to be the chief Rabbi of a state in the U.S.? (I have some idea what it means to be a chief rabbi elsewhere in the world, but not in the U.S.)”

    Very good point-in North America the concept of Chief Rabbi has never taken off. When I ever read Rabbi X was Chief Rabbi of city x or y-eg especially in Art Scroll biographies it is usually false they were a Rabbi in a schul-or in charge of a bunch of schuls, appointed by a Chevra Shas etc-exception of controlling a city is probably R P Teitz in Elizabeth. BTW rest of world most of the “frum” world does not accept the authority of any CR see eg-Israel and England.

  5. not to nitpick, but Buffett is not the richest man in the world, or even in America (he is second richest)

  6. Good article (and I think he meant the Chief Rabbi of Nebraska title tongue-in-cheek).

  7. “exception of controlling a city is probably R P Teitz in Elizabeth. ”

    this situation was, and is, probably more de-facto than de-jure. it is not unlikely that had the orthodox Jewish population and community in Elizabeth progressed in the manner of Teaneck or Cedarhurst, rather than the manner of say, e.g. Newark or Grand Councourse in th Bronx, it is likely that the tight control would have waned at some point and certainly not stayed within the family

  8. Maybe he meant Chef Rabbi of Nebraska, and the “i” was another typo.

    Rabbi Gross is a good cook. I had a Shabbat meal in his home.

  9. cute
    probably “chief rabbi” in the way that most omahans view him
    r. kirpke and buffet is not an urban legend. he made millions (and gave 15mil! to jts)

  10. While this was a cute read, I wonder how wise it was for the rabbi to put this out there on the web.
    If I was WB and saw this, I wouldn’t be too pleased or consider continuing the relationship.

  11. MiMedinat HaYam

    sachar — actually, the elizabeth situiation IS different. the teitz family are the SOLE halachic authority for the town.

  12. MiMedinat- of course it isn’t different. If I move to Elizabeth, there’s nothing that would force me to turn to them. I could open my own shul if I wanted. There’s no such thing as a “chief rabbi” in the US. Or anywhere else, really.

  13. you are not supposed tto ask goyim for tzedakah

  14. MiMedinat HaYam

    nachum — you cant open your own shul. wouldnt work. special situation for that city only. (even chabad has a special deal, and they’re outside the city limits.)

    to be technical, they dont claim to be “chief rabbi”, any more so than a rav of oklahoma. (that was just a fluke of the article.) their title is “morah de’atra”, dean of the school(s), and sole authorized signer of the only checking account that counts.

    yweiss — they dont take tzedaka, just work assistance. and it may be “mi’pnei eivah”. (and actually, i dont think they ask.)

  15. Doesn’t St. Louis have a chief rabbi?

  16. Why are my posts being deleted?

  17. “you cant open your own shul. wouldnt work. special situation for that city only. (even chabad has a special deal, and they’re outside the city limits.)”

    Oh, that’s nonsense. Come on. There’s no way a city in the United States can keep you from opening a house of worship. I’ve heard grandiose claims about Elizabeth for years, but if I wanted to open a shteibel (that kept to existing zoning laws, of course) and the city tried to stop me, it wouldn’t stand up for a second in court, the political power of the family notwithstanding. (Or I could just call it “Reform”, eh?)

    Googling, I see an independent shul functioned for decades and shut down about two years ago. http://njjewishnews.com/article/1069/after-seven-decades-elizabeth-synagogue-must-close-doors#.T3F7HdVHuSo

  18. Rav Rifkin holds the title of Chief Rabbi of Saint Louis. I don’t know the history behind the title, but during the time I was there he had the title and fulfilled the function.

  19. Lawrence Kaplan

    Montreral has a Chief Rabbi, Eabi Benjamin Weiss, elected by the Vaad ha-Ir. How mch power he has and to what extent it is an honorary role is another issue.

  20. Early in the 20th Century there was an attempt to establish Rabbi Jacob Jospeh as the Chief Rabbi of New York City. It did not go well.

  21. Oops! I meant Rabbi Jacob Joseph.

  22. Benard Kabak:

    “Early in the 20th Century”

    RJJ died in 1902.
    his appointment as chief rabbi was in 1888 after a decade-long search (original candidate in 1879 was the malbim, but he died that year)
    and of course he was chief rabbi in no way except in title (and there were contemporary claimants to the title) and in general the “chief rabbi” experiment was a fiasco

  23. MiMedinat HaYam

    the ridvaz considered himself chief rabbi of america, though http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yaakov_Dovid_Wilovsky claims he was elected to the position. (and wiki claims he visited america before tzfat. my info is that he visited after zfat, and after chicago..)

  24. abba's rantings

    “ridvaz considered himself chief rabbi of america”

    source?
    he was the chief rabbi of chicago, but as in new york in meant nothing. his main rival was r. album. and he should have known better considering what the way his predecessor r. lissa was treated. it is said that he was luckier than rjj only because he was younger and in good health and could start out fresh elsewhere.

    “wiki claims he visited america before tzfat”

    i think wiki’s chronology is correct

  25. Anyone notice the word should have been “possession” not
    “procession”?

  26. MiMedinat HaYam

    yes, the ridvaz had a big fight with r album. and the only person who accepted huim as chief rabbi of america was the ridvaz himself. and it obviously was not a lucrative (in money or prestige) position, as he skipped town within two years.

    gotta check his sforim, which he came to america / chicago to promote (i.e., collect “donations” for. nothing wrong with that. thasts how its done. though today, ppl use the mail and a self addressed envelope.)

  27. Once again: Chicago, not America. And, like in New York, rabbi of a few Eastern European shuls.

    He was raising funds- subscriptions- for an edition of the Yerushalmi he eventually published from Israel. I can’t imagine how you can make that sound distasteful, or why you would want to. (Qualifications only make it sound worse, you know.)

    He “skipped town” because the mob was after him over hechsherim. (The legend is that the other guy giving hechsherim for cheaper gave him a ride out of gratitude.) If I recall R’ Rakeffet’s article- which you should really read before writing misinformed statements- he took a train on Shabbat because his life was literally in danger.

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