Posted on March 17, 2016 by Rabbi Nehama Benmosche
When my father decided to leave retirement to go back to work for AIG, I wasn’t that surprised. He was spending his life between New York, Florida and Croatia, a twist on your typical snowbird life. My dad became a little bored with retired life. He enjoyed relaxing, going for a jog at 11:30 am, drinking an extra glass of wine with dinner, and watching CNN, MSNBC and the History Channel in regular intervals. He put in his time and was proud of himself. From a poor kid in military academy, driving a Coca Cola truck in the summer to put himself through college, he rose through the ranks of the financial world and finally ended his career, or so he thought, as the CEO at MetLife. He had seen the world several times over and been able to treat his family to the kind of life he could never have even imagined as a child.
When the call came, asking him to take the helm at the failing insurance giant, AIG, who had recently taken the largest bailout in history at $182 billion dollars, he saw a challenge. He knew that he had many of the skills, the strength and all of the daring to grab on to the captain’s wheel he saw spinning out of control. The power of his leadership and his willingness to stand into the stormy sea brought him and all of AIG into the safe shores of paying back America and redeeming the reputation of the company and its employees.
Next month, on April 12th, my father’s autobiography will be published–Good for the Money: My fight to pay back America. When I think of my father’s legacy and the stories he tells in his book, I am reminded of the words Mordechai says to Esther in the Purim story. U’mi yodea im l’et kazot higa’at la’malchut. Perhaps it is for a moment such as this that you came to the kingdom (Esther 4:14). Esther is forced to realize that standing up for the Jews is what is just and right AND is maybe even THE reason she came to this position of power. Bob Benmosche believed in people and knew that saving the jobs and honor of those working at AIG was worth getting in the fighter’s ring for and worth getting angry about.
My dad lived out most of the rest of his life at the helm of AIG. After he was diagnosed with cancer in 2010, he continued to work for the job he believed needed to be done. He left work in the fall of 2014 believing he had finished the job he was compelled to begin when he got that call in 2009.
When I remember my dad I remember heroes from the stories of our tradition like Esther, Moses, and Joseph–all examples of individuals who rose in the ranks, worked their way into positions of power. When the time came they made the decision to help others, to create successful and sustainable systems and to save their people through their leadership and their willingness to dream of a brighter future.
One of the reasons he supported me and supported Pardes is so that we could learn about these stories and to learn to work for justice. He was always impressed at how Pardes was not just another Jewish institution I passed in and out of, but it was a family that cared about me and who I was becoming. I was not a cookie cutter gap year Pardes student. I was an almost rabbinical student headed for RRC, wearing a kippah under my bandana on the way to school and taking off the bandana when I came in the door. Jerusalem could sometimes feel like a dangerous place to be a lesbian, wearing a kippah, studying to be a rabbi–but at Pardes, I was someone’s hevruta, someone here to learn Torah and I was respected as a person. I grew as part of an institution that really did celebrate me as one of the students that made up a wide array of people who were exploring who they were becoming through their study of Jewish texts. I have always been grateful to Pardes for giving me that place to grow and learn and for being a safe community to learn deeply and question often, while being respected for who I was. I always thanked Pardes for never trying to change me and for honoring that I could be on a legitimate path, even if it wasn’t the path that some of my teachers or fellow students were choosing.
It is in the spirit of all those who strive to learn and to be comfortable in their own skin and feel safe in the Jewish community that I continue to support this day of learning. In memory of my father and his fight to do the right thing for America, in honor of all of the Pardes students who are here today forging their own paths in the Jewish world that may be different from the mainstream, and for the students who will one day study here and the hope that these doors are always open for those who want to learn.
Lo aleichem ha’mlacha ligmor. I don’t expect any of you to finish the work that needs to be done. But, lo atem bnei chorin l’hitbatel mimenah–but you are not free to take yourselves out of the race. You cannot skip out on the job. Tzeh u’l’mad–go and learn, but when you are done, don’t forget to DO.
Yehi zichro baruch–may his memory be a blessing for us. And may the blessing be learning, doing and making the world a better place through the way we treat people along the way.
By Rabbi Nehama Benmosche