An Evening of Affluence and Influence With the Jewish Wizards of Wall Street

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

A gala dinner of the UJA New York Federation Wall Street Division, with its bull and bear emblem, is an easy mark for any cynical Israeli journalist worth his salt. It’s like a sucker begging to be taken, a sitting duck roasted in advance, a target so convenient that almost any shot is a guaranteed bull's eye.

1.500 Wall Street movers and shakers, millionaires and gazillionaires, brokers, analysts and hedge fund managers, risk officers, prop traders, equity executives and merger mavens, titans of the stock exchange, captains of the financial markets, supermen with annual incomes of seven, eight or nine figures, all cramming into one ballroom in the Hilton Hotel in midtown Manhattan to light Hanukkah candles and to “stand by Israel”?

Seriously?

It’s like an anti-Semitic stereotype on steroids, an Occupy Wall Street gallery of rogues, a condensed but updated version of the Protocols the Elders of Zion, an open air summit of the Freemasons, the Illuminati and the Bilderbergs all rolled into one.

On a dais which spanned the entire width of the large ballroom - and was somehow reminiscent of the seating arrangements for the important sages and rabbis at an annual gathering of Lubavitcher Hassidim - about 40 top managers directors and CEO’s of some of the world’s leading financial institutions were seated one next to the other: Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs, Deutsche Bank, Credit Suisse, Ivanka Trump, you name it. The main speaker was a Jewish billionaire mayor, one Michael Bloomberg. And the guests of honor were Robert Kapito, President of BlackRock, which manages assets that are measured in the trillions, and Boaz Weinstein, the American-Israeli wunderkind of Wall Street, champion of credit traders, darling of derivatives and all-around hedge fund hot shot who rose to national prominence in May after he outplayed and outsmarted JP Morgan to the tune of two billion dollars, but please don’t ask me how.

Weinstein’s cherubic face makes him look even younger than his 38 years and certainly belies his cutthroat reputation. “Mr. Weinstein is what is known as a “monster”,” the New York Times wrote about him in May, “an aggressive trader with a preternatural appetite for risk and a take-no-prisoners style.” The UJA was honoring Weinstein with its Young Leadership Award, and a few minutes into his speech it was easy to understand why.

Weinstein immediately succeeded in disarming even the most sardonic observer by putting up on the large screen a photo copy of a letter sent in 1985 by the principal of the Orthodox Ramaz school to his parents, complaining of then 6th grader Weinstein’s “very negative” attitude to Jewish studies. “He does absolutely nothing,” the principal wrote, warning that if Weinstein’s “demanding and aggressive” attitude does not improve, he won’t be able to make it to the 7th grade. But he’s gotten over that bump, apparently.

Weinstein then told his audience of admiring fans of his emotional visit to Club Nissim, a UJA funded venture in Brooklyn’s Boro Park where 90-year-old Holocaust survivors meet to talk and socialize. He didn’t mention that his own mother Giselle was rescued as a baby from the Warsaw Ghetto by his grandfather, for whom he named his Saba Capital Management LP, where Weinstein now makes his fortunes, after losing about $1.8 billion for his previous employer, Deutsche Bank.

By the time Weinstein finished telling of his humbling meeting with Francesca, an African-American volunteer at Masbia, another UJA funded group that provides meals for the poor, my own Israeli defenses were down and I found myself lapping up even the most schmaltzy American slogans and corny Jewish clichés. I almost didn’t mind when both Kapito and Mayor Bloomberg got the crowd roaring with their rather tasteless bit of monetary nostalgia for the days “when a million dollars was still a lot of money” or when Bloomberg threw an Israeli bone to the Obama-skeptical crowd by saying that Israel and the US are bound together – “and we must never let our government forget that.”

But while Bloomberg and some of the other speakers went through the motions of expressing their support for Israel, their hearts and minds were focused, understandably, on the damage caused much closer to home by Hurricane Sandy and the subsequent relief efforts for its victims. Alisa Doctoroff, the impressive Chair of the UJA Board said that she had “never been prouder of the UJA” after it had quickly set up an emergency fund that provided victims of Hurricane Sandy with a total of $14 million dollars in aid and another $10 million for loan relief.

All in all, the UJA Wall Street and Financial Services Division, apparently the New York Federation’s most vibrant sector, broke its own record and raised more than $23 million this year, about 20% of the entire Federation fundraising. According to Mark Medin, UJA’s Senior Vice President for Financial Resource Development, about 55% of the Federation’s funds go to social services and other organizations in New York, 21% to Israel, 19% to the Former Soviet Union and the remaining 5% to other national organizations in America.

In the final analysis, I have no idea whether $23 million dollars is a lot of money for people who were described by John Ruskay, the widely respected CEO of the UJA, as “the most privileged human beings to ever walk the planet, certainly the most privileged Jews.” For many of the participants, especially the up and coming and ambitious among them, the UJA has successfully forged a prime forum, a sort of exclusive club, for mingling with superiors, networking with colleagues and, it seemed, checking out other young financial wizards for possible romantic mergers and acquisitions in the future.

Even so, I thought, their commitment is admirable and it’s doubtful whether their peers in Israel would devote so much time to philanthropy and so much effort to helping the underprivileged. Despite myself, I came away from the evening impressed.

At the last minute, however, my ingrained cynicism was salvaged by the sight of dozens of gambling tables that the UJA had set up at what was described as an “after party” following the main event. The symbolism of the crap and blackjack tables for a group of people that is still viewed by many Americans as having gambled away the country’s hard-earned money and plunged it into its current recession was way too rich to be ignored. This article, I thought, was practically writing itself.

Follow me on Twitter @ChemiShalev

A Wall Street sign is seen in front of the exterior of the New York Stock Exchange November 7, 2012.Credit: Reuters

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