This was a question I was asked by Olivia Mellan, sister of my dear friend Stu. Olivia is a well-known author who writes about financial issues. When I got her email, I sort of chuckled because my immediate reaction was that it was a weird question. But then I started thinking.
I ended up thanking Olivia profusely for giving me a reason to think back over my 28 years (and counting) as a financial advisor. Here's what I wrote her back:
I took the dog for a walk and thought about your questions and came up with a few thoughts. The first is that I felt I had come in contact with my roots 20 years ago when I started studying Jewish texts and realized that Jacob was the original financial planner. In Genesis when he learns that his brother Esau is coming after him he sends half his family and assets in one direction (assets back then had four legs) and the other half the other way. His stated reason was that if Esau came to destroy him, at least half of his family and possessions would be saved. It was the first literary example of diversification.
As far as the behavior patterns of clients are concerned, what differences there are between Jews and others have diminished greatly over the last 20 years as Jews have gained full access to all aspects of American society. Our behavior has become much less distinct during that time.
When I first got in the business 28 years ago, many of my clients were Jewish men whose parents or they themselves had emigrated from Europe. They came to America, worked hard, and made a lot of money. No matter how hard they worked, many of them always knew just how lucky they were to have the chance to create a new life. No matter how smart they were, each of them knew lots of people who were even smarter that never made it out of Eastern Europe.
As a result, there was an underlying sense of gratitude and sense of community responsibility that comes only from grateful people. They were very generous--particularly to Jewish organizations--with the vast majority of their philanthropy going to Israel through Federation. They invested in Israel Bonds as well.
A disproportionate number of them invested in real estate which I think was also cultural. There was something about owning land and property that was appealing to them more than investing in stocks which they viewed as a crapshoot. As we are finding out now, real estate can be a crapshoot as well but it wasn't viewed that way back then.
As I said, many of them were quite generous but it wasn't just that they gave more money than others--it was the way they gave it. I was getting involved in Federation 25 years ago and can remember going to meetings in homes where we would have a speaker and then the women would leave the room. The men would then go around and announce how much they were giving to some Jewish cause or how many Israel Bonds they were buying that year. If someone felt that another had not done enough, they would let him know in no uncertain terms.
I loved being in those rooms and being part of it all--and still do. Most Jews today--and all non-Jews--are horrified by this practice. They believe it is intrusive and ostentatious and many of my friends have told me they would rather die than be part of such a process. None of the people in the room felt that way. For them, it was all about being part of a community where there was a commitment and responsibility to take care of each other and do the right thing. I never heard of anyone going broke because he gave too much.
One characteristic that I used to notice in a handful of non-Jewish clients but never in Jews was the desire to make enough money so they would never have to work again--even at an early age. I vividly remember one such client who told me at the outset of our relationship (he was 40 years old at the time) that he wanted to make $500,000 because when he had that much he would retire. He had picked out a piece of land in northern Wisconsin and when he had enough money he was going to move there, quit working, and fish every day.
I couldn't even relate to what he was saying. Why in the world would a bright, healthy young man want to check out from all the challenges of the business world at such an early age? It sounded like torture to me. A few years later, helped by his brilliant financial advisor, he had his nest age. Within a few months he had quit his job and moved to northern Wisconsin where he fished every day. I checked in with him over the years and I never got over how shocked I was that he seemed REALLY happy. I had about six such clients over the years and none of them was Jewish.
As I said, as Jews have become more accepted by mainstream American society it is harder and harder to find these differences. I have had Catholic clients named Goldberger and Jewish clients named Costello and Sullivan so how do you even know who you're dealing with anymore?
I am surrounded by many Jewish friends who have clearly abandoned those Jewish characteristics while, at the same time bemoaning the effects of intermarriage and assimilation which, ironically, are among the factors that have led most of them to lead such full and rewarding lives. I keep reminding them that they can always move to Israel, give more to the Federation, or get on their synagogue board but most of them seem happier to live more assimilated lives and complain about how the Jewish community is falling apart. Go figure.
Let me know if you have any questions, thoughts, or would like more anecdotes. Thanks for giving me the chance to take a mental trip down memory lane.