The lasting legacy of the Malden Mills

There are three types of Kiddush Hashem, the Sanctification of G-d's Name. A modern day example of the third kind.

Rabbi Elchanan Poupko, | updated: 07:50

Judaism Firefighter (stock image)
Firefighter (stock image)
צילום: PR
It was a cold night in New England. On the night of December 11th 1995 Aron Feuerstein was celebrating his birthday with friends and family. Aron was the owner of the Malden Mills, the largest textile plant in America, located in Lawrence Massachusetts. The plant was the largest employer in the area and was there since the late 1800s.

Suddenly, the phone rang, and Mr. Feuerstein was informed that his entire factory had gone up in flames. The news didn’t just devastate him, it devastated the entire area. Families, communities, and individuals knew of the Malden Mills as their place of livelihood.

The standard legal and business practice would be to hand workers a pink slip informing them that the company has gone bankrupt living them handing with the bread to feed their families.

The next morning Aaron got up in front of the cameras, reporters, and his 3000 workers and informed them that he would be paying all of their salaries in full—out of his own pocket—for the next 60 days so that they can get the money they deserve and have a chance to try and find another job and feed their families. The move shocked the New England area and the global business community.

Hailed by Forbes and other publications as the act of a “mentsh”, the act was featured on 60 minutes for the moral decision to show decency to workers. CBS noted:” For years now, we've been hearing about corporate executives who made fortunes for themselves while driving their companies into bankruptcy, costing employees their jobs and sometimes their life savings. Feuerstein said: "I was proud of the family business and I wanted to keep that alive, and I wanted that to survive. But I also felt the responsibility for all my employees, to take care of them, to give them jobs."

I consider myself blessed to know the Feuerstein family and see this line of integrity and compassion live on beyond this factory fire and to extend their kindness to so many.

In Parshat Emor we are first introduced to a mitzvah so central to Judaism it encompasses the entire mission of Judaism, the mitzvah of Kiddush Hashem and the prohibition on desecrating it. “You shall keep My commandments and perform them. I am the Lord. You shall not desecrate My Holy Name. I shall be sanctified amidst the children of Israel. I am the Lord Who sanctifies you, Who took you out of the land of Egypt, to be a God to you. I am the Lord. (Leviticus, 22).

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks notes that the concept of Kiddush Hashem can be divided into three. This division is true both Halakhically and historically. The first is one given to the Kohanim in which they are asked not to desecrate God’s name by lax performance. The second is the mitzvah of giving our life if faced with forced conversion and making sure nothing can make us abandon our faith. The third, described by the prophets is that we deal ethically and honestly with others.

We live in a time which is unique in its nature, sadly we do not have they Beit Mikdash and so Kohanim are not warned against desecrating God’s name through shabby service. Thankfully, though it seems so sometimes, we do not live at a time when Kiddush Hashem should mean we must give up our lives for the sake of our faith in God.

What we are left with is the most impactful Kiddush Hashem, leading by example. As put by Steven Covey, author of 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, “what you do has far more of an impact than what you say.”

Living by the values we believe in, being honest, having integrity, showing compassion, being proud of who we are, are all the true fulfillment of this mitzvah of kiddush Hashem.

When sharing the story of the Aaron Feuerstein and the Malden Mills in front of my congregation, someone approached me after services and told me she was from Malden Massachusetts. Her addition to this story? The story of the “Mentsh from Malden Mills” did not begin with Aaron Feuerstein in 1995. When founding the factory, Aaron Feuerstein’s grandfather paid every worker, every day what they deserved. When someone pointed out to him that in America workers are paid every two weeks or every month, he pointed out to them that the Torah (Deuteronomy 24) obliges us to pay workers the same day they do the work.

Then, after the Holocaust, Aaron’s father gave a job to any survivor who needed work. Their skills did not matter, nor did their physical strength; if you went through the Holocaust, he was there for you.

Countries spend millions and billions of dollars on space projects following studies showing students who live to see such a mission become scientists and perform better inspired by the breakthroughs. Aron Feuerstein’s investment in honesty is paying dividends decades later as it inspires students and adults alike to pursue more honest and virtuous lives.

At a time when high business ethics are almost extinct, may we all be blessed in leading lives as exemplary as Aaron Feuerstein and his family. May we make sure that our lives can inspire others and most importantly, may we feel inspired by our own lives.

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The Case of Malden Mills