Bernard Hochstein, a man fondly described as “larger than life,” lived by his lofty principles and inspired others to do the same. At the age of 96, he returned his soul to its Maker, and his rich legacy is an inspiration for us all.
Born in Poland in 1913, Reb Dov, as he was affectionately known, was six years old when his family emigrated to Holland. At 13, he met Yisrael Aharonson, a diamond dealer who worked each day until he had earned enough to meet his needs for that day, after which he’d close shop and go home to learn Torah. He taught young Bernard for 14 years, imparting to him not only a love for Torah, but a rock-solid understanding of the true value of money as a tool, not as an end unto itself.
Foresight and intuition indicated that the ominous rumblings that emanated from Germany were deadly serious, and they were right. Bernard and his wife, Miriam, left Holland in May of 1939 for Rio de Janeiro, just in time. While obtaining visas to Brazil was a miraculous feat, Bernard had his heart set on settling in America, the Land of Opportunity. The American consul in Rio immediately dampened his enthusiasm, citing the minimal “Polish quota,” the number of Polish nationals to which the United States offered entry. But less than two years later, he was called back to the embassy, where the consul, acting with ingenuity, issued Bernard the single Polish-quota visa that had become available, processing his British-national wife and two “British” children under a British quota. One Polish quota got the entire Hochstein family to America, but not before Bernard, ever the communal activist, founded a synagogue in Rio de Janeiro which continues to thrive there today.
They hit the shores of New York and the Hochsteins got to work In Holland, Bernard had carved out a niche for himself selling cigarette lighters, then moved into good quality pipes. In the United States, Bernard continued building up his business, selling high-end European-manufactured pipes to well-known retail chains throughout the country. Mastercraft Pipes was born and would eventually become a household name. Bernard Hochstein was a financial success.
But Bernard had never been one to link “financial” with “success”. For him, money was a tool. He looked at the fabric of his life and noted all the gifts that had been given him, and he knew that he needed to give back. Generously. He had always tithed his earnings, in keeping with the Torah’s commandment, but somewhere along the way Bernard began to realize that giving charity was not just a commandment; it was an investment.
Bernard Hochstein lived by the verse: “And you shall test Me in this, says God, if I will not open for you the windows of the heavens and I will empty them out for you in blessings endlessly” (Malachi 3:10). This verse indicates that man may test God in the area of ma’aser, giving a tithe of one’s earnings, expecting to reap bounty and blessing from giving charity. This was Bernard’s modus operandi throughout his entire life.
Bernard shared his deep belief in tithing and his endless love for supporting charitable through seminars on how to achieve success in fundraising and on the importance of tithing one’s earnings. “If you will give $100,000 to charity, I promise you will be a millionaire. And what if you tell me you don’t have $100,000 to give? So I’ll tell you to go out and get other people to give, too!”
He walked the talk, always encouraging others to join him in his philanthropic work. During an annual dinner for one of the yeshivas he supported, a newly married attendee lost her brand-new diamond ring. She was obviously distraught and this mishap was brought to Bernard’s attention. He turned to the other major supporter sitting next to him and said, “How about we split the cost of the ring 50-50 so this young lady will leave on a happy note?” The other donor agreed and the two wrote out checks to the woman who was overjoyed at the opportunity to replace her engagement ring.
A few days later, it became known that a staff member at the dinner had found the ring and placed it in the office for safekeeping. The ring was returned to its rightful owner and the yeshivah called to tell Mr. Hochstein that they would be returning his check.
“One minute,” he said. “What does the woman’s husband do for a living?” He was told that the husband was a teacher in a yeshiva. “Tell her to keep the money!” he responded.
The yeshiva then called the other donor and informed him that they would be returning his check. “Wait!” he said. “What did Hochstein say about this?” The caller told him that Bernard had agreed to allow the woman to keep the money. “I’ll do whatever Hochstein does,” the donor replied.
With the same keen business acumen and razor-sharp vision that had built up his business empire, Bernard Hochstein built a philanthropic empire. Supporting and helping to build important institutions became his raison d’etre. He worked tirelessly to give away his money. He was as discerning and shrewd about his charity “investments” as he was in his financial investments. His philanthropic “portfolio” was extensive but carefully selected. And he gave unstintingly not only of his money, but also of his time and advice. Bernard truly believed, with every fiber of his being, that giving charity would ensure him not only of financial stability, but of good health, nachas from his family, and a good life.
In the center of Jerusalem, the Hochstein Gemach, a free loan association, run with all the professionalism and knack of a real bank, is a beacon of hope for thousands of Israelis. Anyone can receive a loan for up to 10,000 shekels, no questions asked, payable within a year. There are no guarantors necessary, “customers” present their credit card and commit to paying monthly payments and the money is theirs. This is just one of Bernard Hochstein’s genius of a charity idea, where the same initial seed money is multiplied over countless charity opportunities as the money gets recycled.
Bernard firmly believed that the Almighty would “pay him back” as long as he gave charity generously and consistently. It was so black-and-white that he tracked his earnings commensurate with his charity-giving.
One of Bernard’s sons was once sitting with his father as he wrote a check to an institution for $18,000. In the midst of making out the check, the phone rang and it was his investment broker calling.
“I wanted to let you know that you just earned $182,500,” he said, referring to a specific stock.
Bernard was satisfied — but puzzled. He often paid the tithe on account, only earning the “principal” afterwards. Here he had just made a donation for $18,000, which would perfectly explain the subsequent (and consequent!) gain of $180,000. But where did the extra $2500 come from?
He didn’t need to wonder long. A moment later, Miriam, his wife and full fledged partner in all his charitable giving, came into the room to tell him that she’d just written out a check for $250!
And he firmly demonstrated this belief to others, as well.
A man once approached Bernard to talk about an investment. Bernard immediately inquired if the businessman knew about ma’aser, tithing his income. After a brief explanation, the man agreed to give the appropriate tithe on this business deal.
“How much profit do you expect to make on the deal?” Hochstein asked him.
“$500,000,” the man asserted.
“Okay,” Bernard told him reasonably, “In the heavens, they work on a cash basis. You give me the ma’aser (tithe) now, on the spot, and later you’ll earn the profit against it.”
The businessman was a bit disconcerted by this clause. He argued with Bernard and finally agreed to give half the amount of the ten-percent tithe — $25,000. He wrote out a check for that amount and gave it over to Bernard.
A little while later, one of Bernard’s sons came into his office and found him in good spirits. What had happened?
“That businessman just called me up. He told me he had just earned a quarter of a million dollars. He’s sending me another check for $25,000!”
Bernard had another philosophy, grounded in the mishnah in Ethics of the Fathers: “Greater is the one who causes others to take action than the person who acts himself.” He felt no qualms in asking others to give; in fact, he asserted, it was them who would be benefiting from giving. He was just doing them a favor!
Aside from tithing income, Bernard felt strongly there were two more obligations incumbent on every Jew: getting others to give to charitable causes, and that it’s not enough to give money — one must also become involved in those causes themselves. Bernard embodied this principle, becoming totally involved in the institutions he supported.
As one of his sons said, “He believed that we are put here for a purpose. He believed that a person has to know his responsibilities — to educate his kids and grandkids, to be involved in advancing Jewish education and institutions. My father always lived with the feeling that there was never enough time; every minute had to be well-spent.”
In 1974, he sold his pipe company and made aliyah to Israel, where his modest two-bedroom apartment in Jerusalem was visited day and night by a diverse swath of humanity, from charity collectors to dignitaries and businessmen seeking his guidance.
Bernard served as president for 18 well-known institutions, including Aish HaTorah Jerusalem, taking an active role in each one.
He had the rare gift of clarity to give excellent advice. In fact Aish HaTorah would never be the institution it is today without Bernard Hochstein. He recognized the value in founding an outreach yeshiva and personally petitioned the Israeli government to give to the then-fledgling organization a large piece of prime property located opposite the Western Wall Plaza — free of charge, of course! Aish HaTorah was a cause foremost and dear to Bernard Hochstein’s heart, and his heart was large and loving enough to hold within it several “favorites,” among them Neve Yerushalayim College for Women, Kerem B’Yavne and Ohr Somayach.
He understood the true value in giving charity and utilized this understanding to become a world class fundraiser and teach others to garner contributions for their institutions as well. In Bernard’s eyes, a fundraiser was a person of respect, of integrity, a far cry from the “shnorrer.”
The Hochsteins lived simply, unconcerned with material acquisitions. In the 34 years since they moved into their house, they never once redecorated; possessions were not important to them. The Hochsteins shared a tremendous love for the Land of Israel. Even when he needed to undergo radiotherapy to treat the cancer that developed late in his life, he would tell his sons, “Drive slowly! I love to see the construction in Jerusalem!”
He demanded integrity of others but most of all, of himself. Nothing deceitful would ever cross his path. While still in the pipe industry, Bernard was approached by a company who wished to partner with him. This Jewish-owned company, however, was open for business on Shabbos, a practice Bernard would take no part in. A consultation with his rabbi revealed that Bernard would be permitted to partner with the company but not take benefit from any profits earned on Shabbos, but Bernard’s integrity was unbending.
“How will I explain this to my children?” he retorted. “I should tell them that I’m a partner with a company that works on Shabbos?!”
The company was insistent and continued to pressure Bernard to join.
“If you want me to partner with you,” he finally insisted, “then you must close on Shabbos.”
They did not agree to his ultimatum, citing huge profit losses were they to close on Saturdays. So Bernard made them an unbelievable offer: “Close on Shabbos and I’ll be your partner, and if you lose any money from closing on Saturdays, I’ll make up the difference. Let’s try it for six months.”
The company agreed, but asked for a year-long trial. At the end of the year, Bernard Hochstein did not owe them a penny — they hadn’t lost any profit!
Today there is not a single Hochstein descendant — down to the youngest great-grandchild — who does not give ma’aser. They come with their bar mitzvah money, their first army salaries, eager to give ma’aser to a worthy cause. They will carry on the legacy of their patriarch, giving generously because they know that the true value of money is in its fulfillment of a higher purpose.