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Reaping Strong Returns: How Avrohom Biderman Found Himself Chairman of Shuvu

Yisroel Besser

He’s been charged with balancing the books of New York City and was selected by Mayor Ed Koch to head the city’s housing commission. Yet for Avrohom Biderman, an investment banker who is a chairman of this week’s Agudah Convention, the most challenging and fulfilling item on his resume is the job he never applied for — a job handed to him by Rav Avrohom Pam, ztz”l. As chairman of Shuvu, Reb Biderman describes how the fundraising burdens are offset by the satisfaction of seeing his rebbi’s dream come true.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Reb Avrohom (Abe) Biderman is one of those people I’ve wanted to interview for years. Somehow, he evaded the request time and again. It is rare to find politicians or activists who are media-shy; yet despite Reb Avrohom’s communal role, his history in politics and the sphere of his involvement, he is rarely the one behind the microphone or in the cameras lens. He manages to accomplish a great deal, without oratorical flourish and over-exposure.

Perhaps that media-shyness is a legacy from his rebbi, Rav Avrohom Pam, the rosh yeshivah who influenced so many even as he walked humbly, for whom self-effacement and humility were not just characteristics but trademarks.

For the man seated in front of me, Rav Avrohom Pam was much more than a rebbi. Abe Biderman spends most his waking hours working to realize the rosh yeshivah’s vision, maintaining the organization conceived by Rav Pam and associated with Rav Pam — Shuvu, the school system that provides Russian immigrants to Israel an authentic Jewish education. In fact, the identity of Rav Pam and his cause would eventually merge, the rosh yeshivah pleading for its success with his last breath, until his final day.

Now, as Shuvu celebrates its twentieth birthday, its chairman sits down for a rare interview, reflecting on two decades of activism, on his career prior to Shuvu, and on his first contact with his rebbi back in a high school classroom.

 

Lesson for Life

“There were these few maamarei Chazal that Rav Pam kept drilling into our heads, over and over,” Reb Avrohom remembers. “He would never tire of repeating them. One was ‘b’shimcha yikra’ucha uvimkomcha yoshivucha.’ He explained that every single person has his place and specific destiny.”

Rav Pam taught his high school boys many things: Gemara and Chumash and halachah. But it was these words that he kept repeating, searing them into the consciousness of his talmidim.

Reb Avrohom recalls how Rav Pam would say, “Trust me, these words are important, you’ll need them in life!”

How true that turned out to be.

Like most of his contemporaries, Reb Avrohom was a child of survivors; his generation grew up with an awareness of their responsibilities to Klal Yisrael, to the eternity of the nation.

“I was born in Berlin, just after the war,” he recounts. “My parents came to America after the war and settled in Queens, where my father had cousins, the Sukeniks. My father became the gabbai at the shul of Rav Yaakov Teitelbaum, a position he held up until his final day. I still go back there for Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. This past year was my sixtieth year there.”

Reb Avrohom learned in Torah Vodaath until his chasunah.

“My shver, Rav Yehoshua Bielski, was all about learning Torah. His brothers spent the war years in the forest as the famous Bielski brothers, the partisans, but my shver was drafted by the Soviet army. He was a talmid of the Kamenitzer Rosh Yeshivah, Reb Boruch Ber Leibowitz. Before he left for the front, Reb Boruch Ber told him that if he undertook to devote his life to learning Torah, he would be spared.”

Reb Avrohom spent a few years learning in kollel and earned his accounting degree at Brooklyn College.

“The family was growing and I was hired by a heimishe firm. The salary was meager and I needed a better job.”

In an incident that was widely reported when he later rose to prominence, Reb Avrohom interviewed by a famous accounting firm with offices across the world. The interviewer studied the resume and looked up at the young man before him.

“So you want to work here?” he asked.

“Yes, I do,” was Avrohom’s response.

The gentleman raised his eyes and fixed them on Avrohom’s yarmulke.

“With that on your head?”

“Yes, with this on my head,” replied Reb Avrohom.

“I don’t think so,” said the executive. And that was it.

A cousin suggested that Reb Avrohom join him working for the city. The salary and benefits were much better, and at the time they were hiring qualified accountants. Soon enough, Avrohom Biderman became an accountant for the city of New York.

“It was just after a major fiscal crisis, in 1975. The city was essentially bankrupt, and Arthur Levitt was brought in from the state comptroller’s office to manage finances for the city. I was assigned to his team, working as one of his assistants.”

The young accountant’s talents attracted the attention of his superiors. He rose through the ranks of city finance, eventually taking the post of deputy comptroller of the city of the New York. In 1982, Mayor Edward Koch began his second term and Abe Biderman was appointed as an assistant to Deputy Mayor Kenneth Lipper.

Biderman’s projections for city finances seemed to be on the mark and the mayor took notice. Eventually, the thirty-five-year old assistant enjoyed free access to the mayor’s office, where his opinion was welcomed.

In 1985, Koch appointed Biderman finance commissioner of the city of New York.

B’shimcha yikra’ucha...

 

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