Although the sky is overcast and gray, the weather is rather mild in Los Angeles on this December morning. For some reason, even when the sun comes out, this city fails to evoke the feelings of tranquility and leisure that many other places with a similar climate have.
Miami makes one wonder why everyone else in the world hasn’t moved there, but Los Angeles doesn’t. The people here seem just as harried as those back home, without a New York-minute to spare. With its gently swaying palm trees and one-story pastel-colored homes, LA reminds one of Eretz Yisrael—minus its holiness and ineffable charm. Still, the local Jewish community is impressive. Looking out through my hotel window I notice several young Orthodox couples who seem to hail from Sephardic backgrounds dropping their children off at a Jewish school. The Jewish nation is eternal, I think to myself.
Like everywhere else, LA has a mix of those who have made it and those who are struggling. My destination today is the office of one who has made it, but readily shares his wealth with those who are less fortunate. It has been said that giving away money is an easy matter, and in any man’s power to do. But making decisions about to whom, how much and when to give it and for what purpose is neither easy nor in every man’s power. And yet, the Rechnitz twins do just that.
As some wag once noted about twins, “It’s double the giggles and double the grins, and double the trouble if you’re blessed with twins.” I’m not sure about double the trouble, but I do encounter a double portion of good humor when I get to meet Yisroel Zev—or Steve, as he is known to the outside world—the older of the Rechnitz twins. In fact, when Yisroel Zev tells me how he got started in business, I thought he was joking.
“When I was around 20 years old,” he begins, “I was learning in Telz in Chicago, in the shiur of the rosh yeshivah, Rav Avrohom Chaim Levin. One Friday I had nothing to do, so I called my father and asked him to give me something to sell. He was in the closeout business and happened to find himself overstocked with latex gloves, so he told me to try to sell them.
“I called up a big company, and with siyata diShmaya got through to the head purchaser, who must have had 15 purchasers underneath him. I gave him a price, and he asked me for a sample and a phone number so he could reach me if he was interested. I provided both. But that’s when my heart started pounding.
“You see, the phone number I gave him was the pay phone in the yeshivah that all the bachurim used to speak to their parents. What were the chances that he would ever get through? And even if he did, it certainly wouldn’t make a great impression when some kid answered the phone and didn’t know what he was talking about. I was doomed. I had to think out of the box. So I approached someone in my shiur and offered him 10% of the profits if he would sit in the phone booth for the next week during normal business hours and answer any incoming call with the words, ‘Steve Rechnitz’s office.’ Needless to say, this threw off a lot of parents who could have sworn that their sons were learning in yeshivah.
“My newfound ‘receptionist’ spent the next two days ushering parents off the phone as quickly as possible and warning them not to even consider calling back, giving them whatever excuses came to mind. When the purchaser finally did call back, the ‘receptionist’ picked up the receiver and announced, ‘President Steve Rechnitz’s office.’ Siyata diShmaya knows no bounds, and after recovering from the fact that he was ordering gloves from a ‘president,’ the guy placed an order for 100 cases; I made $2,500 from the deal. For a bachur who was getting an allowance of $30 a week, that was a huge amount of money.
“The company had other branches and I started selling to them as well. I was making money! Eventually my father ran out of the product, so I put an ad in the paper looking for more gloves. A broker contacted me, but he explained that I would have to travel and see the product first. Some of it was in New Hampshire and some of it was in Panama. The problem was, how could I be absent from the yeshivah for four days without raising any suspicion?
“There was a family in Chicago that was originally from Los Angeles with whom I would periodically spend Shabbosim. Coincidentally, the father was the mashgiach ruchani of another yeshivah in Chicago. His wife, probably without running it by him, devised a plan by which I would tell the hanhalah of my yeshivah that I was having my wisdom teeth pulled and would be recuperating at their house. The plan seemed solid. Who would ever question the mashgiach ruchani of another yeshivah? So off I went.
“A week after I got back, my mashgiach found the receipt from my trip in my drawer. Fortunately, I was nowhere in the vicinity when the two mashgichim spoke to each other. To this day, I still have nightmares about what it must have sounded like. I was called into the rosh yeshivah’s office, and I thought he would kick me out on the spot.
“Rav Levin is a small man, but he has a powerful and intimidating voice that can be used to frighten even the toughest bachur. When I walked in I assumed it was all over, even though I was a good learner and was at the top of the shiur. He looked at me and I shivered. Then he smiled and said, ‘Look at the koach you have! You can run a business and learn at the same time. I’m going to have to think about what to do.’ The next day he came to me and said, ‘We’ve never done this before, but we’re going to allow you to work half a day while you’re learning in yeshivah.’
“That’s when I got my father into the loop. I asked him what to do, and he said that I couldn’t do two things at the same time; I had to concentrate on one or I’d fail at both. I moved back home to Los Angeles and opened a small office to start the business. I was buying medical supplies from manufacturers and selling them to end users. My brother was then learning in kollel in the Mir in Eretz Yisrael. Once he saw that the business had promise, he came back and helped me take it to a much higher level. I had to teach him the ropes in the beginning because I started first, but he learned very quickly. He has very special kochos. We eventually realized that as identical twins we’d done such a good job of sharing a womb, and then later the same crib and pacifiers, that we decided that all our business endeavors would always be shared 50/50. Each of us concentrates on different segments of our holdings.
“When we were younger we used to help my grandfather—my father’s father—with his clothing business during the summer. We needed names to use in the business world, so I jumped up first and declared that my name would be Steve. “No,” my brother said, he wanted to be Steve. We were both Steve for a couple of years until it confused my grandfather, so he went back to Shlomo while I kept Steve.”
“Are you still selling latex gloves?” I ask him.
“Yes, of course. How many do you think we sell every year?” he asks me teasingly. “It’s going to sound like a crazy number because I’m talking about individual pieces,” he explains.
“Three million,” I guess.
“Go up a little.”
“Thirty million,” I venture.
“Let me save you some time. We sell 1.8 billion gloves a year.”
“That’s a lot of gloves!” we say almost in unison.
“But medical supplies aren’t the only things you sell,” I remark.
“We have a variety of ventures. We manufacture and distribute medical supplies, as well as own nursing homes and other related businesses in the industry.”
What that means in revenue is something that he prefers I don’t publicize.
Just in case you were wondering how he came up with the name “TwinMed” for his company, well, as you might have guessed, it had to have the word “twin” in it. We are taught that “Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor” (Koheles 4:9). Perhaps the fact that two brilliant minds built up this company instead of one is the key to its success. Yisroel Zev, however, has a more lighthearted explanation. “We may be good entrepreneurs, but it never hurts when you have two six-foot-eight, 300-pound-plus people walking into your office and strongly suggesting that you buy their product.” (Both Yisroel Zev and his twin, Shlomo Yehuda, are six foot eight.)
Whatever the reason, TwinMed is one of the largest distributors of medical supplies in the United States today. In the course of that business it purchases medical-related products, warehouses them, and resells the products to end users—primarily nursing homes.
However, with its surprising sense of tranquility and casualness, one wouldn’t know that when visiting TwinMed’s distribution center in Santa Fe Springs, California, a sprawling 120,000-square-foot new facility located in an industrial area. He tells me that there are 12 other facilities like this one with a total of 600 employees. And the dozens of people I see working the phones seem to be handling large orders and landing big deals.
I flew into LA last night in preparation for today’s meeting, and I’m cherishing every moment. Yisroel Zev is not only fun to be with, but he comes across as totally unpretentious and kind. He is also extremely smart. When Yisroel Zev tells me that he’s an avid fan of Ami Magazine, I tell him only half-jokingly that that certainly boosts his standing in my eyes. While Koheles tells us that “Bread is not to the wise, nor riches to the brilliant,” I guess there’s an exception to every rule.
He and I experience some emotional and teary-eyed moments together when he reminisces about his late wife, who passed away four years ago when she was 39 years old. I share with him that I lost my youngest sister when she was only 35, and we compare a few heartrending notes.
Flying to LA from New York isn’t the longest flight one can take, but with a flight time of over six hours it’s still quite tedious. I would imagine that Yisroel Zev flies to New York far more often than I fly to LA, which is hardly ever.
“I don’t,” he tells me to my surprise. “I’ll do anything but fly. I used to not fly at all because I was scared of flying. Actually, I wasn’t scared of flying, I was scared of being midair and the plane suddenly not flying,” he says with a grin. “I picked Telz Chicago as my yeshivah because it was the closest by train, ‘only’ 40 hours. I had a real fear of flying until I got married. Oddly enough, the events of September 11, which happened after I was already married, made it easier for me. No one wanted to fly anymore and there were very few people on the flights so I was okay.”
“You like being with fewer people?”
“I like it when there are fewer people around. I also like to be able to stop the flight whenever I want, which of course I can only do if I’m flying in a private jet.”
“California has more elderly people than other places, so for a nursing home owner, there’s no better place to be.”
“People come to California to live out their final years, so there are lots of old people. They also go to Florida because of the weather.”
“In my opinion, Los Angeles is very different from Miami Beach.”
“True, but it’s still the biggest in nursing homes, if only because of its size.”
“Don’t you fly to your other warehouses?”
“I don’t do much traveling. Duvi Blonder is CEO of the company, and he does most of the traveling.”
“You don’t have your own plane?”
“I do, but it’s mostly owned by my partner, the bank. I use it occasionally, but it’s cost prohibitive so I try not to. I’ll let customers use it, but I only use it myself when I have no other choice. If you look at how much leg room there is on airplanes nowadays, there really isn’t enough room for me. Even first class is too cramped.”
“Being tall has many advantages, but not when you’re on a plane.”
“We had a CEO here who was six foot five. He was supposed to travel back and forth to Virginia a lot, but that plan ended rather quickly.”
I tell Yisroel Zev that I’ve had a phone relationship with his twin for some years. The last time we spoke was a few weeks ago, when we featured Motty Steimetz on our cover. Motty is one of Shlomo Yehuda’s protégés. But this is my first encounter with Yisroel Zev, and I believe that klal Yisrael hasn’t really met him before either. That is our loss more than his, as he is not a person who seeks the limelight. He agreed to our request for an interview only after we explained to him that many young people could learn from his business models and acumen.
How he manages to keep such a low profile intrigues me. “Your brother has his own Wikipedia page that mentions his rather robust net worth. How have you avoided that?”
“You have to be able to be in the public eye when you’re dealing with kollelim and yeshivos. That’s something he was always able to do better than me. I don’t know how he carries the ol. He used to enjoy it a bit, but it’s becoming increasingly more difficult and stressful. I deal more with individuals needing assistance, which is somewhat easier than interacting with institutions. When yechidim come to Shlomo Yehuda asking for financial help they’re sent to me, and the institutional requests are forwarded to him. I don’t envy his position.”
“How does it work?” I ask. “Is the tzedakah money that’s disbursed split between the two of you?”
“Can I say yes without losing the zechusim?”
“But people should know that you’re an equal partner in the support of so many mosdos,” I tell him.
“I’ve never needed nor wanted that acknowledgment. All I will say is that Shlomo Yehuda and I are partners. I can’t stand the thought of people talking about me. I value my privacy.”
Nonetheless, l’sheim mitzvah, and to suggest a cause for others to give to, he allows for the following:
“I’m uncomfortable with publicity and truly grateful that my brother is willing to take on the tremendous responsibility of being involved with mosdos for the both of us. However, on the off chance that someone will be inspired and take this project on for himself, I’ll tell you about my commitment to helping families whose breadwinner, usually the father, has passed away.
“The conventional way of establishing a keren doesn’t cut it in these cases, because there’s no way the community can raise enough capital so that a big family can live solely off the interest. To that end, I’ve dedicated myself to a system that is currently providing for almost 30 orphans whose fathers died when there were still young children in the house. The way it works is that we take on the expenses of one of the children in the family, financially ‘adopting’ him or her without the awesome responsibility that usually comes with a real adoption. I promise the family that, bli neder, if the Ribbono Shel Olam permits it, I will cover all of the child’s expenses up until and including his or her wedding.
“In order to avoid embarrassment, the family is requested to call one of my non-Jewish employees, with whom they feel more comfortable sharing their needs, on a monthly basis, to tell him how much money they will need to cover their expenses for the following month. This includes not only the standard room and board, clothing and spending money, but seasonal things like summer camp and Yom Tov expenses. While I’m obviously limited in the number of children I can take on, the sole requirement is that the arrangement never be disclosed to the child.”
“Hopefully there are people reading this article who are in a position to adopt one or possibly even two children,” I say. “I’m sure that what you are doing alleviates an enormous amount of stress for the almanos and makes a huge difference in the quality of life of the yesomim.”
Chazal say that one is supposed to support non-Jews and non-Jewish causes along with Jewish ones. Among many other causes close to his heart, Yisroel Zev has given millions of dollars for cancer research to the most prestigious research centers in the country, including MD Anderson in Houston, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, the University of California at San Diego and Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. He built a successful drug abuse rehabilitation facility whose graduates have moved on to start new lives, some of them holding positions at TwinMed. He is also a big supporter of American troops and is involved with various veterans’ organizations and wounded warrior projects, and has also donated millions to children’s causes like education, medicine and after-school programs.
“Your drug rehabilitation program was featured on Fox News. It was a true kiddush Hashem.”
“To me, that’s the most important thing. I don’t know about making a kiddush Hashem, but at least not making a chillul Hashem can also be considered a kiddush Hashem.”
“Because your brother has such a high profile in the Jewish community,” I say, “I would imagine that you get followed around as well. You look so much alike it’s hard for people to tell you apart.”
“That’s true. I was in Eretz Yisrael last year and my son wanted a falafel without techina. The next thing I know, Haaretz is writing that Yisroel Rechnitz’s son doesn’t like techina! That’s why I try to keep out of the limelight.”
“Are there other areas where you allow yourself a more public profile?”
“Many years ago I was asked to deliver a guest lecture at Stanford. I still lecture twice a year at their School of Entrepreneurship. There is no more prestigious university in the world when it comes to business. Who attends these classes? People who already have MBAs and doctorates and have already worked in private equity. And I never studied a day in college in my life!”
“What do you talk about?”
“Entrepreneurship. Can it be created? Are you born with it? Things like that.”
“Are your lectures based on your own ideas?”
“Yes. I have my own theories. Years ago the school sent a writer to TwinMed to publish a case study. They do this with various companies, analyzing the business without revealing whether or not the company is profitable. The case study then becomes the subject of discussion among the students. As there are cases of success as well as failure, when I walked into the room they didn’t know which category I fell into.
“The professor told me that a couple of weeks earlier a businessman who owned a bunch of pizza stores that all went bankrupt had come to the school. When he walked into the classroom, all the students had butchered him for his business model, and a few weeks later he committed suicide. The professor was laughing when he said this, unwilling to admit or even consider that the two were related. I told him I wasn’t so sure. It’s no picnic to be picked apart for two hours by 100 business students who think they’re the smartest people who were ever born.”
“You certainly have a lot to contribute. I’m not just talking about the inestimable amount of money you donate. I mean teaching people how to earn their own parnasah, which is the greatest form of tzedakah.”
“I’m fortunate to be able to do it. I also give lectures at Dartmouth. The first time I spoke at Stanford, a couple of people came over to me afterwards and wanted to know where I studied. I told them I’d learned in a place called Telz. ‘Where’s Telz?’ they wanted to know. ‘Where’s Stanford?!’ I replied.”
“Well said! Telz is certainly more important for you and me. Would you ever consider teaching business in the frum community?”
“I’ve always wanted to do that. After we sold a piece of the company off I was hoping to free up some time to do something like that in a yeshivah setting. But then it got busy again. Time will tell.”
“What advice would you give a young entrepreneur?”
“Two things. The first one is simple, but it isn’t really as easy as it sounds: Never go back on your word, even if it means losing a substantial amount of money. There’s no such thing as paying a fee to ‘reset’ your word or sending it off somewhere to have it refurbished. Once you’ve lost it, it’s gone.
“The second piece of advice is something I tell my class in Stanford. Despite all the buzzwords and jargon that are thrown around, they always want to know if being an entrepreneur is something you’re either born with or not, because they want to know if they’re wasting money going to school. I always tell them that a person is born with 80% of it, and the other 20% consists of things you can learn. While having passion and a strong work ethic and all the other catchphrases can certainly help, they’re not the key to success. A washing machine works harder than they’ll ever work, and it doesn’t even make minimum wage! If the most important component could be put into one word, it would be ‘curiosity.’ You have to be curious.
“Let’s say that a salesman comes to me and tells me that he lost a client. I’m curious about the reason why the customer chose to go elsewhere, and I need to find out why. If I can figure out what happened, then I have a chance of getting him back. It’s all about being curious. Some people are simply incurious. They can be three feet away from a bomb explosion and just keep on walking. Things happen for a reason; it’s just a question of figuring out what that reason is.”
“Well, I’m curious about the casual atmosphere here. It seems like you don’t have the usual corporate structure; everything is very heimish. Is that deliberate?”
“I started from the bottom and worked my way up, so everything I have other people do is something I’ve done in the past, with the exception of IT. So I’m friendly with my employees and familiar with their work. But it’s true that after a company reaches a certain size it’s supposed to be corporate. We used to be even more informal, but after my wife passed away we brought someone in to run things and he instituted more of a corporate structure. But we’re still pretty homey around here.”
“Does Shlomo Yehuda also lecture? I know that music is one of his hobbies, which probably keeps him busy during his off hours.”
“Teaching is my forte, while he’s an excellent baal menagein. A couple of songs he’s published are actually mine. Those were some of the shvacher ones, so even though my name isn’t on them I’m fine with that.”
“You’re also a composer?”
“Yes, but I’m nowhere near his league. Twenty years ago I produced an album called Nagilah that was sung by me and Moshe Mendlowitz, but nowadays all I do is dabble. I consider myself my brother’s number one fan. I’m always amazed by his musical abilities. I actually have a few songs scattered among different singers. My latest is ‘Al Tira,’ which is on one of Benny Friedman’s albums.”
“How much older are you than your brother?”
“A whopping seven minutes.”
“How many siblings are in your family?”
“There are seven of us, ka”h, four boys and three girls. My father recently retired; he fills his time by giving a shiur and working with whichever siblings can use some help in business. He has semichah from Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt”l.”
“Do your customers know the difference between you and Shlomo Yehuda?”
“We’ve both always handled each other’s customers.”
A Breakthrough Idea
“Tell me something about your customers,” I solicit.
“Our customers are mostly nursing homes. What’s interesting is that the industry has become dominated by Orthodox Jews over the last couple of years. Orthodox Jews own 50% of the nursing homes in the United States. I know that nursing homes get a bad rap in today’s climate, but in my opinion it isn’t justified.
“The typical nursing home resident is old and frail, and there are over a million and a half people in such facilities in America at any given time. So whenever an article comes out about alleged abuse or inadequate care you have to put these numbers into perspective. With such a vulnerable population tragedies are bound to happen, and each case is heartbreaking. But these things are nowhere near as rampant and widespread as the media would have you believe. Frankly, with most of the Medicaid reimbursement rates falling below the actual cost of providing care for patients, it’s a miracle that these situations don’t happen more often. I’ve seen many examples where the media will completely distort the facts simply for shock value.”
“Trump coined the term ‘fake news’ to describe that phenomenon. I also understand that you changed the way nursing homes buy supplies.”
“Yes, we did. For many years nursing homes bought their supplies, and the government would then allow them to add a 40% surcharge when submitting their bill for reimbursement. Under this system, it never paid for them to shop around for cheaper merchandise because they always added onto the price anyway. In fact, it paid for them to buy products that were more expensive, so the 40% surcharge would also be inflated. Then in 1998 the government came out with something called a prospective payment system, or PPS. They said, ‘For this kind of patient you’ll be paid $150 a day, and for this kind of patient you’ll be paid $170 a day, regardless of what happens.’ Nine out of the ten biggest nursing home chains went bankrupt; they couldn’t move that quickly to maintain their profitability. Everyone was scrambling. Then one day we came up with a new idea. We told the nursing homes, ‘We’re going to do the same thing as the government and allow you to impose a price on us. No matter how many medical supplies you need for this particular person, you will pay us a certain amount per day. It doesn’t matter if the person needs anything extra that day, the price will remain the same.’ We called our version PPD (Per Patient Day).
“We started off in California and the idea immediately took off like a rocket. It actually revolutionized the way healthcare is billed. Not only did the pharmacies change their method to PPD, so did the food suppliers and therapy services. That also allowed us to expand from selling gloves and adult diapers to a full line of medical supplies. We were soon stocking everything a patient could possibly need.”
“Is PPD now being used in other industries as well?”
“It’s used primarily in healthcare and related industries, because healthcare is an industry in which the government is capping you. Other industries work on the opposite principle, with salespeople who are always trying to do more business. We don’t have salespeople. A salesperson is for a shoe store, where people come in and the salesman tries to convince you to buy another pair of shoes because he’ll make a commission. I actually won the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award in 2011, and I believe it was because of the PPD concept.”
“Are your expenses always covered this way?”
“We might lose money on one patient here or there, but if we make enough money on the next patient it evens out. People always ask us how we can take the risk, but over time we’ve learned how to manage things so that we turn a profit. It’s sort of like walking into a restaurant that advertises an all-you-can-eat buffet. The customer sees the world ‘all,’ but he has to be able to actually eat it. To put it another way, unless you have three hands, you can only use two gloves. Some people don’t understand that. We basically revolutionized the whole industry. Nursing homes no longer required budget meetings for their supplies anymore, and it was much more cost effective for them. At the end of the month they gave an accounting of the number of patients they had multiplied by the PPD cost per day, and that was their bill. Still, everyone wanted to know how they could ensure that we wouldn’t be giving them inferior products, so we explained, ‘If we did that, we’d only have to send you more products. We’d be costing ourselves money, not you, because we’re capped.’
“We did run into a problem of a small percentage of nursing home employees stealing supplies, so we started manufacturing products in larger sizes. We were the first to make two-gallon bottles of shampoo. If a person wanted to steal a bottle that size she would have to have a really big purse; it’s not so easy to smuggle something like that out of a facility.”
“The whole concept of a prospective payment system sounds scary because you never know when a customer is going to need more stuff. Do you ever refuse to do business with a company because they were ordering too much?”
“No. The only time we would do that is if a person had two nursing homes—only one of which was on the PPD program—and he ordered extra for the second nursing home. Customers might not think we’d pick up on it, but we know what the numbers are supposed to look like. Over the years we’ve built up sufficient data on the volume of products that should be normally consumed.”
“You can see that just from the orders, without having to investigate?”
“Our computers would pick up the discrepancy immediately. People have tried doing it to us in the past. When we uncover it, that’s the last time we’ll deal with them.”
“Do you get into litigation as well?”
“Only if people don’t pay their bills.”
“Do you get orders from the government?”
“Baruch Hashem, yes. We recently won a contract to supply adult incontinence products to all the government institutions in New York State.”
“In the final analysis, who came up with the PPD concept, you or Shlomo Yehuda?”
“It depends on whom you ask,” he responds with a smile.
“I guess you mean which Steve.”
“Exactly. It really was both of us, and it represented the culmination of a long, thought-out process. It just seemed like a very viable idea. If the nursing homes were capped by law and the prices they charged the government were fixed, why not let the nursing homes cap us so that their expenses would be fixed as well? We had no idea that it would change the industry!”
Remembering His Late Wife
Yisroel Zev openly shares with me his pain and grief over the untimely passing of his wife, Avigail, a”h. When he tells me how his wife realized that their youngest child, who was only four years at the time, would probably not remember her, he elicits from me some silent tears.
“How long ago did your wife pass away?” I ask him.
“Four and a half years ago. Yesterday would have been her 44th birthday. She had yenne machlah for two years. We have three children, ka”h.
“How many years were you married?”
“We were married for 14 years. She was niftar about a month before our eldest son’s bar mitzvah.”
“For a mother to pass away and not be able to participate in her children’s simchahs is tragic. My sister also died and left young children. The youngest wasn’t even five.”
“All she wanted was to live long enough to see them get married. I didn’t understand it at the time, but now I do. Whenever I hear hespeidim at levayos I get annoyed at the boilerplate eulogies that have become so common in recent years. ‘He/she didn’t complain for one minute. Everyone was so nispael by how he/she accepted her fate.’ What’s the gedulah? What’s wrong with saying ‘I want to live’? I never understood that. With that kind of logic, we shouldn’t be reciting Tehillim either. My wife was very distressed. She pleaded with Hashem, ‘You gave me children and the accompanying achrayus to raise them. I have to raise them!’ She was making deals with Hashem to be able to walk our children down to the chuppah. Since when did it become a noble thing to keep quiet and be a reticent patient? My wife had been given a tachlis, and she was prepared to fight as long and as hard as she could to fulfill it.”
“Where did you get married?”
“We got married in New York and lived there for the first six months. She had a very prestigious job as an attorney for a big firm on Wall Street. After that we moved back to LA, because they offered her a transfer to their office here. She was a brilliant woman who had everything going for her.
“After the birth of our second child she came to the decision that she wanted to stop working. There was a local Bikur Cholim in LA that had been around since the 1970s called the Ladies Bikur Cholim. It was basically a bunch of elderly women who were Holocaust survivors. They had a luncheon every year to benefit the organization. To give you an idea of their hasagos, the year before my wife joined, the prize they raffled off at the luncheon was a microwave oven. There really wasn’t much going on. So my wife got together with my partner Duvi Blonder’s wife, Eynat, whose grandmother was a member of the Bikur Cholim, and they revived it. Not only did they revive it, but it probably does things that no other Bikur Cholim in America does. There are now 250 volunteers who take care of whoever needs cooking, cleaning, doctors’ visits—stuff like that. On Thursday nights they get together to cook for the hospitalized patients. There are free food pantries in all the different hospitals. Then there’s a Bikur Cholim house where relatives can stay. While other Bikur Cholims may offer these things, I’m telling you that the way they do it is extraordinary.
“What’s ironic is that my wife was diagnosed right after a meeting that was really going to expand the Bikur Cholim exponentially. A wide range of professionals were invited to the meeting, which was held in the conference room of a hotel. The idea was to have top doctors from all over the country and even elsewhere available for giving second opinions. There would also be healthcare lawyers, pharmacists who would provide drugs for free, medical supplies—whatever resources people needed. This was going to be a ‘virtual’ network of people associated with the Bikur Cholim. Unfortunately, the day after the meeting my wife’s doctor called with the news that her biopsy had come back positive. That stopped this project from moving forward in its tracks. It wasn’t until she passed away that it was finally brought to fruition, and the Bikur Cholim was renamed Ateres Avigail in her memory. Rabbi Avraham Hirschman is the organization’s director.
“What really got to me was that after my wife became ill, she didn’t want anyone to know because she was afraid that people would stop calling her for help. We’d be sitting in the hospital while she was getting chemo, and she’d be fielding calls from other people. She refused to tell anyone. For a period of time we didn’t even tell our parents; no one could know. The only person who knew was her partner in this endeavor, Duvy Blonder’s wife, as well as her brother Menachem, who’s a medical doctor.
“There was once a woman who had an operation and was in the hospital. She happened to call my wife while my wife was in a different part of the same hospital undergoing chemo. When my wife picked up the phone, she told the woman that she was in the middle of something but would stop by a little later to see her. As they were talking, there was some sort of emergency announcement made over the loudspeaker, and the woman realized that she was hearing it from both the loudspeaker and over the phone. She asked my wife if she was in the hospital and she replied, ‘Yes. I’m visiting someone.’ After my wife finished her treatment, she then went to the other part of the hospital to visit the woman. The amazing thing was that she continued to cook for the Bikur Cholim on Thursday nights until the very end. For the last three weeks of her life she was fed intravenously, but she still insisted on sitting and cooking even though she had no energy left. Two weeks before she was niftar everything went south, and we couldn’t hide it anymore.”
“You’re involved in so many causes, but I would imagine that the Bikur Cholim holds a special place in your heart.”
“Yes, because it was my wife’s pride and joy. I’m careful not to dominate it completely, because I’m afraid that if people start saying ‘It’s Rechnitz’s; let him worry about it,’ it will never go anywhere.”
“But don’t people know that it’s connected to you?”
“They do, but the point is to make sure that other people feel it’s theirs as well so they’ll give of their time and energy. There’s another organization called Chasdei Avigail, which, with Hashem’s help, is going to be national. It’s geared towards girls from the sixth through eighth grades and offers books and programs on how to treat people when you’re mevakeir choleh, and there are cookbooks with gluten-free recipes and the like.
“Getting back to what we were talking about before, the first child we ‘adopted’ actually came about through the work of the Bikur Cholim. My wife was taking care of a woman who had yenne machlah. When the woman passed away she left an only son who was now orphaned of both parents, as his father had died a few years before. Baruch Hashem, the boy went on to attend Yeshiva University and became an engineer. When I found out that he was getting married I made sure to stop by his wedding. It gave me so much joy, although it was bittersweet because my wife was no longer alive to share it with me.
“I’ve always felt a debt of gratitude to Telz Chicago, ever since the rosh yeshivah, Rav Levin, offered to allow me to stay there and learn half a day. Even though I didn’t take him up on his offer I’ve always made sure to demonstrate my hakaras hatov, and we’ve remained close over the years. Up until my wife passed away, he and his rebbetzin would come out to Los Angeles to spend a week with us every winter for a little respite from the deep freeze in Chicago. Avigail would look forward to those visits for many weeks, and when they finally arrived she’d wait on them hand and foot, always thinking about what the rosh yeshivah might want or need at any given moment. This was a yearly ritual that we and our children were zocheh to follow for many years. We were zocheh to have the rosh yeshivah at all our simchos, and unfortunately, we were destined to have him with us during the painful times as well. A few days before she was niftar, he flew in to give my wife chizzuk. On the day she was niftar, he flew in again. He began his hesped by saying that while he was always makpid not to refer to a woman by her first name, in this case he was making an exception because Avigail was his daughter. That meant so much to me.”
“Do you have a take-away message for our readers?” I propose.
“Chazal tell us: ‘Mi sheyeish lo maneh, he who has 100 [zuz], rotzeh masayim, wants 200.’ Whenever I hear this I always add the following: ‘Al tikra maneh ela money.’ Through her actions, my wife taught me that there’s a time to say, ‘I have enough.’ Avigail was working for a prestigious law firm on Wall Street, and saw a clear and short path to partnership and substantial wealth. Nonetheless, she decided to drop it all and direct her entire focus to helping others.
“We all think that when we don’t have money, money is all we need to make us happy. We’re even open to G-d testing us, because we’re convinced that we will never yearn for the ‘200.’ But in absolutely every case, whether it’s money or any other success, human nature is to desire more and more, and most people only turn their attention to helping others after they obtain it. I learned from my wife that you can say ‘enough’ even before you’ve acquired more than you can possibly use, so that other people will also have more than they need.”
While all of us eventually come to realize that life can never be free of loss and sadness, rare is the individual who turns his heartbreak into singular chesed and kindness. Yisroel Zev Rechnitz is certainly a role model for such benevolence. l