Feature Stories

From welfare kid to "Jewish businessman," "Undercover Boss" shares his recipe for success

Sheldon Yellen

Sheldon Yellen is up for an Emmy award. The CEO of Belfor USA, an international disaster-recovery and property-restoration company, appeared in January on “Undercover Boss,” the CBS reality-TV show that allows corporate executives a glimpse of the inner workings of the companies they run. The show, including his episode, is in the running for the Emmys.
Yellen will be the featured speaker at a communal Slichot program at Congregation Rodeph Sholom in Bridgeport on Sept. 24, led by clergy and choirs of Rodeph Sholom, Congregation Beth El of Fairfield, Congregation B’nai Torah of Trumbull, and Congregation B’nai Israel of Bridgeport.
Yellen spoke to the Ledger about his Jewish journey, from the streets of Detroit to major philanthropist.

What was your Jewish upbringing like?
A: I’m the oldest of four boys. My mom raised us alone, on welfare, in Detroit during the ’50s. My dad, from what everyone tells me, was a great person, until he got sick and wasn’t around. He had nine stomach operations over two years, and as a result, was addicted to methadone for pain. He became a drug addict. As a result, my mom kept us boys on the straight and narrow and played both mom and dad. We didn’t find out the truth about him until one day when I was 16. My brother and I are sleeping in the room we share, and we hear all this commotion going on at two or three in the morning. We go downstairs, there must have been 20 police in our house. We see my dad, and it’s the first time we’ve seen him in months, and he was handcuffed and in a straitjacket. They take him away. He got caught dealing drugs on the street. My mom had never told us; she would never tell us anything bad about my dad. So imagine growing up in a pretty affluent Jewish community, and we all had to work since we were 11 years old, to take care of my mom and each other, and all of a sudden finding out that our dad is in a maximum-security prison.
All growing up through our trials and tribulations, there was no room for me to be Jewish. I didn’t have time, my mom didn’t have the money to belong to a synagogue. Yet, at 12 1/2 years old, she said to me, “You have to have a bar mitzvah.”

What was your Jewish journey like after your bar mitzvah?
A: I put my Judaism aside for years. I had no time for it; I was trying to survive and take care of my mom and my brothers. I dropped out of college twice to send two of my brothers to college, and I took care of my mom all along the way. Fast-forward, I’m 26 years old, and I get married at Temple Israel in West Bloomfield, a suburb of Detroit.
Then I have kids. I have my second son, and I was living in Charleston, S.C. during a hurricane, and we had to go out of our way to find a mohel down there. I met some people whose synagogue had been destroyed in the hurricane, and for some reason took it upon myself to fix their synagogue in time for the High Holidays. I committed 300 guys to do a $200,000 job in nine days. They invited me to the services and I’d never been part of the High Holiday services. They gave me a special recognition, and from that day forward, I became very good friends with the president of the synagogue and his wife, and started to realize more and more that I wanted to associate with Jews more, before anyone else.
During the rehearsal for our wedding at the synagogue, I go to use the bathroom room and I see a plaque on the wall with my wife’s parents’ names. I went to my father-in-law and asked, “What does it mean that your names are in the bathroom?” and he said, “We donated the bathroom; we gave $25,000.” I said, “You gave $25,000 to a synagogue? Are you crazy?” and he said, “That’s what you do when you’re Jewish. You’re gonna get there one day; don’t worry, kid.”

How did you become a “Jewish businessman”?
A: When I’m 44 or 45, my friend Michael and I are golfing at a country club and in the middle of the fourth hole, we decide to go to a casino. We drive to Michael’s house and his mother-in-law, Mrs. Friedman, is there and says to him, “Listen, there’s a new rabbi coming to town who will be at the kollel, and I want him to go golfing. Will you take him.” I say, “I will take the rabbi golfing.”
The day of the golf date I show up about 20 minutes late and I get to the first tee and he’s standing there ready to go, with a yarmulke on and a hat and a shirt that say, “The Golfing Rabbi.”  At the fourth hole, he says, “Who are you?” He starts to get into my life story, and I’ve never told it to anybody. By the time we get done with the 18th hole, I’m telling him I am interested in Judaism, but I don’t want to learn Hebrew; I want to learn the history of our people. He says, “Come to the kollel, I will teach you.”
The rabbi sits me down and starts telling me about 2,000 years ago, about Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and he starts the whole process. A rabbi shows up at my office one day unannounced; he’s dreying that he’s got 39 kids in his yeshiva with nowhere to live, so I buy him an apartment building; the next thing, I’m buying a school for another yeshiva. I feel that I need to help those who need it, the way I look at it, the most. I don’t want the accolades, I don’t want the attention – I just do what I do quietly, and everything I do is anonymous.

Why do you give to Jewish causes?
A: My two boys were sitting in my office, and my assistant brought in nine checks that I signed, donations to the Israel Defense Forces, to send Israeli soldiers to college. My kids said, “Dad, what do you do – sit here all day and give away money? That’s all you do?” I said, “One day, I’ll be gone and you’ll be sitting in this seat, and there’s no greater honor than being able to write checks for Jewish causes. You two will remember that the best days of your life are when you can sign a check to help other Jews.” I’m not a religious guy. Do I believe in God? Absolutely. Do I fight to do all I can to help Judaism and Jewish people? Absolutely.
I sold my business to the German company, Belfor, in 2001. Belfor was everywhere but North America. In 2001, I went to Europe to meet all the Belfor operators around the world. There’s a room full of European managers, 27 countries represented, and the guy I clung to, the guy I held onto when I met him, and didn’t let go, was Nimrod, from the Tel Aviv office. Everybody in the room saw that this guy from America, who had the biggest operating unit in the whole group, for some reason, was sitting with Nimrod, helped Nimrod, defended Nimrod, and they realized that I’m a Jew.
Since then, I have spread my Judaism throughout my organization. When Rabbi Greene challenged me on that day on the golf course and the day I went to the kollel to learn, he said, “My goal is to get you to be not a businessman that’s Jewish, but a Jewish businessman.” In 29 countries around the world, everybody knows I’m a Jewish businessman, pro-Israel, pro-Jewish.

Sheldon Yellen will be part of a community-wide Slichot program on Saturday, Sept. 24 at Congregation Rodeph Sholom, 2385 Park Ave., Bridgeport. The program begins at 8 p.m. For details contact (203) 334-0159 / www.rodephsholom.com

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