Perhaps the most interesting and ironic form of Jewish volunteerism during Christmas-time is the phenomenon of the Jewish Santa Claus. In a limited sense, this title is bestowed on Jewish volunteers who act generously, very much like Santa Claus would.
A celebrated case of acting like Santa Claus was the response of Aaron Feuerstein, the Jewish owner of the large textile factory Malden Mills in Methuen, Massachusetts. His factory burned to the ground in 1995, two weeks before Christmas. Aaron Feuerstein decided to continue to pay salaries to and health benefits for his twenty-five hundred employees until partial production resumed at the mill. He also gave them Christmas bonuses. When asked where he obtained strength and inspiration after the devastation, Feuerstein cited an ancient Jewish quotation that served as his motto: “When all is moral chaos, this is the time for you to be a mensch.” For his exemplary efforts, Feuerstein was labeled by the news media as the “Mensch who saved Christmas” for his employees.
As was recently reported in Ha’aretz, the cost of reconstruction and later downturns in the economy twice forced Malden Mills into bankruptcy. The second filing resulted in a distress sale of the company, its renaming as “Polartec” and the outsourcing of production overseas. Feuerstein was later characterized as someone whose naïve sentimentality after the fire led to significant economic loss, including loss the his family business. A 2011 essay at the website ethix.org, published by Seattle Pacific University’s Center for Integrity in Business and cited in Ha’aretz, suggests not blaming Feuerstein’s mensch-like behavior for Malden’s subsequent problems: “Yes, his decision to rebuild at a cost $150 million higher than the payout from his fire insurance definitely started Malden on the path to bankruptcy, but more significant were three unseasonably warm winters in the years following the reconstruction. And what American textile company hasn’t faced difficult challenges in recent decades, starting with the relocation of much production offshore?” Ultimately, the Ha’aretz article concludes (again citing ethix.org) “[The] market situation, not his kind heart, is what ended Feuerstein’s run as a textile industry leader.”
Aaron Feuerstein is now 90 years old. In a recent Boston Globe article, Feuerstein said: “I go on living with gratitude and humility. I’m happy with my life. I do the best I can.”
Kudos to Aaron Feuerstein!!!