Businessmen Steven Spira and Paul Cohen address a roomful of students at the JAM building at UCLA. (photo by Tessa Nath)
Observant Judaism and the modern world are not always seen as a completely cohesive pair; people often equate the relationship to that between water and oil. However, last Wednesday evening, the Jewish Awareness Movement (JAM) and the Jewish Leadership Network (JLN) joined forces to give some Jewish Bruins the opportunity to hear two prominent Jewish businessmen speaking about their experience as Orthodox Jews in a competitive, capitalist world, followed, or course, by the usual challah baking and merriment.
Shooting a quick game of pool before the festivities officially began, Rabbi Jacob Rupp of JAM at UCLA, commented, “One of the main premises of Maimonides (JAM’s Jewish learning program) is that we want to expose students to professionals in the community both for professional networking and to show that you can be a passionate, observant Jew and still be highly functional in the western sense of the word. These men have been particular supporters of JAM in the past and are therefore a natural choice for leaders.”
Shortly before the speaker portion of the Maimonides Program, students began to arrive, filling into the smaller of the two communal JAM rooms, this one lined with bookshelves containing everything from Talmud Yerushalmi to a assortment of Jewish novels.
After the chairs were filled, Rabbi Moshe Zaret (who founded JAM along with his wife, Bracha) stood up to say a few opening words.
He described Steven Spira, president of Worldwide Business Affairs of Warner Brothers, as one of his favorite people.
“He is a deeply remarkable person who cares about people and also happens to be extremely successful.”
Spira is responsible for overseeing the business aspects of the studio’s worldwide operations as they pertain to development, production, and distribution of theatrical films for Warner Bros. Pictures.
Next, Rabbi Zaret motioned to Paul Cohen, a sports agent for many of baseball’s great players, including Evan Longoria, Troy Tulowitzki and Robinson Cano.
Rabbi Zaret admitted to not having known Cohen for very long; however, he observed how “in addition to being humble and special, he is enormously successful as a sports agent.”
After much applause, Spira took center stage and began telling the story of his career and his Judaism.
He began his career at the New York-based law firm Monasch, Chazen and Stream, but he soon realized that the demanding life of a lawyer was not for him. After writing various articles and exploring new avenues, he was picked up by Twentieth Century Fox, before finally going to Warner Brothers.
Spira enjoys his career, observing how he gets to “be in a fun business where no one will ever die on the table.”
He recalls how during a business meeting, a Jewish colleague of his checked his watch on Friday afternoon, stating: “We’ve got two choices. We can either close the deal in five minutes or get on a plane and get out of here because the sun’s going down and this man’s going home.”
Spira comments how for him, his Judaism had always been widely accepted, and he experienced few conflicts with his business.
For Cohen, however, coming from a less religious background, the road to observance was riddled with potholes.
Cohen recalls how he had an epiphany his second year at the University of Southern California, during the time when the university was plagued by antisemitism, and swastikas and dead fish lined the buildings. Realization struck Cohen when his fraternity, Sigma Alpha Mu, obtained tickets to a basketball game on Yom Kippur.
“I stood up and said ‘guys, if you want to watch the game on TV that’s between you and God. If you want to go to the game, that’s between you and God. But for a Jewish frat to go together as a group is just feeding into what everyone is doing.’”
“Almost in unison they responded: ‘Cohen, you’re a religious fanatic.’”
Shocked at being called a religious fanatic, Cohen reevaluated his outlook on life.
“The threshold question,” he said, “is either God runs the world or he doesn’t. If he doesn’t, then I don’t need this. If a person comes to see that God runs the world, if that’s true then what does that mean for me?”
Years later, after Cohen established himself as a sports agent, his business was “about to blow up and go through the roof,” when he realized that he had a rogue employee. The non-Jewish employee figured out that the business shut down on Jewish holidays.
After coming in from a three-day holiday in honor of Rosh Hashanah, Cohen called up and was told that he didn’t “represent so and so anymore. This person does.” The man had spent the three days of Rosh Hashanah photocopying files and talking on the phone to clients, convincing them to leave Cohen.
Then, close to Sukkot, Cohen recalls how “more bombs [were] coming. I just couldn’t daven. I was going through the words but I just kept thinking that everything we’re building is being destroyed.”
Cohen went and spoke the matter over with his wife, to which she responded, “I’m not telling you what to do, you’re a grown man and you can do what you want.”
With a guilty conscience, Cohen went into a separate room and shut the door behind him as he called his lawyer on Sukkot, not wanting his children to see him as a “conveniently observant Jew.”
Unfortunately, Cohen recalls how “about a week after Yom Tov ended, the lawyer backfired. Now I couldn’t just say ‘now I’m religious again.’ I needed a bigger test. However, halakhah says that you’re not supposed to ask God for a test (I didn’t know that at the time). So I told my wife if I don’t get a test I’ll go to my grave not knowing who I am.”
A couple years later, Cohen got a call at his home: “Paul, I can’t say anything, but Disney is going to buy the Angels.”
As important as this deal was to Cohen, the fact of the matter was that the meeting was called for the first night of Passover. After explaining his conflict, his partner pleaded, “Please do me a favor and get a grip. We’re not talking about buying a 7-Eleven, this is Disney!”
After several tense phone calls and nail-biting intermissions during which Cohen urged his associates to accommodate his religious preference by avoiding the first two nights of Passover and Shabbat, they finally agreed on a day.
Cohen says that God tested him, and he passed. He notes how some people ask: “How can you be a religious Jew in the real world?” He responds that it “all goes back to if you believe that God rules the world. This is it; I’m in the hands of God right now.”
Cohen emphasized that in his experience, his non-Jewish clients and coworkers were always extremely supportive and understanding of his beliefs.
When one of his clients in the major league got married, he sent back the response card without filling out meal options for his family, instead wanting to provide their own kosher food. The wife of his client insisted that they would organize the kosher food, and that they would be happy to have the Cohens at the reception, understanding that the ceremony conflicted with Shabbat. When the Cohens walked in late, his sons marching in with their kippot and his daughter and wife modestly covered—in stark contrast to the cocktail dresses other guests sported—they received a warm reception, despite entering in the middle of the best man’s speech.
Later, on a conference call that threatened to run over into Shabbat, Jim Edmonds, former Angels player, spoke for Cohen, saying: “Guys I don’t know how to tell you this, but until you see three stars in the sky tomorrow night he’ll be out of business.” And with that, they wrapped the deal up quickly and Cohen returned home to his family.
Both Cohen and Spira spoke of their success in business and in their personal lives with Judaism, despite being prominent breadwinners. They stress that an adherence to Judaism does not mean giving up what you love about your life; there are always kosher options and people willing to help you along the way.
“It depends how you hold yourself,” Cohen ended as students wait to throng the pair with questions, “If you’re comfortable with yourself, it’s a non-issue.”