Trading one symbolic wall for another

western wailing wall 420I am not the kind of person who lingers over the business pages in my morning newspaper. In fact, that is probably the section to which I pay the least attention and it is certainly not the turf in which I expect to find faith issues covered in a detailed and sensitive manner. But that is precisely what reporter Bernie Kohn of the Baltimore Sun pulled off in a feature this week about Morris Smith, a superstar in the businesss world who made a highly symbolic leap of faith, quite literally, from Wall Street to the Wailing Wall. Kohn sets up this story with the simple observation that:

Morris Smith was thrust into stardom in the financial world in 1990 when, at age 32, he succeeded the legendary Peter Lynch as manager of Fidelity Magellan, the world's largest mutual fund. Amid a turbulent market, roiled by the Persian Gulf War and a numbing recession, Smith kept Magellan one of the better-performing stock funds and added $7 billion in new money.

A crucial element of this story is the fact that Smith was already a highly devout, practicing Jew during this high-rolling part of his life. This is not a story about the clouds parting and a man suddenly getting religion. Kohn makes that clear and that is what makes the story so interesting and, for many readers, will give it a special hook of conviction.

One day, in a grocery produce aisle, preparing for Passover, Smith started thinking about the details of his 70-hour-a-week life and asked: "What else is there?"

The something else was a move to Israel, where Smith is both a serious student of Jewish scripture and tradition and, on his own terms, a businessman who is still hooked on the world of stocks. You see, he didn't cut off his talents and that part of his life. He renegotiated the terms of his life and got what he believes is a better deal. Kohn describes the results in simple, but effective, terms -- never eliminating the religious elements of the story.

Smith says that some people cannot understand his decision. Reading Kohn's story would help them to understand. That is what a good journalist can do, even as he covers a simple lecture and talkback session at a Jewish education center.

Here's a sample:

Smith said he spends 30 hours a week in religious studies, starting when his alarm clock rings at 4:25 a.m. His nonprofit ventures in the U.S. and Israel include a satellite TV network dedicated to Torah study. ...

The 1990s, he says, were "a period of incredible greed. And greed begets bad habits." Of course, it was pointed out to him, he was in the business of greed. Magellan's investors expected -- demanded, even -- that he make as much money as possible.

"The greed that is good is a greed for success," he responded, playing off the infamous "greed is good" line from the 1987 Oliver Stone movie Wall Street. "The greed that is bad is a greed for success at any cost."

This is a fine story. Please let me know if you see any other excellent religion-beat work lurking in the business pages of your local newspaper.

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