All it takes to be a hero is to be a mensch

BOSTON — BOSTON -- Last week, Aaron Feuerstein, son of Samuel, grandson of Henry, a 70-year-old third-generation mill owner in Methuen, Massachusetts, became a local hero.

No, he became a "great American hero," in the words of the governor of Massachusetts. His deeds were reported everywhere with admiration and awe. He was profiled in national papers and seen on network television.


He became a hero as suddenly as the fire that raged through his mill, burning the buildings to their brick shell on a disastrously windy night two weeks before Christmas. He became a hero

because of his actions, but also because of our expectations. Our low expectations.


You see, Aaron Feuerstein didn't walk out on the 1,400 people who work for him. He made sure that his employees were paid on time. He issued Christmas bonuses. He promised them at least a month's pay. He said he would get the company up and running -- not in Thailand or in the Philippines -- but right where the workers lived.

For this, the Orthodox Jew whose grandfather started the business 90 years ago, who has known bankruptcy and success, achieved a corporate saintly status. You could say, after all, that he had saved hundreds of lives -- perhaps a town or two -- by saving their jobs. As Barbara Burns, a worker struggling through the crowd to shake this man's hand, said, "I had to tell him what a good boss he is. He can't get sick, because if he does, we don't know what will become of us."

A sorry tale

Well, I don't wish to dampen the "It's a Wonderful Life" spirit of this seasonal story. But what a sorry tale this is about economic America. One man just does the right thing, one boss just treats his workers decently, one man just feels loyal to his community and for this, is canonized.

Aaron Feuerstein, son of Samuel, grandson of Henry, is rebuilding the family business that employs his wife, Louise, his sons Daniel and Raphael, and his son-in-law David. It's a profitable firm that makes Polartec, the warm lightweight fleece garment you may find under your Christmas tree or lining your jacket. And yet he is regarded as an endangered species: a loyal, fair, family businessman.

What has happened that this becomes news? Today loyalty is in such short corporate supply that sports CEOs think nothing of uprooting home teams to follow the dollar. Family businesses have given way to international corporations whose only community is their stockholders.

Everywhere, we are getting used to surreal headlines that link soaring stock prices with slashing jobs and stagnant wages. Even companies making money feel compelled to cut costs to meet the profit goal known only as "more."

In the new economy, mergers mean that two banks will now contribute half of what four banks contributed last year to the United Way. They mean that a headquarters in Nashville no longer will support a museum or a shelter in Minneapolis.


In the world economy, a CEO may feel no greater obligation to workers in his own Indiana than in Seoul. No reason to rebuild in one place when the company could move to another.

I am not one to romanticize the old days of paternalistic employers, of company stores and wholly owned towns. But I am touched by the vulnerable workers moved to gratitude by a boss who quotes his father and the ancient rabbi Hillel to explain his work ethic: "When all is moral chaos, this is the time for you to be a mensch." To be a mensch, in nearly untranslatable Yiddish, is to be a human being, just and caring.

"There was a time within memory," says Labor Secretary Robert Reich, reflecting on the Feuerstein story, "when CEOs routinely went the extra mile for their communities and workers, when they considered them stakeholders. There wasn't a single major CEO who didn't publicly state the importance of doing right by workers and communities."

But today, he says, "Most workers expect the worst. The irony is that there's such an outpouring of public affection to a man doing well by his workers at a time when many companies faced, not with adversity, but with larger and growing profits, are laying their workers off."

In this new economy it's not just millworkers who experience fear and helplessness. We behave as if we are all trapped, manager and hourly wage worker alike, in some impersonal international whirlwind. The only moral charge of personal responsibility placed on corporations today is when, occasionally, someone takes on the sex or violence industry.

In this celebration of Aaron, son of Samuel, grandson of Henry, there is a moral message for the competitive world. This is all it takes to be a hero: be a mensch.


Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.