A Community Finds a New Way: Crown Heights and the Entrepreneurial Spirit

One day, not too long ago, I got an email from a Rabbi Werde, requesting a meeting. Eager to make a new friend, I spent three hours with him in my office. We began working together on establishing the Chabad Chasidic Entrepreneurs Program of Crown Heights. Chabad means wisdom, understanding, knowledge. Chasidic means pious, kind. So, a person of wisdom, understanding, and knowledge is also pious and kind -- this concept really resonated with me because of my great admiration for educators.

I have never seen anyone work harder that Rabbi Werde did. Also known as Yehoshua (Joshua in English), he was born in Miami into an Orthodox community. At 16, he came to Crown Heights to attend Oholei Torah, a Yeshiva for the Chabad community. He did well there, spending five years studying the Torah and the Talmud, in addition to the Tanya, the mystical text of the Chasidim movement, for six days a week until 9:30 at night, plus a half day on the seventh. Afterwards, his first assignment was to teach the Hebrew alphabet to five year olds.

He also got married -- through a matchmaker, a Shadchan -- to his wife Devorah Leah, and together they have had eight children. Devorah Leah's father is a professor at Hofstra University's department of Speech-Language-Hearing Sciences and he recently made a discovery called the "Kiss of Deaf" where a kiss on the ear can cause deafness).

In the course of his teaching career, Rabbi Werde noticed that many young people (in the 18- to 21-year range) were not finding their way in mainstream academic institutions. Most young people in his community are expected to go to a Yeshiva and become rabbis, but not all were flourishing in the "system." So, Werde became a "Roving Rabbi," finding students who had left school, visited them at work and urging them to take a five-minute Power Break to study the Torah and its values. He worked with some 500 students in the course of several years, and developed outreach programs for another 500 -- becoming a specialist in this kind of work. On his way to a wedding one day, one of Rabbi Werde's students suggested hosting a networking event, so that the young people interested in business could meet each other. The idea spoke to him, and he started to research the concept. NFTE's name was mentioned repeatedly, so Rabbi Werde reached out to me for advice.

After a year of planning, the Crown Heights Young Entrepreneurship Program was launched successfully. The organization provides resources -- newsletters, speeches, panels, networking events -- and, most importantly, a place for young businesspeople and entrepreneurs to meet. The rabbi's vision is that every young person in his community will have the resources and networking opportunities necessary to pursue business aspirations.

Women in the CHYE Program

A crowded lecture given by CYE.

Me and my new friend, Rabbi Werde.