crain's new york

January 28-February 3, 2008
Working religiously
Rabbis make office calls; prayer meetings on the rise

By Samantha Marshall

It looked like a typical business gathering in the conference room of hedge fund firm Royal Capital Management. Three executives—Yale Fergang, Rayna Staub and Robert Medway—scribbled notes on thick files as they peppered their guest with questions. Their visitor, meanwhile, kept the meeting on track between glances at his continually vibrating BlackBerry.

The group wasn’t talking about fund allocation strategy. Rather, the topic was the Kabbalah’s view on reincarnation—part of a yearlong series of discussions on esoteric matters of Judaism led by Rabbi Adam Jacobs. The managing director of Aish New York, a Jewish center on the Upper West Side, makes such “office calls” for dozens of executives too busy to get to a temple.

“So, Rabbi, is it necessary for the body to exist, and was Adam a physical being?” asks Mr. Fergang, sparking a lively debate among his colleagues, who are oblivious to the view of St. Patrick’s Cathedral below.

These finance executives are riding a new wave of spirituality at work. More professionals are finding ways to follow their faith during office hours—from attending lunchtime prayer meetings to participating in ceremonies that include rites like sage-burning.

Though there’s no precise way of tracking the trend, religious groups that provide services to office workers report increases of 30% to 50% in the number of participants over the past year.

Prayer in the conference room

Demand for Aish’s executive learning program has doubled in the past year, to 40 clients. “We’re like FreshDirect, being delivered to your door,” says Rabbi Jacobs, who doesn’t charge a fee but accepts “healthy donations” for the center.

Christian groups are seeing similar spikes.

Chris McLoughlin, head of information technology at a multinational firm in midtown, is one of about 10 male workers who hold prayer meetings whenever they can grab a free conference room.

The executive, who calls himself a nondenominational Christian, is also a regular at more formal services offered by BOLD (Business Outreach Lord Directed), based at St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church, on Park Avenue.

Being able to attend BOLD’s Monday morning prayer group and Tuesday lunchtime Bible study, held at a nearby office building, was an important factor in taking his current job, Mr. McLoughlin says.

“I used to hate Monday mornings, but now I actually look forward to them,” he says.

BOLD’s weekly prayer meetings, held at financial district and midtown locations, have grown to between 15 and 20 regulars per group from four or five a year ago.

“People are looking for more significance and security,” says Anthony DiMaio, a BOLD services coordinator who is organizing an outreach program for traders on the New York Stock Exchange.

Wall Street money manager and BOLD member Vaughn Weimer says he needs his dose of prayer the way most of us need that first cup of morning coffee. Having religion in his daily life keeps him from getting worked up when, for example, phone calls aren’t returned.

“When you step into a world-view that has no time limit, it gives you a helpful perspective on temporal issues,” Mr. Weimer says.

Less traditional forms of spirituality are also making inroads. Some employers allow such approaches in order to avoid religious discrimination complaints.

Alternative practice

Donna Henes, a self-described “urban shaman” who runs Mama Donna’s Tea Garden & Healing Haven in Park Slope, Brooklyn, says she has about a dozen businesses on her client roster, most of which have come to her within the past year.

Linda Mayo Perez, president and chief executive of Maple Grove Cemetery in Queens, has noted a dramatic improvement in the work environment since she began having Ms. Henes come in to conduct ceremonies that involve things like chanting and burning sage.

Ms. Perez says the rituals are a source of comfort for her 43 employees, who subscribe to a variety of faiths.

“We try to honor all beliefs and no beliefs,” she says.

Some say these alternative practices can even boost productivity.

Balance Integration Corp., which teaches yoga and meditation to stressed-out executives, advertises itself with the tagline, “Change the corporate ho-hum to

That may not sound calming, but the eight New York companies that use Balance Integration’s instruction services appear to appreciate the effect that the stretching and breathing exercises have on staffers.

In the past year, business has doubled for Balance Integration, whose local clients include Disney Publishing, Morgan Stanley, White & Case and Yahoo.

“It creates an environment that gives people an opportunity to find balance in the midst of their busy New York City workday,” says Robin Godinez, vice president of human resources for Disney Publishing.



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