On building bridges between different cultures

In response to our call for stories for our forthcoming book, Arash Farin shared a beautiful story about the value of building bridges between different cultures.

Yusef Kassim and I met as students at the University of Pennsylvania. I came from a Persian-Jewish background, and Yusef’s parents immigrated to America from Sierra Leone. Yusef is African-American, and his parents are Christian, although his grandparents are Muslim. Since I was very involved in Jewish causes for the three years I lived in NY, I’d often take Yusef with me to various Jewish events, Shabbat dinners, fundraisers, etc. Yusef had expressed an innate desire to learn more about Judaism, its various traditions, and its rituals with respect to major milestones, including Bar Mitzvahs and marriage. I was happy to oblige and invite Yusef to any events I could.

Yusef came to grow with and really appreciate the Jewish faith over time, and I was please to have a good friend learn more about its customs and emphasis on strong family values. One of the people I introduced Yusef to was Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, a renowned and outspoken rabbi, whom I had met while studying abroad at Oxford University. Shmuley had subsequently moved to Englewood, NJ, and frequently invited guests to his house on Friday nights. On one occasion, I also introduced Yusef to Mark Gerson, co-cofounder of the Gerson Lehrman Group, and they immediately hit it off.

At the time, Gerson Lehrman was a fairly small organization, probably with fewer than 10 employees, and felt more like a startup. Although Yusef was working at Goldman Sachs at the time, he and Mark developed a good friendship, often times leading to offers of employment from Mark. Yusef was also highly regarded at Goldman Sachs, and Mark immediately recognized that Goldman Sachs was seen as a great breeding ground for top talent and future executives. [Editor’s note: Arash worked there too, so this is not exactly an objective comment…]

Eventually, Yusef decided to leave Goldman Sachs and join Mark’s team; at the time Yusef was among the first few Gerson Lehrman employees, affording him the opportunity to help shape the company’s strategy. Not surprisingly, Yusef thrived at Gerson Lehrman, was promoted a number of times, as is now one of the firm’s most prominent Vice Presidents. Today, Yusef and I constantly discuss issues related to the Jewish faith and he has many Jewish friends; never could I have predicted the events which transpired as a result of my friendship with him, but I was more than happy to expose a good friend to Jewish ideas, and couldn’t be more pleased with how things ended up, especially in terms of Yusef’s career and the opportunities he was able to take advantage of, given his unique talents.