Bernie Marcus teaches Yiddish words at prayer breakfast

By Maria Saporta

At the 12th annual Atlanta Interfaith Business Prayer Breakfast Thursday morning, keynote speaker Bernie Marcus had a mission — to teach two words of Yiddish to the crowd of about 1,000 people.

Marcus, co-founder of Home Depot who has become one of Atlanta’s leading philanthropists, was the first Jew to deliver the keynote prayer at the annual event held at the Hyatt Regency.

“I’m going to turn them all into Jews,” joked Marcus, who was pleased to bring a new dimension to the interdenominational platform. The annual prayer breakfast, organized by the Rotary Club of Atlanta, was chaired by search consultant Veronica Biggins.

The two Yiddish words were sprinkled throughout his talk — Bashert, which means destiny or fate; and Tzedakah, which means charity and giving back as part of a religious obligation.

Marcus then shared personal tales of his life that showed the influence of “bashert” and “tzedakah.”

His parents moved to the United States (Newark, N.J.) from Russia, where they had been persecuted as Jews. His father was a carpenter, and his mother suffered from a severe case of rheumatoid arthritis that made her cripple and virtually bed-ridden at 40 years old.

A doctor suggested that if she were to conceive a child, the hormones of pregnancy might help her condition. And so Bernie Marcus was born — on Mother’s Day.

“It was bashert I came here,” Marcus said.

When he was only 10 years old, Marcus decided he was going to be a doctor. He went to pre-med at Rutgers, and then he tried to get into medical school. But there was a quota that only 10 percent of the students could be Jewish, and he was not accepted.

“I was crushed,” Marcus said. “It was like the end of the world. ‘It’s bashert,’ my mother said.’”

Marcus then ended up going to pharmacy school, but he gave that up to go into retail. He ended up running the Handy Dan home improvement stores on the West Coast, a chain that was owned by a firm run by Sandy Sigoloff.

“He hated me and I hated him,” Marcus said of Sigoloff. “It really worked out well. One day in June, 1978, I was unceremoniously fired along with Arthur Blank and Ron Brill. It was really a dark day in our lives.”

Investor Ken Langone approached Marcus to say he would be willing to raise money to start a new retail concept — Home Depot.

“My mother at that time said it was bashert,” Marcus said. “I don’t know if it was the hand of God.”

Home Depot today has more than 2,000 stores and 300,000 employees. And although Marcus no longer has an official role with the company, he told the group that “I still act like I own the company.”

Another bashert moment came early on in the retail chain’s history. A woman walked into a store with a $5 bill saying that her roof was leaking and all she had was $5 to fix it.

Although the chain was in its infancy and struggling financially, when the manager called Marcus asking what they could do, the answer was that Home Depot would supply the roofing materials if the manager could find the volunteers to do the work.

About 25 Home Depot employees went out on their own time to fix the lady’s roof. They also added a porch and put in a new bathroom.

“This became the best thing this store had ever done,” Marcus said, adding that he saw a “miracle” take place as the store’s generosity created a great sense of enthusiasm among the employees.

That’s how Home Depot brought philanthropy into each one of its stores.

“It was tzedakah, giving back to our community,” Marcus said. “Tzedakah became part of the Home Depot culture in every store.”

On Tuesday, Marcus was visiting a Home Depot store on Johnson Ferry Road. The manager pulled Marcus aside to speak to him about “what you and Arthur have done for my personal life. You taught us about giving back.” The manager said that he and his wife and their two teenage children are all involved in their church and their community. “Tzedakah,” said Marcus, who said he wanted to share that story with Blank, his professional partner who is just as emotional.

“Here I sit at this senior part of my life,” Marcus told those attending the prayer breakfast. “My mother was right: work hard; keep your eye on the ball; look forward. Give back. The more you give, the more you get.”

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

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