5 lessons from my father, for my kids

My father is with me every day. Although he passed away in 2003, he continues to live on inside me and through me — at home and work, on crowded subway cars and busy sidewalks.

With Father’s Day approaching, I’ve been reflecting on the lessons I drew from his upbringing and the inspiring way he dealt with adversity.

My dad was born in 1930 in Lithuania, located in Eastern Europe. He was 9 years old when the war started and his family was sent to the Kovno ghetto. They were soon separated and sent to the Dachau concentration camp in Germany. In 1945, American soldiers liberated him and the camp, and after recuperating he emigrated to Mexico. With only a third-grade education, he taught himself by reading encyclopedias cover to cover, and later built a successful business selling duty-free products.

Last month, I found myself at the Oval Office shaking President Barack Obama’s hand alongside a group of newly-appointed Presidential Ambassadors for Global Entrepreneurship tasked with fostering free enterprise to create social and economic impact. Although this was a special moment, I couldn’t stop thinking, “I wish my father were here.” I owe so much to him.

I wondered if he could have imagined his son standing before the leader of the free world, embodying entrepreneurship’s greatest promise — that if you have an idea and work hard, you can make that idea a reality. It wasn’t so much the moment itself, but instead the meaning behind it that would have made my dad proud.

We all have a responsibility to try and make this world better, whether it’s through our work, the causes we champion, the way that we treat people or the values we impart to the next generation. I left thinking more deeply about the lessons he left behind, which are the same lessons I’m working to instill in my children. Here are some of them:

1. Kindness and empathy are the foundations on which humanity will stand or fall. My dad’s life story was a string of kindness. He treated everyone as an equal, whether it was the bank teller or the bank president.

He even attributed his survival to the courage of kindness. At Dachau, a German soldier threw a potato by his feet when nobody was watching, nourishing his body and soul. He taught me that even small acts of kindness — the tiniest touches of humanity — can have a transformative impact.

2. Let negative experiences empower, not embitter, you. My dad had the rare strength of being able to recall one of the most dreadful chapters of human history without letting it embitter him. He lived positively and passionately, and as much as it emotionally drained him, he frequently spoke about his experiences. For him, life could have ended after the Holocaust, but he chose to let it begin. He approached every day with optimism, every job with devotion and every stranger with compassion.

3. Find your own way. In my 20s, I left a comfortable job as a lawyer to pursue my passion of building bridges between people through business. I accepted a yearlong fellowship, and while abroad decided to start my first company, PeaceWorks, which aimed to foster cooperative ventures among neighbors in the Middle East. My dad supported these risky decisions financially and emotionally. He respected that I understood my purpose more intimately than anyone else, and encouraged me to pave my own path, even when it looked different from the “nice Jewish lawyer” prospect he had envisioned.

4. When in doubt, give. My dad and my grandfather landed in Mexico with nothing, but they felt lucky to be alive, and were thus compelled to share with those less fortunate. My father regularly gave money to a blind man he saw begging on the street.

Once, he noticed that the beggar got into a fancy car and drove away. When he told me this story, I asked him if he was upset to be the victim of a con artist. He said, “I’d rather make the mistake of giving to someone who doesn’t need it than run the risk of not giving to someone who does.”

5. Change is not a spectator sport. My dad’s experiences showed me that you have to actively participate in shaping the world you want to live in. Because of him, I feel a real sense of accountability to do my small part to try and prevent what happened to him from happening again to others.

My dad did not teach me these lessons by telling me how to behave — rather, I learned them from watching his way of being in the world. That realization carries a heightened awareness of my own children watching my every move, and presents me with a daily opportunity to honor the past while teaching the future.

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