2008-10-22 / Business News

Christian, Jewish business groups a haven in tough times

BY EVAN WILLIAMS ewilliams@floridaweekly.com

Sweeney Sweeney The almighty dollar is the ultimate bottom line in capitalistic America. It's the source from which companies gain and lose momentum, and a final measure of success or failure.

For many, it's not a means to an end; it is the end.

But there are religious business groups that say the buck stops at faith in God, instead of at the buck. For example, the Christian Chamber of Southwest Florida.

Members pay monthly dues to be a part of this business network of area Protestants and Catholics, and must sign a form saying they believe Jesus is their Lord and Savior.

"I always tell them that God's in charge of the money," said Jeanne M. Sweeney, president of the Christian Chamber. "This is His chamber, with a capital H."

Having faith in God to keep your company in the black might sound like a risky proposition, yet Ms. Sweeney said 50 new companies joined the Christian Chamber in the last two months. The Chamber is headquartered in Fort Myers and holds regular meetings in five Southwest Florida counties.

COURTESY PHOTO Members of the Jewish Business Network at a recent monthly meetings. The organization has more than 100 members. COURTESY PHOTO Members of the Jewish Business Network at a recent monthly meetings. The organization has more than 100 members. More than 600 organizations and individuals belong in all. Members come to hand out cards and make business contacts to build their bank accounts.

The bottom line, however, is faith.

Members say being around people with the same religious beliefs attracted them to the group. Some new members affected by the financial crisis may have also turned to faith recently because of hard times.

"They truly encourage you in your business, and support you personally," said Lori Joyce, office manager at CORE construction, with offices in Naples, Sarasota and Orlando. "Often new (members) are usually banks, insurance groups. You often get new members in that capacity. In the construction industry, there are more sub contractors that join. I'm finding in these times, as they get more difficult, that people are reaching out more. And I've found that people that have gotten away from operating their business by biblical principles are starting to do that again."

Rabbi Yitzchok Minkowicz leads the Jewish Business Network. Rabbi Yitzchok Minkowicz leads the Jewish Business Network. Ms. Sweeney said members benefit from free advertising in weekly newsletters with a circulation of about 3,000. They've also discounted some members monthly dues to help them through tough times. And for members who have lost their jobs, the Chamber also helps them find new ones.

"In this economy, we look for ways we can help as many members as we can," Ms. Sweeney said. "We'll do whatever it takes to help our members, because we don't want anyone out there to feel alone, like no one can help them."

They also have awards programs for local teachers, called the Golden Halo awards, similar to the non-faithbased Golden Apple awards.

For more information, call 481-1411, visit HisChaber.org or e-mail christianchamber@ embarqmail.com.

Jewish networks

The Kosher food served at Jewish Business Network breakfasts makes Stephanie Raskin, 28, feel more at home in Fort Myers. Ms. Raskin is an insurance broker who recently moved to town.

"I moved here on my own," Ms. Raskin said. "My family is back in Miami and I didn't really have much contact with the Jewish community in the area. I was working so hard I didn't really have time to get involved socially."

The JBN holds monthly meetings, has more than 100 members and helped Ms. Raskin make a decision to go back to school for a master's degree in mental health counseling.

"There is a sense of togetherness in the (JBN,)" she said. "Everyone feels they have a common bond.

"The way the rabbi conducts the meetings, there is some mention of faith, but the business comes first. He might tell an inspirational story that is religious based at the beginning of the meeting, but it really is a business meting."

Rabbi Yitzchok Minkowicz, who heads the JBN through Chabad Lubavitch of Southwest Florida, said, "The focus is not come here, you'll make money. It's where to make high level relationships and friendships that naturally result in business.

"If a person is in line spiritually, his business is going to be better."

The rabbi pointed out some values the Jewish community shares that are good for business, like respect and honesty.

"Ultimately, it's faith," he said.

While religion and business mix as well as oil and water at most business functions, they are homogenized at the JBN.

"Why should you separate (faith and business)?" Rabbi Minkowicz said. "What we need to do is have faith in everything we do.

"It really is all connected. We believe that a person is a complete person — if a person is healthy the business is going to be healthy."

For more information on the JBN, call 433-7708, visit Chabadswf.org. or e-mail yourjbn@chabadswf.org.

Islam

There's no organized business group associated with Islam in Southwest Florida, because there are so few practicing in Southwest Florida, said Mohamed Al-Darsani, the director of the Islamic Center for PEACE in Fort Myers. But there are about 2,000 Muslims in the area who have faith-based guidelines for business.

"Our faith dictates everything in our life, including business," Mr. Mohamed said. "The way you finance it, the type of business you get involved in, the type of loans and partnerships. We're immune to the financial crisis that is storming all over the globe, because most of the Muslim concepts are built on (values) completely different form the Western World."

Islamic guidelines forbid loans in which interest is either paid or collected, ruling out the entire mortgage meltdown. Loans are also supposed to be only for basic necessities, and the borrower sets the terms for an Islamic loan, not the lender. That means a lender has to wait until the borrower is able to pay him back. The lender is also encouraged to "forgive the debt" if they can.

What if they never pay up?

"Your payment will be guaranteed by God himself, even if it's in the hereafter," Mr. Mohamed said. "Remember, you don't have to lend. You don't have to do it. But if you do, you have to be patient."

For more information, call 671-1761 or visit ic-peace.com.

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