Missing Daughter’s Prayer Service Benmosche’s Big Regret

October 6, 2014 by Zachary Tracer and Jeanna Smialek

After five years rebuilding American International Group Inc. in the wake of a government bailout, Robert Benmosche said his biggest regret has nothing to do with the turnaround of the insurer.

It was that he missed most of a Jewish High Holiday prayer service that his daughter, Nehama, led in Florida shortly after he took over as AIG’s chief executive officer in 2009.

“It was a shame,” Benmosche said last week. “My greatest regret in working for the government — I didn’t actually work for the government, but maybe they thought I did — but I would say that my greatest disappointment in five years was the fact that I wanted to be at Nehama’s first Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur service.”

Benmosche, who stepped down as CEO last month after his prognosis worsened in his fight with cancer, spoke at a Yom Kippur service that his daughter, Rabbi Nehama Benmosche, led Oct. 3 at Machar, a Washington-area secular humanistic Jewish congregation she joined this year. Yom Kippur is when Jews traditionally repent for their sins by praying, fasting and asking forgiveness from others.

Benmosche, 70, said he missed much of his daughter’s 2009 prayer service because of work related to AIG, and that he faced resistance when trying to take a corporate jet. At the time, he had clashed with the board at government-controlled AIG over using the aircraft, one of several disputes with the U.S. that characterized his early days at the insurer.

Government Incensed

“AIG had some issues, and the government was incensed that I would want to use a private plane for personal reasons,” Benmosche said.

“Because how arrogant could I be,” he said, “Not thinking about all the poor people who were struggling, and I’m going to fly on a corporate jet, because I had a meeting on the day that Yom Kippur started.”

Nehama Benmosche, 36, has spent her career working in the Jewish community and became a rabbi in 2010 when she graduated from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. She said her job at Machar is her first position in a secular humanistic congregation, where the focus is on Jewish culture and ethics, rather than on worshiping a supreme being.

“I think he’s a secular humanist, but wouldn’t have known to call himself that,” she said of her father in an interview. “His work in the world was to help turn around AIG and help to bring it to a better place.”

Secretly Jewish

Benmosche started at AIG in August 2009, less than a year after the New York-based insurer’s 2008 bailout. The company finished repaying the $182.3 billion U.S. rescue in December 2012, and Peter Hancock succeeded Benmosche as CEO last month. Benmosche has said he decided to accelerate his retirement as his health deteriorated.

Speaking at last week’s service, Benmosche said that when he was young, his father didn’t let his mother tell the family they were Jewish. Benmosche was 10 years old when his father died, and after learning the truth, he put himself through a Bar Mitzvah to more formally commit to the religion.

Benmosche graduated from Alfred University in 1966, and then served in the U.S. Army Signal Corps. He worked at Arthur D. Little Inc., Chase Manhattan Bank and PaineWebber Inc., before joining life insurer MetLife Inc. in 1995. He became CEO and took the company public before retiring from that job in 2006.

After Benmosche spoke, a congregant asked if the retired executive could forgive himself, now that five years have passed, for missing his daughter’s prayer service.

“I can’t,” Benmosche replied. “I made a choice. And I made the wrong choice. I have to take responsibility for the choices that I made.”