Hillel Fishman, Number Cruncher
This year’s LAS VITA program returned more than $300,000 in refunds to low-income taxpayers. Meet the man behind the mission.
For the third year in a row, Lander College of Arts and Sciences (LAS) students have been volunteering to assist low-income taxpayers file their taxes through VITA, the national Volunteer Income Tax Assistance IRS program. This year, VITA’s LAS volunteers recovered $320,000 in tax refunds—$80,000 more than what they were able to recover in 2013, and more than double what they recovered in 2012.
The man behind the mission is Hillel Fishman, LAS ’14, a recent LAS-Flatbush summa-cum-laude graduate who majored in accounting. As the VITA site coordinator at Touro, Fishman—who collaborated with Professor Shammai Bienenstock and faculty members Ron Ansel and Faigie Horowitz—oversaw the preparation of over 400 state and federal tax returns, supervising 20 LAS volunteers in the process. We spoke to Hillel about Touro, how he developed an interest in accounting, and how he makes time to juggle family, work, and CPA-studying simultaneously.
Ever since Fishman was a teen, number-crunching came naturally. Growing up, he was fascinated by the concept of accounting and finance, and oftentimes advised family members on business ventures and investing activities.
But Fishman, whose Chasidic high school barely offered a sustainable math education, let alone AP Economics, yearned for more. So as a teenager he began studying financial concepts on his own. His reading material? The S & P 500, Reuters, and Market Edge’s Second Opinion Weekly. His curiosity insatiable, he regularly consumed the Wall Street Journal’s investment section. While his friends listened to music, Fishman listened to financial talk shows on the radio.
At 18, he had gained enough of a rudimentary understanding of the industry to start investing his own money. He tread cautiously, invested conservatively—and became elated at his early successes. After the market crashed in 2008, he “decided to go all in. I saw an opportunity—people were selling, so I took advantage.” He liked buying stocks at bargains, and now, “I still get 25% yearly returns!”
Meanwhile, his brains and sharp acumen kept him at the top of his class. After graduation, he knew he wanted to attend college, even though almost none of his classmates did. LAS—with its religious hashkafa, separate classes, and supportive faculty—was a no-brainer for Fishman.
“While secular colleges try to focus on the process of education itself, Touro focuses on the outcome—to help you reach your professional goals. Any other college culture would have clashed with my strong faith. Here at Touro, the administration and staff not only agree with my Yiddishkeit, they encourage me to grow further. It’s respected that I have a family, and that family comes first.
“I’m Chassidish, and I’m proud of who I am,” he says honestly. “Here, they’re proud of me too.”
And Fishman, the father of three girls, has actually seen this respect and pride demonstrated firsthand by the faculty. When his twin girls were born during finals week, in his most difficult semester, his professors coordinated makeup exams for him so that he could spend his first few days as a new father with his infants. “That was just one experience I had that made me realize how grateful I am to be here. I am always appreciative of the faculty members who really feel for the students and try to help them, both in conventional and unconventional ways.”
Still, though, Fishman admits it’s a challenge to raise a family while pursuing a degree. “It’s hard to be everywhere at once,” he says, “but we make it work.” To enable him to go to school, study, and learn, Fishman’s wife works full time as a special-education teacher, and Fishman’s parents and in-laws help out so their son can maintain his morning learning chavrusas—Fishman has been a member of his local kollel for five years and is currently studying for smicha.
Now, the 20-something-year old is excited to begin his career as a Certified Public Accountant, and is hitting the books to continue studying for his CPA exams.
“What’s that quote again?” he asks, then remembers. It’s a Confucius line: “ ‘Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.’ I wake up every day, excited to help others with the finances in their business and private lives, and it amazes me that I can get paid for this.
“My philosophy on work is: do your best, be honest, and whatever income Hashem wrote for you on Rosh Hashana is going to come to you in the end,” he concludes.
Of course, he qualifies, he knows that he needs to put in maximum effort. But that’s not a problem because Fishman is a self-proclaimed go-getter—and a cheerful one at that, too. His friends attest to his “never say never” attitude and his willingness to do all that it takes to get the job done—always with his signature smile.
“Dean Goldschmidt taught me to settle for nothing but the best. If I’m studying for my CPA exam, I’m not aiming for a 75; I’m aiming for a 100,” he grins.
“And I know I can do it,” he says.