Yeheskel Sharbani considers himself a citizen of three worlds – the country where he was born, the country where he came of age, and the country where he found his greatest success.
The Great Neck resident serves as owner and CEO of the design firms Express Contracting and Elite Kitchen & Bath, both of Manhasset, but his story doesn’t start on the North Shore.
Born into a Jewish family in Baghdad, Iraq, Sharbani grew up in the tumult of the Second World War.
“I went to school, I had my elementary school but the turbulence of World War II was so difficult,” Sharbani said. “As a Jew, the anti-Semitism was enormous.”
In 1950, when he was a teenager, Sharbani’s family of six was forced out of the country in a mass exodus after the Iraqi government exiled all Jews.
“We were forced out without taking anything with us,” Sharbani said. “We went from living in a big house with large courtyard to a tent, during the winter.”
His family then moved to Israel, where Sharbani had to learn a new language and attended a trade school. He ended up joining an Israeli youth movement and living for several years on a kibbutz.
“You went from being a minority to being the majority and you feel much better,” Sharbani said. “They made me feel good, like I belonged even though I was an immigrant.”
In his mandatory military service, Sharbani served as a paratrooper and a “cowboy,” taking care of cows. He later worked for the Israeli air force as a civilian, preparing instruments for jets.
As a young man, Sharbani began traveling and found himself drawn to architecture.
“When I was in Europe for three months, I saw 80 percent of the museums in Western Europe and got a lot of feeling for the architecture, from Egyptian to Greek and so on,” he said.
At age 24, Sharbani came to the United States as a tourist to visit cousins settled in and around Boston.
“My cousins pushed me to move here and get a job, and I got one as a specialist in instrumentation, and the owner got me a green card,” Sharbani said.
Sharbani found work at A&M Instruments in Long Island City, Queens, and took technical classes at the RCA Institute in Manhattan, where he was encouraged to go to college. After taking a course to improve his English, Sharbani was admitted to Hofstra University, where, after several years of supplementing his income by teaching Hebrew, among other jobs, he graduated with a degree in engineering.
He designed nuclear plants, and after being laid off in 1984 Sharbani thought about what his next step would be. He remembered his long-dormant love for architecture and the arts, resulting in founding Express Contracting, which he envisioned as building comfortable homes for families, in Great Neck.
“My love of art, beautiful things, engineering, perfectionism and passion for helping people all came together,” Sharbani said.
The business, which moved to Manhasset 21 years ago, has lasted ever since, and was followed by the founding of Elite Kitchen & Bath. In 2015, Express Contracting was named the No. 1 contractor in the country by the Interior Design Society for a house the company worked on in Kings Point. Last year the company was named the No. 1 contractor on the East Coast.
“We trained the company to be good,” Sharbani said. “We want to make everybody happy.”
Together with his son David, whom he calls “the brain” of the operation, Sharbani continues to run the businesses. His wife of many years, Yelena, worked with the companies for 15 years before her retirement.
In addition to his professional work, Sharbani has long been a supporter of the arts, frequenting Lincoln Center with his wife and serving as president of the New York Virtuosi Chamber Symphony for four years. He was among those present when the symphony played the United Nations.
Sharbani says that for two years he has considered writing a book on his life.
“I’d like to write a book that will be called ‘Three Worlds and One Soul,'” Sharbani said. “The worlds that I lived through, being Iraq, Israel and America, and the soul, that being me.”
The story that defines Sharbani the most, though, is one associated with his brief time designing nuclear plants. Having lost his job at A&M, he called another company and asked about available jobs.
“The boss, a man named Mr. Klein, said they weren’t hiring,” Sharbani remembered. “I asked him, what if I was such a good engineer that you wouldn’t want to pass me up? Just to get rid of me he asked me to come on Monday at 9 a.m.”
The interview, before three of the company’s top officials, lasted roughly eight hours, but at the end of it Sharbani had a job. Two weeks later, when he went to thank Klein, he was told something he never forgot.
“He said to me, ‘If it wasn’t for your chutzpah, you would have never been here,'” Sharbani said.