Across the Former Soviet Union Wealthy Businessman in Russia Wants to Revive a Jewish Group

For several years, publicity-shy financier Arcadi Gaydamak has been relatively unknown compared to other donors to Russian Jewish causes. But after his election last month as president of the Congress of Jewish Religious Communities and Organizations of Russia, or KEROOR, Russia’s oldest religious Jewish umbrella group, that may change.

In a recent interview with JTA, Gaydamak said that under his leadership the organization’s annual budget will reach $5 million this year, compared to about $1 million last year.

Much of KEROOR’s new budget will come from Gaydamak’s own money, which puts him atop the list of domestic Jewish philanthropists and behind only a few foreign donors who have backed KEROOR’s archrival, the Chabad-led Federation of Jewish Communities, the largest Jewish organization in the region.

The main donor and president of the federation, Israeli diamond mogul Lev Levayev, is believed to have introduced Gaydamak, who at one time owned a share in Levayev’s investment business, to the world of Russian Jewish philanthropy a few years ago.

While Gaydamak’s contributions to Jewish causes — mainly to charity programs and day schools associated with the federation — have been among the largest in Russia, he didn’t make his position in the Jewish world public until a few weeks ago.

Those familiar with the situation said Gaydamak joined KEROOR, a 15-year-old group that includes Orthodox and Reform congregations, because he no longer was satisfied with his secondary role in the federation, which Levayev dominates.

Gaydamak denies this assessment, saying he joined KEROOR because he saw great potential in the organization. KEROOR is mostly known in Moscow for funding the Moscow Choral Synagogue.

KEROOR’s chief rabbinical authority is Adolf Shayevich, one of Russia’s two chief rabbis. Shayevich has been at odds with a Kremlin that puts its trust in his main rival, Chief Rabbi Berel Lazar, the federation’s leader.

Gaydamak, 52, is short in stature and is known to be health-conscious; The media has described him as eating only one light meal a day.

A Moscow native, he immigrated to Israel at a young age and later moved to France, where he entered business in the late 1980s.

Over the past decade Gaydamak has been dogged by allegations of unscrupulous business operations, most notably regarding his role in the sale of Russian arms to Angola in the 1990s, a scandal that threatened the highest reaches of France’s political establishment, including the son of then-President Francois Mitterand. Gaydamak denied wrongdoing but still is wanted in France for fraud and tax evasion.

Gaydamak, whose wealth is estimated at anywhere from $800 million to more than $1 billion, has lived permanently in Moscow since 2002.

He holds several foreign passports, drives around Moscow in a black luxury Bentley with Angolan diplomatic plates and holds a senior adviser’s post with the Angolan government.

He owns a medium-sized bank and a brokerage company in Moscow, has interests in a number of industrial enterprises in Russia and generally tries to avoid publicity around his business involvements.

But his new leadership role with KEROOR undoubtedly will make him one of the most visible and influential figures in the Jewish community, especially given the main intrigue behind this development — the relations between KEROOR and the federation.

Gaydamak, who says he observes certain Jewish religious rituals, says he agreed to head KEROOR because he’s not happy with the role the federation has played in the Russian Jewish community.

But he insists he’s not seeking a battle with the federation, and will continue his involvement in several of the federation’s causes.

Gaydamak wants to increase KEROOR’s visibility by funding its programs, including one that sends rabbis to work in Russia’s provinces. Currently, two out of three rabbis working in the Russian provinces are Chabadniks who represent the federation.

He also wants to increase the group’s funding of Jewish schools in Russia.

While he credits the federation with doing “a great job to promote Jewish tradition and religion” in Russia, Gaydamak said the federation “has taken upon itself the formal leadership in the community, in representing all Jewish organizations before the Russian authorities and the Jewish world.”

“The activities of the FJC are being taken by the authorities as representing the entire Jewish community. But the Jewish community is much more diverse,” he told JTA, referring to the very close relations between the leadership of the Chabad-led umbrella with President Vladimir Putin and his administration.

He hopes to change this misbalance, Gaydamak told JTA on a recent Sunday, sitting in his spacious downtown Moscow apartment decorated with early 19th-century furniture, one of his personal passions.

Like other Russian Jewish leaders, Gaydamak is well aware of the fact that in Putin’s Russia, the key to success for an organization seeking to represent Russian Jewry lies with the Kremlin.

Shortly after he was elected to head KEROOR, Gaydamak had a meeting with representatives of Putin’s administration to convey a message that “it is very important for the authorities not to ignore KEROOR but to conduct a dialogue,” he said.

While criticizing the federation for having too close a relationship with the Kremlin, Gaydamak refrains from criticizing the authorities, whom he credits for creating a favorable situation for the Jewish community.

A spokesman for the federation said his group has no problem with the choice of Gaydamak to head KEROOR.

“We have long had good relations with Gaydamak,” the federation’s Boruch Gorin told JTA. “The relations may change only if he becomes a political figure involved in a political fight with FJC.”

Gaydamak said he believes there’s enough room for both religious umbrellas to work on behalf of Russian Jews. He insisted that his native Russian background and his pluralistic approach to Jewish issues will give him and his organization credibility in the eyes of Russian and world Jewry.

“I was born in this country over 50 years ago as a Jew, and during all my life I have been involved with Jewish issues. All this, plus my status in the economic life of this country, gives me a legitimate right to speak on issues of concern to the Jewish community,” he said.

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