KIEV, Ukraine (Dec. 23)
When a group of Lubavitch rabbis working in Ukraine first asked a local multimillionaire to set up a Jewish charity, the tycoon refused.
Only after other Jewish businessmen declined did Vadim Rabinovich agree to become involved.
Now Rabinovich, one of Ukraine’s richest citizens and a close friend of the country’s president, has delved into the Jewish world with a vengeance.
The 48-year-old has organized the country’s Jewish businesspeople behind his new communal organization, the All-Ukrainian Jewish Congress.
The congress has set for itself a grand plan in the former Soviet republic: to unite the disparate Jewish groups, fund communal projects, counter anti- Semitism and seek restitution of Jewish property.
The group concluded its first major gathering in Kiev last week by announcing that it has raised about $2.5 million among the nation’s businesspeople to support the country’s 600,000 Jews and unite some 120 Ukrainian Jewish organizations.
Iosif Zissels, the head of the Ukrainian Va’ad, the country’s oldest Jewish umbrella organization, said Jewish activists have wanted to involve Jewish businessmen in the community for several years.
But Ukraine’s Jewish businesspeople have lagged behind their Russian counterparts in supporting Jewish communal groups.
A lack of money is one reason. The Ukrainian economy has struggled as the country attempts to make a transition to capitalism in a land with strong Communist — and communal — traditions.
Anti-Semitism is another obstacle. Rabinovich, who owns several businesses in Ukraine, including the country’s most popular television channel, says the fear to publicly acknowledge one’s Jewish roots prevents many from contributing to the Jewish community.
But now this appears to be changing.
Grigory Surkis, whose commercial empire includes oil trading, a law firm, a television station and the country’s most popular soccer team, Dynamo Kiev, was unanimously elected chairman of the board of the new congress.
Surkis, whom the Ukrainian press called the “man of the year” in 1996, told the 250-plus delegates attending the congress that the meeting marked the first time “in 47 years of my life that I felt Jewish.”
Jewish activists say that whatever the reasons that motivated businessmen and women to donate money to the Jewish cause, the community will eventually benefit from it.
“There is no question that the funds the congress is raising will make a difference to virtually every Jew,” said Yefim Vygodner, chairman of a small community in Bershad, a former shtetl in central Ukraine that is still home to 150 Jews.
According to Rabinovich, membership on the group’s board of major donors costs $50,000. There are 20 people who have already donated this or larger sums.
The congress announced that it plans to divide the money in the following way:
35 percent of its funds will go to welfare programs to respond to the needs of the elderly, many of whom are Holocaust survivors;
15 percent is expected to be spent on Jewish educational institutions;
10 percent will go to support Jewish communities;
9 percent to youth programs;
6 percent to activities memorializing the Holocaust; and
4 percent to programs assisting aliyah.
Despite the new funds, Rabinovich said Ukrainian Jewry would be unable to survive without help from foreign Jewish groups.
“It would be great if we could cover one-tenth of what the community needs here,” he said. “This is our insurance in case the aid from abroad decreases or stops.”
The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which runs a network of welfare centers throughout Ukraine, cautiously endorsed the new congress’ plans.
“We are glad that we have got a strong partner like the All-Ukrainian Jewish Congress, with whom we have one and the same mission,” said Leonid Zelikovsky, the JDC’s representative in Kiev.
After Ukraine’s two Jewish umbrella organizations, the Jewish Council of Ukraine and the Va’ad, joined the congress, the most influential rabbinical authority in Ukraine put aside his initial reluctance and joined the congress after weeks of negotiations with Rabinovich.
“Before I joined I had to be sure that I was doing something that I will not regret in the future,” said Ya’akov Dov Bleich, chief rabbi of Kiev and Ukraine.
Some of their hesitance might be traced to Rabinovich’s shadowy past.
Media reports surfaced earlier this year in the United States and Israel linking Rabinovich to organized crime.
Rabinovich served until 1995 as the Ukrainian representative for Nordex, a Vienna-based company owned by Grigori Loutchansky, a Russian who the CIA has said in congressional testimony is linked to Russian organized crime.
Rabinovich said he had cut his ties with Loutchansky, who has denied that he was a member of the Russian mafia.
Rabinovich was also jailed in a Soviet prison from 1982 to 1990 for allegedly stealing from the state.
He said in an interview that he had committed no crime and had been imprisoned for being Jewish.