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Profile Diamond Mogul and Philanthropist Has Ear of Fellow Jews, World Leaders


There are a number of apocryphal stories about Lev Leviev, the Israeli diamond mogul who has become one of the Jewish world’s pre-eminent philanthropists.

Among these stories, which have acquired almost mythological status among Leviev’s followers, is the one about his 1990 audience with the late Lubavitch rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson.

Schneerson is said to have advised Leviev to pursue business opportunities in the former Soviet Union and use the proceeds to help the needy remnants of Soviet Jewry.

There is the one about Leviev’s meeting in December with President Leonid Kuchma of Ukraine, when Leviev is said to have rebuffed numerous entreaties to talk about potential business deals and demanded instead that Kuchma return 12 buildings that had belonged to the local Jewish community.

By the end of the meeting, so the tale goes, Kuchma signed off on the buildings, was asking how else he could be of aid to “my dear rabbis,” and agreed to light a Chanukah menorah in a ceremony televised to a nation with one of the worst records of anti-Semitism in modern Jewish experience.

But perhaps the story that best illustrates Leviev’s skills concerns his 1999 meeting with the president of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev.

Nazarbayev pleaded with Leviev to invest in his Central Asian nation, but Leviev set a condition: First Nazarbayev must open a school for Jewish children.

That is impossible, Nazarbayev reportedly demurred; the law forbids parochial schools, and if we indulge the Jews we will face similar demands from other minorities.

In the end, not only did Nazarbayev agree to open a Jewish school, which today serves some 250 Jewish children, but Kazakhstan ultimately changed its laws so that other groups could open religious schools as well.

The Kazakhstan school is just one of 66 day schools serving 13,000 students that the FJC, the Federation of Jewish Communities of the Commonwealth of Independent States — of which Leviev is the president and principal financial backer — has opened since the fall of communism 12 years ago.

“When you have Jews who have been under Soviet conquest for 70 years, who had everything erased — their religion, their nationality — I think the most important thing is education,” Leviev, 45, told JTA in a rare interview in January in New York, where he had come to raise funds for the Bukharan Jewish community of Queens. “We have to worry first of all about the children.”

The FJC also has opened dozens of kindergartens and soup kitchens, supports rabbis, community leaders and other religious officials in some 370 communities, and sends tons of matzah, wine and other ritual foodstuffs that Jewish communities from Almaty, Kazakhstan, to Tallinn, Estonia, to use in holiday celebrations.

In all, his assistants say, Leviev spends anywhere from $15 million to $30 million a year in philanthropic activities on behalf of Jewish communities in the former Soviet Union, both through the FJC and through his private foundation, Ohr Avner.

Most recently, Leviev spent $1 million to expand the Birthright program to Russia. A first delegation of 1,000 young Russian Jews visited Israel on Birthright this winter.

Like his influence in diamonds, where his innovative methods and astute political maneuvering have reshaped the industry, Leviev’s impact on Jewish life in the former Soviet Union has been nothing short of revolutionary.

In the early 1990s, when Leviev first appeared on the philanthropic scene, “the situation of Russian Jewry was drastic. Judaism here was on the brink of just falling apart,” says Berel Lazar, one of Russia’s two chief rabbis and one of the dynamic forces behind the success of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia — known as FEOR — the largest of the national federations under FJC’s umbrella. “I would say it was almost miraculous that I met Mr. Leviev.”

Leviev sat Lazar down and asked for a detailed accounting of his Chabad community’s needs and its budget — which at the time totaled just $15,000 a month, Lazar says.

“He told me, ‘Listen, I’ll make a deal with you. Whatever your budget has been until today, you have to take care of it. Anything you do above what is already existing, I’m going to pay for — fully,’ ” Lazar said.

With Leviev’s backing — and thanks to his close ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin — FEOR and Lazar in recent years have eclipsed the Russian Jewish Congress as the main representative of Russian Jewry.

But FEOR’s ascent has not come without conflict.

Critics say it establishes institutions in places that already have nascent Jewish communities, and then hires away their leaders.

In addition, many of the rabbis that FEOR has put in place across Russia are associated with Chabad. Critics contend that the federation’s good works mask a fervently Orthodox agenda.

“Lev Leviev of course tries to reconstruct Jewish life as he understands Jewish life, which for him means Orthodox Chabad style,” says Evgeny Satanovsky, president of the Russian Jewish Congress, which has been supplanted by FEOR in the Kremlin’s graces.

“The real future of Russian Jews, who are very modern, highly educated and very pluralistic, is not Orthodox or Oriental-style Jewish communities.”

FJC Executive Director Avraham Berkowitz, who works closely on Leviev’s projects in the former Soviet Union, dismissed Satanovsky’s charges.

“This is not a question of style. Our successful track record shows that we are doing everything possible to rebuild Jewish life and communities across the former Soviet Union,” Berkowitz said. “We work with and welcome everyone with that same mission.”

In addition, Berkowitz said, the FJC and FEOR are proud of their close association with Chabad — and Chabad’s mission, he added, “is not to counteract the local communities and build exclusive Chasidic communities, but rather to assist and partner with the local communities in their revival.”

In addition, he noted, the leaders of most of the local communities under the FJC umbrella are secular.

Still, even Satanovsky admits that “Any Jewish activity is better than none, and of course Mr. Leviev is honest in his view that the style of Jewish life he proclaims is the best for the Jews, as he understands it. What’s really important is his example — the example of a rich man who invests his time, money and experience in the Jewish community.”

Closest to Leviev’s heart is his own Bukharan community, and he serves as president of the Bukharan Jewish Congress. In recent years he has taken to helping the Bukharan Jews of Queens, who number some 50,000.

When he first visited the community about a year and a half ago, Leviev was appalled to learn that thousands of their children were studying in New York’s public school system.

Leviev gathered the community and offered to subsidize a Jewish education for hundreds of students. When he investigated the issue, however, he found that the problem wasn’t a lack of Jewish schools, but their low quality.

To address the problem, Leviev returned to New York in January and held a fund-raising evening for the Bukharan community that he says netted some $2 million. He himself will match the contributions, he says.

In Russia, Leviev has studiously cultivated personal connections that have benefitted both his business interests and the FJC.

Formerly an unofficial adviser to President Mikhail Gorbachev on diamond issues — which helped Leviev immensely when the Russian market began to open up after the fall of communism — he now is on friendly terms with Putin and the chief Kremlin executive, Alexander Voloshin.

Putin’s high-profile support has aided FEOR’s efforts to establish itself as the dominant player on the Russian Jewish scene.

Critics, however, warn that FEOR is playing with fire if it is counting on Putin’s patronage.

“Jewish problems and the Jewish future should not be connected to the top-level non-Jewish establishment of the country, or else when there are problems for a particular Jewish oligarch it becomes a problem for the whole Jewish community,” says Satanovsky of the RJC.

“It’s much better if no one person monopolizes Jewish life and relations between the Jewish community and the authorities.”

Leviev disputes the notion of Kremlin support, saying FEOR has earned its status through its activities.

“I don’t know about ‘support.’ The Kremlin doesn’t ‘support’ anyone. President Putin supports freedom of religion,” Leviev says. “Everyone knows that in the former Soviet Union, it’s the federation that is doing everything — we’re the movers, we’re the power.”

One top official with an American Jewish organization says that those who complain about FEOR’s activities generally are groups that see their own power waning.

Leviev “has a lot of money in and has real accomplishments; his buildings and schools are real,” says the official, who asked not to be identified. “Those who are on his side will welcome his role, while those on the other side will feel he’s a divisive force. But a lot of” FEOR’s success “is tied to the politics of the country, which in the long run can’t be good for the Jewish community.”

Leviev “is a very powerful person, in Israel as well as in Russia,” agrees Joel Golovensky, the Moscow representative of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which the FJC has criticized as insufficiently supportive of its projects. “Basically he does good work, but a lot of people are impacted by his power — sometimes in ways they don’t like.”

Leviev counters that problems arise only when Jewish oligarchs tussle with the authorities to protect their own interests.

The reference appears to be to Vladimir Goussinsky, a media baron whose outlets were harshly critical of Putin and the war in Chechnya during the last Russian election.

After Putin won, the prosecution of Goussinsky on fraud and embezzlement charges — widely perceived to be a settling of political scores — forced Goussinsky out of the country and led to his resignation as president of the RJC.

“The problem is that we Jews often try to take advantage of our power and attack the authorities because of personal interests,” Leviev says. “I think that for those who represent the public, it’s forbidden to mix personal business interests with the issues of the community.”

Yet Satanovsky charges that Leviev merely has supplanted Goussinsky as the Jewish community’s leading oligarch. This comes at a time, Satanovsky says, when Russian Jewry is organizing into local federations, similar to the community structure in the United States.

“Lev is a nice man, but he is a dinosaur from the period of Jewish oligarchs,” Satanovsky says. “His time finished at the end of the 20th century. Now we’re in the 21st.”

Leviev says he is only coming to the aid of Russian Jewry, as he promised Schneerson, the Lubavitch rebbe.

“We, the Jews” from the former Soviet Union “who were saved in recent years, and who know the scale of the disaster that could befall Russian Jewry, must do everything so that we don’t have to worry about statistics like in America,” he says. “We have to start working now so that we don’t turn around in another 20 years and say, ‘We have a problem, there are no Jews left.’

“My dream is that every Jew will know he’s a Jew and that every Jew can get the things connected to Judaism that he wasn’t able to receive in the last 80 years,” Leviev says. “That he’ll have a chance to receive, and that someone will be ready to give — and not just advice.”

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