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September 26, 2003 - Image 153

Resource type:
Text
Publication:
The Detroit Jewish News, 2003-09-26

Disclaimer: Computer generated plain text may have errors. Read more about this.

Along The Trans-Siberian Railroad

Revival of Jewish religious life is funded by diamond magnate.

ADAM B. ELLICK
Jewish Telegraphic Agency

Perm, Russia/JTA
t seems like any factory in Israel,
with mezuzot adorning each
doorway and employees leaving
work at 2 p.m. on Friday, return-
ing only on Sunday
But this is not Israel. The 500
employees leading this quasi Jewish
lifestyle are Russian workers who cut
diamonds for $112 a month at Kama-
Kristall, an Israeli-owned factory on the
road to Siberia.
"They think the mezuzahs are ther-
mometers. I just tell them it's good luck
to touch it," says Roman Golikov, an
Uzbek-born Israeli who spends his week-
days in this drab industrial city as Kama-
Kristall's CEO.
Though Kama's Jewish window dress-
ing hasn't exactly kindled a Jewish spirit
among employees, the expansive plant
serves a larger purpose: the revival of
Jewish life in a nation so vast that new
communities are still being formed some
13 years after perestroika.
In large part, that's the work of Kama's
owner — Lev Leviev, a Bukharan-Israeli
diamond magnate who doubles as the
financial backbone of the Chabad-affili-
ated Federation of Jewish Communities
(FJC) of the former Soviet Union, the
region's most visible Jewish force.
Born in Uzbekistan in 1956, Leviev
and his family immigrated to Israel in
1971. He took up work as an apprentice
at a diamond polishing plant and later
established a factory of his own.
Today, the Leviev Group has an annu-
al turnover of roughly $1.5 billion. But
Leviev's biggest victory came in the early
1990s when he founded the charitable
Ohr Avner Foundation in his father's
memory The foundation funnels dona-
tions to the FJC operating budget — at
least $10 million annually, or about 30
percent of the federation's budget,
according to federation officials.
Those funds support 13,000 Jewish
students at 75 Jewish schools across the
former Soviet Union and numerous
soup kitchens where the homey smell of
kosher cuisine wafts through the air.
It also fuels the religious revival of 152
Jewish communities in Russia's Urals,
Siberia and the Far East, where Jews in
dozens of dismal cities otherwise would

I

have no religious offerings.
Leviev also contributes to the 80 capi-
tal building projects, totaling $40 mil-
lion, underway in Jewish communities
across the former Soviet Union.
His multibillion-dollar diamond con-
glomerate owns the exclusive rights to
mining precious stones in Angola, and
his largest cutting plant operates in
Moscow
His business serves as the cash cow for
regional Russian governments like
Perm's, which gets $1 million from
Kama in taxes and secures Leviev's excel-
lent rapport with powerful Russian elites,
including President Vladimir Putin.
Those connections ensure that the
FJC can maneuver easily in a nation
where efficiency is still rare.

Honorable Work

Leviev is revered in Perm, where he will
build a soup kitchen next year that will
feed 1,500 people a day of all ethnic
backgrounds.
"We have big plans to improve the
Jewish community life in this area and
to bring all Jews back to their home.
People are too far from religion over
here," Golikov says in his plain office, as
millions of dollars worth of diamonds lie
strewn across his desk.
A few minutes drive from the high-
security Kama plant along Perm's broad,
Soviet-style boulevards is an archetypal
example of a Leviev project in the mak-
ing: a Jewish day school. Chabad Rabbi
Zaimon Deitsch came to Perm just over
a year ago and promptly established the
school, a process that might have been
tangled in red tape for years if not for
Leviev's connections.
Deitsch says his 25-student, Western-
looking school will double in size next
year. He points to Leviev-backed FJC
schools in Yekaterinburg and
Novosibirsk, where roughly 300 stu-
dents receive an education that far sur-
passes what is offered by other schools in
those cities.
Deitsch also offers medical assistance
to his community, and he is planning a
soup kitchen for 2004 that will feed 400
people.
"Leviev is not only a sponsor here, but
also like a father. He's a businessman
who talks about schools and soup
kitchens," Deitsch says, raising his hands

in astonishment.
Until Deitsch realizes his ulti-
mate goal of building a syna-
gogue, he must be content with
inviting local Jewish families to
his apartment on Shabbat, hop-
ing to teach them about Jewish
traditions.

religious positions but realize
that the Leviev-backed FJC
has a thicker wallet and helps
meet their top priorities like
food, medical assistance and
concerts.
"The tensions are growing
here. We invited the rabbi to
coordinate together, but he
works on his own," Burshteyn says of
Deitsch. "He says, 'When in Rome do
as the Romans,' but he's already organiz-
ing separate celebrations."
"He has more money for Purim, so he
can afford to rent the whole Perm the-
ater and invite actors from Moscow,"
Burshteyn says. "We can't afford such
things, so it angers us."
Burshteyn's late father Aron, whose
photograph rests next to the recently
reconstructed wooden bimah started
Perm's grassroots Jewish community in
1982 in a shabby wooden house under
the eye of KGB agents. His family
secretly slaughtered hens in their bath-
room for kosher meat.
In the early 1990s Burshteyn prodded
local authorities for three years until the
historic synagogue was restored. He
spent the remainder of the decade tap-
ping local and international sources to
repair a building so dilapidated it was
without doors and electricity.
"We're not against the new rabbi,"
he says. "Our aim is just to unite all
Jews, because we don't have enough to
split up here." O

Workers at the
Kama-Kristall
factory
examine
diamonds in
Perm, Russia.

Mixed Blessing

As in many Russian cities, however,
Perm's vibrant and ambitious federation-
affiliated community doesn't excite
everyone.
Perm's older Jews, like Edward
Kiselgof and Yefim Burshteyn, leaders of
the cash-strapped Keroor Orthodox
community, are less than delighted.
Their main source of income isn't a dia-
mond magnate but a Perm bank that
leases the lower level of their charming
1913 synagogue.
In the past few years, their interna-
tional donors — Keroor and the
American Jewish Joint Distribution
Committee — have continuously cut
funds.
For the past year, the group's crammed
second-floor office has been stacked with
cardboard boxes filled with unused med-
ical supplies. The goods were intended
for the synagogue's 3,500 congregants,
many of whom have fled to FJC-affiliat-
ed institutions.
These highly assimilated Jews can't
discern between the two movements'

,

9/26
2003

153

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