A Russian Jewish leader with grand plans
NEW YORK — Alexander Levin, a rags-to-riches Ukrainian businessman who announced a new international forum for Russian-speaking Jews recently at the United Nations, says he knows how to deal with world leaders such as Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
“The way the West does business with the government of Russia and Ukraine is not the right way,” the 43-year-old Levin explained in an interview at his hotel here. “Our group won’t bring big pressure. That would be a big mistake; you can’t pressure Russia, which has billions of dollars, weapons and oil. But we understand Putin and other leaders; we have the same mentality. Our approach is to be very pragmatic and open new channels” of partnership in seeking to unify international opposition to a nuclear Iran.
Levin’s agenda is to improve conditions for peace through his new organization, The World Forum of Russian-Speaking Jewry, which he will serve as president, unifying Jews of the former Soviet Union and ultimately establishing “the right conditions for the arrival of moshiach — that is my goal.”
Heady plans for a man little known in the West and far from a seasoned diplomat in international relations. But as president of the Greater Kiev Jewish Community, he is a force to be reckoned with, as indicated by his becoming the centerpiece of the recent U.N. ceremony commemorating International Holocaust Remembrance Day and the 70th anniversary of the Babi Yar massacres.
More than 500 Russian-speaking Jews, most of them elderly Holocaust survivors, attended the solemn U.N. program, where Levin announced the new organization in his keynote address and pledged: “We, the Russian-speaking Jews from the far-flung corners of the Earth, stand ready to unite against the nuclear program of Iran. We will not let another Holocaust engulf us.”
Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, and a participant at the commemoration, told The Jewish Week the Russian-speaking Jewish community around the world is “a human reservoir of talent and potential,” and that any effort to bring them together “can be valuable.”
He also noted that leaders like Levin have “built Jewish communities and underwritten institutions in Eastern Europe, which are realities unmatched in Western Europe.”
Raised in his native Kiev, Levin lived with his family — and three other families — his first 20 years in a small apartment with little privacy and no bath or shower. When he came to the United States in 1988, he remembers being greeted by HIAS officials and crying on being placed in quarters for the homeless in Manhattan. Levin spent several years in the United States, where he is a citizen (as he is in Israel), before returning to Ukraine and becoming one of the country’s wealthiest businessmen, primarily through real estate.
Along the way he discovered an inner sense of Jewish belief.
When he was young, he said, he never saw a synagogue, but would go to a church, light candles and face a statue of Saint Nicholas.
“I prayed to God but looked at him,” he said with a shrug and a smile.
It was on his return to Ukraine from the United States, in his 20s, that he felt “a need to learn more about Judaism.”
He went to the synagogue in Kiev for the first time on Yom Kippur, but was unmoved by the service. Nonetheless, he was impressed with a leading Chabad rabbi there, Moshe Reuven Azman.
“He had clear eyes and a good heart, I could see that,” Levin recalls. He began to study Jewish texts and now prays three times a day, wears a kipa and follows the Chabad rituals.
At first reluctant to become a local Jewish leader in Kiev — “I’m a businessman, I didn’t think I could do the social work” — he took on the presidency of the community. He also co-chairs the Babi Yar Foundation, and found to his surprise that despite the major challenges of seeking unity among a disparate community, “I feel like I understand this work, and I like it.
“In my heart, I felt the need to do something for my God, for my Jewish people, more than give tzedaka.”
His address at the U.N. event focused on the influence of the Russian-speaking Jewish community in effecting world peace.
“We have a political and electoral clout,” he said. “We can be a bridge between East and West, an intermediary between the United States and Russia or between the United States and Ukraine.
“We have a possibility to save the people of this planet from an impending danger of a new genocide.”
But his talk was thin on details, and in our interview prior to the U.N. event, he said his strategy was private, for now.
“I have a global mentality,” he said. Countries like Russia and Ukraine only care about Iran because of money and oil, he maintained. “But world peace is priceless, and we know how” to make the case.
(Gary Rosenblatt, editor and publisher of The New York Jewish Week, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This column previously appeared in the Week.)