Moshe Kantor, the extremely wealthy president of the Russian Jewish Congress and chairman of the Board of Governors of the European Jewish Congress, has recently launched a hands-on club for the world's 50 biggest Jewish philanthropists interested in perpetuating Jewish life primarily in Eastern and Central Europe.
The European Jewish Fund is already registered and has accumulated a significant amount of money, Kantor, who headed a 20-member delegation to Beit Hanassi, told President Moshe Katsav on Thursday.
The aim of the EJF is to coordinate with and accelerate the main proactive Jewish programs such as birthright in its broadest sense, said Kantor, as well as to plan special programs and year-round activities related to Holocaust commemoration.
Kantor, who lost most of his family in the Holocaust, personally bankrolled the cost of a huge commemorative event in Krakow in January, 2005 to mark the 60th anniversary of the liberation from Auschwitz. The event was sponsored by the European Jewish Congress and Kantor's own World Holocaust Forum that he created specifically for this purpose.
The EJF is heavily involved in the preparations for the 65th anniversary of the Babi Yar massacre. Just as Kantor worked with the Polish authorities for the Auschwitz commemoration, he is now working as head of the World Holocaust Forum with the Ukrainian authorities for the Babi Yar commemoration to which Katsav was one of 42 world leaders invited by Ukrainian President Viktor Youshchenko. Katsav has already accepted and will join other world leaders in Kiev in the last week of September.
Kantor is already thinking two years ahead, and is planning to convene the WHF in Berlin in 2008 where he will simultaneously commemorate the 70th anniversary of Kristallnacht with the celebration of the 60th anniversary of Israel's independence. Plans for the 2008 event would officially be announced at Babi Yar, said Kantor.
The EJF is an umbrella organization representing 17 communities.
The intention is to cater to specific local and broader European needs. The aim is to bring as many Jews as possible back to the fold, and to encourage those who already identify Jewishly to remain within the fold.
According to official statistics, said Kantor, there are 300,000 Jews living in Russia today. He is convinced that there are more.
Despite the time that has passed since the fall of Communism, he said, there are still people who are Jews in their hearts, but who are afraid to identify publicly.
Speaking from personal experience, Katsav could vouch that given the right circumstances, Jews who were previously unaffiliated, would return to the fold. When he was in Estonia, he was interviewed on television. After he left, 17 unaffiliated Jews called the chief rabbi of Estonia to say that they wanted to be part of the Jewish community, he related.
Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, chief rabbi of Moscow, who together with Rabbi Ya'acov Dov Bleich, the chief rabbi of the Ukraine was with Kantor's delegation, told an equally poignant tale. Among the Russian media who covered the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz was one of the leading television reporters who had been to most of the world's trouble spots. When she came to Auschwitz, she realized she was Jewish, went back to Moscow, took up a course of Jewish studies, became religious, made aliya and married a professor from Beersheba.
Bleich warned, however, that as they became more affluent, Jews in the former Soviet Union adopted the attitudes of their brothers and sisters in the West and gradually distanced themselves from all things Jewish.