Spotlight: Building Jewish identities

Australian real estate magnate Harry Triguboff talks with the ‘Post’ about his efforts to help immigrants who came from the former Soviet Union prove their Jewish roots, and warns that Israel could lose a whole generation of Jews.

July 4, 2013 20:54
JWITHOUT JEWISH education, Diaspora Jewry would disappear, says Harry Triguboff

Harry Triguboff 370. (photo credit: Eli Oshkin)

When Harry Triguboff looks out over the Jerusalem skyline, he likes what he sees: Construction cranes, lots of them.

“It can’t be too bad,” he jokes, when asked about Israel’s housing crisis, “they must be doing something right.”

Construction, though, isn’t what the 80-year-old Australian real estate developer is here for. One short experience in Ra’anana in 1973 was more than enough for Triguboff, who has built some 60,000 apartments in Australia, earning himself the moniker “High-Rise Harry” and a fortune estimated by Forbes at $4.5 billion, making him one of the country’s richest men.

What Triguboff is here for is to build Jewish identities.

He is a major donor to the Shorashim organization, which helps immigrants who came from the countries of the former Soviet Union prove their Jewish lineage. The organization, founded by the Tzohar rabbinical association, has a budget of some NIS 4 million annually, of which the government gives some NIS 600,000, with the rest coming from Triguboff and the Toronto-based Friedberg Foundation.

Of the one million or so immigrants who came to Israel from the FSU, explains Triguboff, as many as 300,000 are not considered by the rabbinate to be halachically Jewish. Under Israeli law, Jewish couples must provide documented evidence of their Judaism before they can marry here – failure to do so leaves them with no option but to undertake a civil marriage overseas, and effectively defines their children as non-Jews under Israeli law.

There is a danger, says Triguboff, that Israel could lose an “entire generation of Jews.” He notes that Ephraim Halevy, a former Mossad head and the incoming chairman of Shorashim, has defined this danger as no less than “a strategic threat” to the State of Israel, which will “lose its sense of Jewishness” if the problem is not solved.

Shorashim helps the immigrants by researching archives and cemeteries in the FSU, often sending emissaries there to procure the documentation required by the rabbinical courts. Since the beginning of 2013, the organization has helped some 1,000 immigrants who came from the FSU prove their Jewish lineage. It also reaches out to soldiers on compulsory military service, helping them prove their Jewish roots.

“I found out about the problems of these people who come from Russia and the rabbis wouldn’t recognize them. I thought it was silly that they did everything for their country, they thought they were like everyone else, and suddenly – when they get married – they have problems.

“The work we do here is very important, not just for Israel, but for the whole of the Diaspora,” says Triguboff. “Because if we can make it simpler here, then it [establishment of Jewish lineage] will be automatically accepted throughout the diaspora. And in the Diaspora, when we have problems with converting the partner, unfortunately, not only do we not get the partner, but we lose our own, because they take offense.”

So what made Triguboff focus his philanthropic efforts in Israel on proving Jewish identities? A look back to his childhood perhaps provides some of the answers. Triguboff was born in the northern Chinese city of Tianjin, where his parents were active in the local Russian Jewish community.

“We had a Jewish school, we had a Jewish club,” he recalls. “My father was a main donor, my mother was on the committee of the school. That was the way we lived there. So I suppose that’s where it all comes from.”

Triguboff’s father, Moshe, was in the textile business in China.

“He made a lot of money there, but then, of course, the Communists came and that was the end of that,” says Triguboff.

It wasn’t quite the end, however: Moshe Triguboff made his way to Israel in 1949, where he set up a textile factory called Trigosin – an amalgam of the family name and the Hebrew word for China – with Harry following in his steps a year later after first completing his schooling in Australia. “He had a bit left over and he came to Israel; I think he still would have been probably the biggest investor in Israel at that time.”

Triguboff had intended to go to Australia but that didn’t work out, and the nascent Jewish state looked like a good option. “We thought my father would come.

But then Israel was established and he had difficulty getting a visa to come to Australia, so he went to Israel. He was impatient, so he started to work in Israel. So then after I finished school, my brother finished university, we moved to Israel.”

Harry was sent to Leeds to learn textiles for the business and for three years he split his time between the UK and Israel, before spending the next six years here and setting up Carmel Carpets in Or Akiva, which he would later sell to the Agudat Yisrael politician and businessman Avraham Shapira.

Family intrigues saw him sent back to Australia in 1960: “The brother didn’t get along with the father and didn’t get along with me. We didn’t gel. My father said, ‘You go back to Australia.’ So we went back to Australia.

And a few years afterwards, in ’68, I started to think of textiles, of course in Australia. And I saw there was no future in it, but housing was important because we didn’t have enough housing. Nobody ever apartments there, so I built apartments. I never built houses, only apartments.”

His father and mother, Frieda, remained in Israel until their passing in the early 1960s.

As Triguboff built up his fortune, he began to get involved with the Chabad movement, specifically helping to fund its network of Jewish schools.

“Chabad is very important because without Jewish education, Diaspora Jewry would disappear,” says Triguboff. “That’s why I was always very much involved with schools. I wanted Jewish children to go to Jewish schools. I realized that we have to do everything we can to preserve the Jewish race. I’m very proud of it and I think it’s wonderful.

“Whenever people tell me it’s difficult to be a Jew, I always say, it’s more difficult to be a gentile.”

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