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