The hundreds of guests who arrived at the red-carpet event hosted by the Peres
Center for Peace last week were an odd sort. At the bar set up on a wooden deck
overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, Orthodox rabbis with bushy beards brushed
shoulders with women in short dresses and stiletto heels while Israeli lawmakers
and diplomats mingled with East European businessmen in flamboyant
MKs Nino Abesadze, Ruhama Avraham- Balila and Yulia Shamolov
Berkovich, all of Kadima, were in attendance.
So was Kazakhstani
billionaire and head of the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress Alexander Machkevitch and
his entourage. Public relations guru Rani Rahav made his rounds, and both
Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger and Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar greeted
guests as Arkadi Gaydamak – the Russian-born Israeli businessman whose financial
empire collapsed, leaving him heavily indebted – sat at the bar staring into the
The motley crew of powerful and influential people came from far and
wide for two reasons: to raise funds for the Peres Center, which promotes ties
between Jews and Arabs, and to celebrate the 50th birthday of Gabriel
Mirilashvili, the wealthy Georgian Jewish businessman who picked up the tab for
If you’ve never heard the birthday boy’s name before, you
aren’t alone; most Israelis haven’t. But it is well known in Russian- and
Georgian-speaking circles, as well as with Israeli politicians and religious
Mirilashvili is part of a group of fabulously wealthy
individuals from the former Soviet Union often referred to as oligarchs, a term
some consider a pejorative.
During the breakup of the Soviet empire,
these businessmen – a significant number of whom are Jewish – amassed vast
fortunes, and over the past decade, several have taken the helms of key Jewish
FOUR DAYS before his 50th birthday celebration in Jaffa,
Mirilashvili leaned back on the large leather chair in his spacious offices
above Dizengoff Center in Tel Aviv for what his staff said was a rare interview
with an Israeli media outlet.
The walls of the room were plastered with
framed photos of his meetings with high-profile Jewish and Israeli
In one, the curly-haired businessman embraced Nobel Prize
laureate Eli Wiesel; in another, he posed with President Shimon Peres. A pile of
scattered papers lay conspicuously on his desk.
“This is from [Prime
Minister Binyamin] Netanyahu,” said Mirilashvili in Russian, picking up one of
the documents and holding it in his hand. “And this is from [Foreign Minister
Avigdor] Lieberman,” he added, pointing at another.
Unlike most Jews who
grew up under the Soviet regime, where religious practice was brutally
suppressed, Mirilashvili didn’t have to rediscover Judaism late in life – he
grew right into it. Born into a prominent Jewish family in Kulashi – a small
town in Georgia that had a predominantly Jewish population and was
affectionately known as “Little Jerusalem” – he was given a Jewish education at
“There were four synagogues in Kulashi,” he recalled. “Officially
it was forbidden to attend. Worshipers may have lost their jobs if they did. My
grandfather, who owned a textile factory and was orphaned at a young age, joined
the communist party as a youth.
Back then it was the only way to get
ahead. I am named after him. To this day they ask about him. We would pray every
day. It might sound amazing, but it’s true.”
From a young age,
Mirilashvili was taught that Judaism and business were inseparable. After all,
the religious freedom of Kulashi’s Jews was dependent on their ability to raise
enough money through illicit businesses to bribe the authorities.
forbidden to commemorate Jewish holidays during Soviet times, but to live and
work we would pay a lot of money,” he said. “As you know, during the Soviet era,
it was impossible to do business. All business was conducted by and on behalf of
the state. For the state to allow us to do business, we would have to pay
bribes. Nowadays it is called government-private cooperation,” he added in
”That’s the way it worked then. Not everyone was given such
privileges, but the residents of Kulashi were trusted.
Because we were
spiritually strong, we were also materially strong. The KGB was then very
active, but the Kulashis never handed anyone over. It’s hard to understand, but
that’s the way it was.”
In Kulashi, Mirilashvili felt protected from
anti-Semitism, but he often encountered it when traveling.
“When we would
go elsewhere, to a summer resort, there was anti-Semitism,” he said. “When
youths would wear kippas, they often faced many problems. Imagine, people knew
what they would face if they wore kippas, and yet they wore
Despite his family’s background, business was not Mirilashvili’s
first choice for a career. After graduating from high school, he studied
medicine in St.
Petersburg, but when perestroika came along and the
markets began to open to free enterprise, the temptation of making it big on his
own was too great. He quit before completing his internship at a hospital and
plunged into the world of commerce.
“I wanted to fulfill myself in a
variety of fields,” he said. “Not a specific one, but several. From a wider
perspective, only business would allow me to help myself as well as others. A
physician wouldn’t make as much. It wasn’t for nothing that I said that in
Kulashi everyone would pray and do business.
In comparison, St.
Petersburg is a massive place where people can fulfill their business goals.
Then Gorbachev’s perestroika began, and it gave opportunities to fulfill oneself
He notes that “there were different businesses back
then. Some were related to computers, others to purchasing industrial and food
products. During the Soviet times, there were stores selling products to
foreigners where people who had jobs abroad could buy, so I had many contacts in
A source familiar with the family said that one source of
income for the Mirilashvilis in those early days had been legalized
“They had a casino and they made a lot of money,” the source
said. “Later they diversified their businesses.
They’re no different than
the Bronfmans” – a reference to the wealthy Jewish- American family whose
fortune was originally made from bootlegging during Prohibition. “They made
their money in the black market during Soviet times, and now it’s all
When the Russian economy began to recover from its
post-Soviet slump, buoyed by the demand for its natural resources,
Mirilashvili’s businesses really started to take off.
“I have a venture
capital fund, and I’m good in strategy,” Mirilashvili said. “I’ve tried every
kind of business based on the climate of the market and the
I founded the largest agricultural holdings company in the
FSU. It is worth $2.5 billion, and another I founded is $600 million.
Unfortunately, because of the financial crisis, we had to go
Nobody knows how much Mirilashvili is worth, but one source
estimated his fortune at up to $1b.
Money, however, often creates
In 2002 a Russian court found Mirilashvili’s brother Mikhail
guilty of running a criminal organization which carried out a series of
kidnappings and robberies. He was sentenced to 12 years in prison.
don’t believe he was guilty,” a source familiar with the family
“The authorities with whom he had good ties picked on him, I don’t
After his early release, Mikhail Mirilashvili moved to Israel,
but the brothers are now estranged, the source said.
In 2009 the family
suffered another blow when patriarch Moshe Mirilashvili, Gabriel’s father and
the founder of the World Congress of Georgian Jews, passed away.
Mirilashvili inherited his father’s position as a leader of the Georgian Jewish
community. In that capacity, he gives millions of dollars to Jewish causes every
year and helps support synagogues throughout Israel and abroad. Perhaps most
notably, Mirilashvili gave the money to renovate the neglected synagogue
adjacent to Sheinkin Street, symbolically located in the heart of secular
“It wasn’t the only synagogue I gave to, but one of 45 synagogues
we assist, and four others outside of Israel,” he said.
“For a year he
would go and say kaddish at the Sheinkin synagogue. Then we found out that my
father donated money to the synagogue as well, and I felt this is where I need
to begin. Eventually it was renamed after my father.”
BACK AT the Peres
Center, the party continued well into the night. At around 11 p.m., 1980s pop
band Modern Talking, which was flown in especially for the event, was about to
perform its hit singles “Brother Louie” and “You’re My Heart My Soul.” But just
before they took the stage, Metzger was handed the microphone to give a personal
blessing to the birthday boy.
“We love you,” the chief rabbi told
Mirilashvili, who sat at the head of a long table wearing a big bright-red bow
tie. “We know you are a very special man. I will not forget how you went hand in
hand with your father to learn how to run the World Congress of Georgian Jews,
and today you do so with good taste. People didn’t come here for nothing. They
came because they knew whom to show respect to.”