From Georgia, with love – and money

Gabriel Mirilashvili, the leader of the Georgian Jewish community reflects in interview with 'Post' on how he learned that business and Judaism are inseparable.

GABRIEL MIRILASHVILI 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
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 suits.
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 sea.
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 the event.
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 leaders.
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 organizations.
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 leaders.
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 home.
“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.
“It was 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 jest.
”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 them.”
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 relatively securely.”
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 that sphere.”
A source familiar with the family said that one source of income for the Mirilashvilis in those early days had been legalized gambling.
“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 legitimate.”
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 competition.
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 public.”
Nobody knows how much Mirilashvili is worth, but one source estimated his fortune at up to $1b.
Money, however, often creates problems.
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.
“I don’t believe he was guilty,” a source familiar with the family said.
“The authorities with whom he had good ties picked on him, I don’t know why.”
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.
Gabriel 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 Israel.
“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.”