'We're waiting for the young generation to show us what Russian Jewry is'

Billionaire Mikhail Bezeliansky wants to clear up misconceptions about diverse community.

Bezeliansky 224 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Bezeliansky 224 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Mikhail Bezeliansky, the Russian Jewish billionaire you've never heard of, wants you to know one thing: Russian Jewry isn't all that bad. "Russian Jews look terrible in the newspapers - this one investigated by Interpol, that one connected to the Mafia. But Russian Jews are like everyone else. Some are good, some bad," the London-based Russian-Israeli retail tycoon says. Russian Jewry is misunderstood by the rest of the Jewish world because of the antics of a handful of colorful characters, he explains. Couple this with the language barrier and political organizations' penchant for hogging the spotlight, and it's hard for Israeli, American and European Jews to resist the unflattering stereotypes. But "Russian Jews are as diverse as Americans," Bezeliansky insists. "Some are in mixed families, some not; some are connected to politics, some not. Outsiders don't see these differences." Partly to correct these misimpressions, Bezeliansky funded a month's worth of Israeli cultural events in Moscow organized by the Israeli Embassy, including the city's first Russian-language Yad Vashem exhibit, a film festival, an exhibit of 60 original Israeli paintings, and an Idan Raichel concert in a trendy nightclub. The point was to cast Israel in a "normal, modern" light, while showing the rest of world Jewry that "there isn't anything surprising about a Jewish cultural event in Moscow." This was also the reason the tycoon agreed to sit down with The Jerusalem Post for an interview last week that marks his introduction to the English-speaking Jewish world. Bezeliansky's biography encapsulates something of the complexity of Russian Jewish identity. He lives in London "for tax reasons and business connections," but displays his Israeli ID card with a proud smile and makes a point of stocking his retail stores with Israeli products. His London home contains a mikve (ritual bath), but he seems completely comfortable as the father of non-Jewish daughters. An energetic 43-year-old, Bezeliansky's fortune is based on the Mosmart retail store chain, a Russian version of Wal-Mart. He started Mosmart in 2000 after selling his assets in Alfa Group, one of Russia's largest holding companies, which he cofounded. On his own after the move, the businessman (then just 35) suddenly found the time to think about new questions, "about myself." The result was aliya. His journey to Jewish life did not begin at 35. "My grandmother spoke Yiddish at home, but I thought it was Byelorussian," he recalls. This ignorance ended abruptly - the memory still lingers - when, at age seven, he noticed his name on a class list with "Jew" written next to it. There were other Jewish children in the class bearing names such as Chazanoff and Aharonov, "but they were marked 'Russian.' Only I was marked 'Jew.' In those days, the system decided [arbitrarily]. People tried to marry non-Jews to advance their careers, to have a quiet life." So little Mikhail went home and asked his father what "Jew" meant. "He said, 'Shh... quiet.'" The father, who discouraged travelling to Israel, "was very far from Judaism." But the discovery stayed with Bezeliansky. Later in life, his return to Judaism was triggered by a tourist visit to Israel in 1999 that sounds like a hassidic anecdote. "All my friends had already been to Israel," he relates. "I was last." Kept away by business and by stories from his parents that "the climate was bad and life was dangerous," Bezeliansky's 10-day visit was a whirlwind tour of the country - from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, the Dead Sea to the Sea of Galilee. Walking down a narrow cobblestone street in Safed, "a Chabad guy called me over and asked me if my mother was Jewish." At the hassid's encouragement, "I lay tefilin for the first time. It was the first time I'd ever seen tefilin." Now he lays it every day, keeps Shabbat and kashrut, and insists that Israel is the cornerstone of his identity. "Every Jew must be Israeli," he believes, "not politically, just as part of Jewish life." Even his father is now Israeli, having made aliya in 2006. The conversation turns often to the Jewish state, a topic that is sometimes difficult to discuss with Russian Jews. Asked why a vociferous Russian Jewish lobby for Israel - of the Western type - does not exist, the avowedly apolitical Bezeliansky explains that "the Russian mentality makes it impossible to understand lobbying for another country while being Russian. You can say to the government, 'Being close to Israel is better for Russia because Israel has hi-tech and so forth,' but they won't understand why you would talk to them about Israel's interests." The lack of a Jewish political voice in Russia is noted often by world Jewish leaders, and usually seen as a reflection of the growing authoritarianism in Russia, an observation that is quickly becoming self-evident in Western media and politics. So is Russia a free country? Are Russian politics, the Post asked, open to those opposing the government? Bezeliansky's response, shared by other Russian Jewish leaders in quiet conversations, speaks volumes: "Political opposition has to be based on something going wrong," he says. "If the economy is growing, if national productivity and income per capita are growing, why oppose? The national authorities must be doing a good job." It is important to note that this sentiment is not merely an excuse offered by a businessman with significant interests in the country. Most Russians questioned, including rabbis and Jewish activists, believe that the government's job is not to offer a safe arena for ideological competition, but to manage a chaotic country effectively, without too much sentiment or strife. Russian Jewish "oligarchs" such as Bezeliansky remember a time when arrest and even assassination contracts were put on their heads by fellow oligarchs - including Jewish ones, often through bribing the police to do the dirty work. Under Putin, many Russian Jews explain quietly, the rules of the game may not be democratic, but they are known and enforced. "Nobody is hunting the billionaires," Bezeliansky says, "since they are building the economy." Rather, when the Russian state acts against industry barons such as Mikhail Khodorkovsky, "this isn't persecution against Jews or against businessmen, but against him and his group personally." Complaining that each Jewish Russian billionaire creates his own umbrella Jewish "congress" - "they will soon make one for tall Jews, for fat Jews, for Yiddish-speaking Jews," he jokes - Bezeliansky believes it is the younger generation of Russian Jews who will create the future. Though he is a close friend of European Jewish Congress president Moshe Kantor - he was the one who first suggested that Kantor enter Jewish politics - Bezeliansky doesn't like politics. A brief stint as vice president of the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress was not repeated. "Culture and tradition are more important," he insists, and he has turned his philanthropy toward the next stage of the expanding Russian Jewish cultural renaissance. Now he wants to make sure young Russian Jews will have the help they need to build the institutions and programs of Jewish life. The community needs institutions of Jewish life, he explains, not for political grandstanding, but for welfare and Jewish education. "We have a lot of Jews, but few institutions." Even so, he says, these institutions must be developed gradually. "Russian Jewish tradition was restarted more or less from zero - from one old synagogue with 20 old Jews." Unlike American Jews, whose "religious development was continuous, natural," in Russia "it was stopped by force, forbidden. Even when Russia gave us freedom, there was no foundation for new Jewish life." Bezeliansky speaks of "many families I know personally who had some small object that survived hidden during Soviet times. When people find out I'm observant they bring me these objects, like tefilin, and ask me what it is." In the next 10 years, he believes, the community will attain a kind of critical mass that will make it a self-sustaining cultural world. "The future is created by Russians. You can come in [from overseas] and open offices, but you won't have programming if locals aren't involved," he insists. Donors from abroad don't understand what's happening in Russia, he adds. As an example, he cites Jewish organizations that are funding food shipments to poor Russian Jews rather than empowering the local community. "Every country has its poor people," he says, "and we can send food parcels back to them now." Yet, though "some Russian Jews have come back, Russia is stabilized and Jewish life has restarted, you still can't compare us to the US or UK, because their institutions have existed for a century. It takes a generation or two to establish them." In the meanwhile, Bezeliansky says, "people my age, who grew up in Soviet times, don't know yet what Russian Jewry is," and are waiting for the young generation to show them.