Aviation high flyer: The man who flew a million Jews to Israel

Entrepreneur Aaron Frenkel recounts his role in flying Jews from the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe to Israel.

Aaron Frenkel (photo credit: RAMI ZARNEGAR)
Aaron Frenkel
(photo credit: RAMI ZARNEGAR)
Aaron Frenkel sat in his office in his Tel Aviv beachfront home, looking back at what has been a spectacular career. In an exclusive interview with The Jerusalem Post, the 58-year-old entrepreneur and philanthropist recalled how he had soared from a modest start in Bnei Brak to the heights of the international aviation industry. Along the way, the soft-spoken Frenkel revealed for the first time that he had played a pivotal role in flying up to a million Jews from the former Soviet Union (FSU) and Eastern Europe to Israel.
“I can say that, directly or indirectly, I flew hundreds of thousands of Jews from the former Soviet Union,” Frenkel said. “I was involved in the establishment of Transaero Airlines, which actually started its career by flying olim [immigrants] from Russia. There were also flights on LOT Polish Airlines from Warsaw, and from Azerbaijan, Moldova, Kazakhstan, Tashkent, St. Petersburg, Kiev and dozens of other places, which flew once or twice a week. There were months in which between 20,000 and 35,000 were flown to Israel. There were times when we flew 300 or 400 people every night from Warsaw. From the end of the 1980s to 1993, between 900,000 and one million Jews flew to Israel from the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.”
How did it all happen and what exactly was Frenkel’s role in this historic aliya? He decided to tell his incredible success story after participating in a Limmud FSU Kinneret conference at Kibbutz Ginossar in December, and ahead of one in Los Angeles starting on January 29.
Frenkel is the president of Limmud FSU, and a major sponsor of the organization founded a decade ago by Chaim Chesler and cofounded by Sandra Cahn to strengthen the Jewish identity of Russian-speaking Jews around the world.
Besides heading the Loyd’s group of companies that deals in aerospace, hi-tech and real estate, he has served as honorary consul of the Republic of Croatia in Israel and honorary chairman of Shimon Peres’s Israeli Presidential Conference. He has been decorated with the French Legion of Honor and the Mecenate of Russia.
Frenkel was born in Bnei Brak to a haredi family. His mother, who is 93, survived the Holocaust in Auschwitz-Birkenau. His late father hid in the forests of Transylvania and what was then Yugoslavia during the Second World War, and joined partisan fighters against the Nazis.
“After her parents and seven of her 11 siblings had perished in the Holocaust, my mother returned to her home town of Munkács, but the neighbors had taken it over, so she literally started walking and moving towards Israel and arrived at a Jewish immigrant camp (they called it a Poalei Agudat Yisrael kibbutz) near Bari in Italy. There she met her future husband, my father, and they married and had two children there,” Frenkel said.
“They then came to Israel. My father became a military serviceman and purchased a home in Bnei Brak, where I was born in 1957 and where my mother still lives today.”
THE YOUNG Aaron studied in yeshivot, including the famous Ponevezh Yeshiva, but he yearned to break out of the confines of Bnei Brak and explore the world.
“I am an entrepreneur in my soul. I will always feel part of this country, the salt of the land. Israel is my home. I am still a big believer. I am not so good at keeping mitzvot on a daily basis, but I don’t think I was ever really a typical haredi. If haredi means believing and fearing God, so I am. If ‘haredi’ means fearing everything in the outside world, I am, on the contrary, always curious to learn and know what is outside. And I think curiosity and the thirst for knowledge are strong motivators for every entrepreneur.”
Frenkel started an investment company in the early 1980s and searched the world for products and innovations to bring to Israel, especially for the Kibbutz Movement, he said. After that, he established a halva confectionery factory in Bnei Brak. He traveled to Poland for the first time in 1983 to sell the sweet. It was then that he visited the site of Auschwitz, before it had been open to the public as a major tourist attraction. He took a cab one night and managed to get in from the back, seeing for the first time the back of the infamous sign, “Arbeit Macht Frei.”
“It was shocking,” he recalled, shaking his head. “The huts were open, full of shoes and hair, and not organized like it is today. Because my mother had been there – in fact she was for the most part in nearby Birkenau, in Hut No. 13 – it gave me goose bumps.”
Upon his return to Israel, Frenkel’s business failed, which he attributed to the huge inflation and the frozen dollar at the time. After settling his debts, he decided to pursue his career abroad, starting with various projects in Poland. It was during his stay there in 1988 that he received “a strange phone call” that would change his career, his life and in some way the course of Jewish history.
ON THE line was Zvi Barak, the director-general of the Jewish Agency’s Finance Department, asking if Frenkel could help. Mendel Kaplan, the South African- based businessman who served as the chairman of the Jewish Agency’s Board of Governors, had written Barak a note that Frenkel was now in Poland, proposing that he might help in flying out Jews from behind the Iron Curtain.
“People were starting to move, taking trains and buses, from Russia, and showing up,” Frenkel recalled, smiling. “Israel didn’t have relations with Russia or Poland at that time. The Dutch Embassy in Moscow represented Israel, and asked what we can do. We knew that some of the Eastern European socialist countries were flying daily to Moscow. So why not buy all the seats on LOT Polish Airlines to Warsaw, and from Warsaw, LOT or El Al will fly to Israel?”
“I was asked to see if I could organize flights from Russia to Poland, and from Poland to Israel. And I did. That was my entry point into the aviation industry. In the beginning, I was named an adviser to the Jewish Agency and I did it, helping them to organize flights of Jews, directly and indirectly, from the former Soviet Union to Israel. But over the course of the years, I got to know all the airlines intimately – and there were many – and I won over their trust and influence.
“We tailored a plan, and the idea caught on very well. Even without connections, we bought most of the seats and started to move olim from Moscow and other cities to Warsaw, Bucharest and Budapest, before they used to fly to Vienna.
“My first move in the aviation industry was to go to the president of LOT Polish Airlines, and he looked to me very antagonistic, and said, ‘Can you help us with this task?’ And he said, ‘Maybe, let me think about it.’ And then I went to his deputy, Marek Sidor, and he said he would try to help. He later told me that the day after my visit there, the Syrian military attaché in Warsaw had warned him not to help the Jews to bring immigrants to Israel.
“Then I went to the prime minister, Tadeusz Mazowiecki, who had been a journalist and it was the time when Lech Walesa was president of Solidarity [the first Warsaw Pact independent trade union]. I explained the whole story to him, and he said, ‘You don’t need to explain it to me. It’s my duty to do it.’ “He called in to the airline and gathered them in the Foreign Ministry. ‘I want to know every Friday how many Jews you move from Moscow to Tel Aviv,’ he said. And that’s how it started. Then there were direct flights, and then on Transaero and other airlines, but this is how it started. I thank all the people, some of whom are alive and some are not, who helped to make this happen. In the end of the two or three years, in which we flew all over, we started flights from everywhere, direct and indirect, still with no relations with Russia, with no embassies, no official diplomatic relations, and I became acquainted with the Eastern Bloc aviation industry. During the years 1989- 1993, I think that more than 900,000 people flew out of the former Soviet Union, and most of them came to Israel.”
THE IMPACT the aliya of Soviet Jewry over the last three decades has had on Israel still resonates with Frenkel, which is why he is such a strong supporter of Limmud FSU.
“I think the mass aliya, mainly from the former Soviet Union, after the opening of the gates, created a different Israel. The quality of the people, the education they got there, the talent, created a new kind of fabric of society that by being in the right place with the right management, are to a large degree responsible for the flourishing of the Israeli hi-tech industry.”
After helping the Jewish Agency fly Jews to Israel, Frenkel was appointed Boeing’s representative in Eastern Europe, and later established his own aviation company.
“The whole Eastern Bloc was seeking to replace their Soviet-made aircraft with modern planes. I started in Poland, then Lithuania, then Russia, and the Azeris, Uzbeks and Kazakhs. It was a huge market of some 10,000 planes at the peak, 100 million passengers per year, and when the Soviet Union collapsed, it too collapsed. Only recently has it revived to the same figures. At the time, planes were used by passengers as airbuses to go visit family and go shopping at a very cheap fare. The industry itself was worth billions.”
Frenkel visited the Soviet Union for the first time in 1988, discovering what he called “a world of chronic shortages and a collapsing economy.”
“In the ’90s, when the Soviet Union collapsed and Russia was established, a process of massive privatization began and it was very interesting,” he said. “It was after the days of glasnost and perestroika under [former president Mikhail] Gorbachev. I met during that period most of the now well-known oligarchs, and for them it was the opportunity of their lives, each in his own field.”
Today Frenkel is considered one of the most influential and successful entrepreneurs in the region that used to be the Soviet Union. His company, Loyd’s Aviation Group, sells Western aircraft and technology to the Commonwealth of Independent States as well as Eastern Europe.
HOW DOES he explain his success and that of Jewish entrepreneurs around the world? “I think the Jewish people are never satisfied. As Shimon Peres says all the time that the dissatisfaction of individuals pushes them to do more. Some people say it’s in our DNA, some people say it’s the Jewish mother. I think Jews are always looking for different ways and places, and they will always be like that. Our task, I think, is to ensure that wherever they are, they are connected, they have roots in Judaism and in Israel, and that’s what we’re trying to do with Limmud FSU.”
According to Frenkel, the majority of the Jewish people should live in Israel, but Jewish communities around the world need to be strengthened, and Israel is a source of their strength.
“To feel strong in Moscow as a Jew, you need to have a strong Israel,” he said.
How does he see the future? “I believe we are in a new era, and the old era will not come back. This applies to business, politics and peace. I remember the time when the stock market went for a few months up and then down, and now every week we have volatility like crazy. I see it in my business, in other fields. Nothing is like it was before. Everything is in flux. It’s a new world. Some people are sitting and waiting, hoping it may come back. I say, no. There are too many new factors, too much al-Qaida and Islamic State. I flew to Rwanda recently with a friend from Egypt, and he is a known Arabist. And he said, there are so many names, even he doesn’t know who’s against who. It’s complete chaos. And that’s why I think we should try to do our best to manage it as best as we can, to understand that this is a new world, especially on the Middle East. In business, we need to learn to live with this instability, and react and act accordingly.”
BASED IN Monaco, Frenkel spends two months in Israel every year. It was there that he married his wife, Ruth (Maja Brinar), an economist and former Croatian deputy economics minister. They have five young children.
“My heart is in Israel, but I live mostly outside,” he said. “I feel like I’m in the song of Mercedes Sosa, who sang in Spanish, ‘I felt like I never left you.’ I’m there, but I’m here. I have a house here, but I live there.”
A huge philanthropist, especially to Israeli and Jewish causes, Frenkel said he is doing his best to educate his children about the value of giving.
“At a certain point in your business career when you’re doing well, and you are the lucky one who has more, you start to understand that giving gives you not only a better feeling, but you want to (a) share with others who are less fortunate than you, and (b) I really believe that when I’m giving, I get back much more. I really do believe that when you give, you physically, not only spiritually, get back more. It’s a process to teach yourself. Today, I’m doing it with my children. When we pass by some poor guy on the street, I say ‘Give!’’ and they say, ‘Are you sure?’ and I say, ‘Yes, give!’ In the beginning, it’s not simple, but you become used to it, you feel it and you believe in it, and then it becomes second nature.”
Asked what advice he can give to future entrepreneurs, Frenkel said: “I think that everybody should have a dream. We read in the Torah about Jacob’s Ladder. In Jacob’s dream, what do you see? You see a ladder with two legs on the ground, which is stable, going up to the sky, which means that the sky’s the limit.
So now everyone should try to have his ladder, his dream, not just floating, but with two strong legs on the ground, and it can be in every field. It can be in science, art or business, in anything. If you have a dream, and you are persistent – and of course you should have God’s blessing – most probably you will do it!” “You have to choose a vision, something that you love doing and suits your character. You can’t impose on yourself or others something that isn’t suitable or that you don’t like doing. Otherwise, it won’t work for long.
Life gives you opportunities. You have to search, in the fog and in the difficulties of your niche, for your opportunity and seize it. And this applies to every area.
“I never dreamed that I would be in the aviation industry, and yet today I am considered one of the global leaders in the field. I make deals worth billions to companies such as Boeing and Airbus or Gulfstream Aerospace, and I am involved in marketing their products, which requires working with highly professional people and experts in a variety of fields.
“You have to always look at your own horizon, and the path that leads you there. And you can’t despair. You have to be persistent. Success doesn’t come quickly or in an easy way. If you work hard and you believe in what you’re doing, and you have the talent and you also know how to seize the opportunity, then the luck will come, It doesn’t always happen, but even if you seize 25 percent of the opportunities that you are given, you can be a very successful story.”