Wealthy Ukrainian Jews create plan for community

KIEV, Ukraine — When a group of Lubavitch rabbis working in Ukraine first asked a local multimillionaire to set up a Jewish charity, the tycoon refused.

Only after other Jewish businessman declined did Vadim Rabinovich agree to become involved.

Now Rabinovich, one of Ukraine's richest citizens and a close friend of the country's president, has delved into the Jewish world with a vengeance.

The 48-year-old has organized the country's Jewish businesspeople behind his new communal organization, the All-Ukrainian Jewish Congress.

The congress has set for itself a grand plan in the former Soviet republic: to unite the disparate Jewish groups, fund communal projects, counter anti-Semitism and seek restitution of Jewish property.

The group concluded its first major gathering in Kiev late last month by announcing that it has raised about $2.5 million among the nation's businesspeople to support the country's 600,000 Jews and unite some 120 Ukrainian Jewish organizations.

Iosif Zissels, the head of the Ukrainian Va'ad, the country's oldest Jewish umbrella organization, said Jewish activists have wanted to involve Jewish businesspeople in the community for several years.

But Ukraine's Jewish businesspeople have lagged behind their Russian counterparts in supporting Jewish communal groups.

A lack of money is one reason. The Ukrainian economy has struggled as the country attempts to make a transition to capitalism in a land with strong communist — and communal — traditions.

Anti-Semitism is another obstacle. Rabinovich, who owns several businesses in Ukraine, including the country's most popular television channel, says the fear of publicly acknowledging one's Jewish roots prevents many from contributing.

But now this appears to be changing.

Grigory Surkis, whose commercial empire includes oil trading, a law firm, a TV station and the country's most popular soccer team was unanimously elected chairman of the board of the new congress.

Surkis, whom the Ukrainian press called the "man of the year" in 1996, told the 250-plus delegates attending the congress that the meeting marked the first time "in 47 years of my life that I felt Jewish."

Jewish activists say that regardless of what motivated businesspeople, the community will eventually benefit.

"There is no question that the funds the congress is raising will make a difference to virtually every Jew," said Yefim Vygodner, chair of a small community in Bershad, a former shtetl in Ukraine still home to 150 Jews.

According to Rabinovich, membership on the group's board of major donors costs $50,000. There are 20 people who have already donated this or larger sums.

The plans to divide the money: 35 percent will go to welfare programs for the elderly, many of whom are Holocaust survivors. Another 15 percent will got to Jewish educational institutions.

Ten percent will support Jewish communities; 9 percent to youth programs; 6 percent for memorializing the Holocaust; and 4 percent to assisting immigration to Israel.