Winds of communal change

If a conference that took place in Berlin last weekend is anything to go by, Jewish leaders in the West need a rapid Russian language induction course — and an equally rapid re-think of how things get done.

Jonathan Joseph, the South African-born, British-based president of the European Council of Jewish Communities, may not have done the Russian Berlitz course yet but he has certainly got to grips with how things get done.
To the clear consternation of some present in Berlin, Mr Joseph, with the quiet but determined air of someone producing a rabbit out of a hat, unveiled his great prize — a Ukrainian billionaire, Igor Kolomoisky.

ECJC president-elect Mr Kolomoisky, a grizzled 48, turns out to be a shy oligarch who collects German and French expressionist art and — more importantly — has showered millions on his home town of Dnepropetrovsk, transforming it into one of the strongest Jewish communities in the eastern bloc.

The equation appears relatively simple: the ECJC is a Jewish organisation which has fallen on hard times. Mr Joseph, who has been president for six years, faced the harsh reality that cash-poor Western Jewish communities were going to have to turn their faces to the east if the ECJC were to have a future.

So the net was cast and, in Mr Joseph’s own words, Mr Kolomoisky, who also holds Israeli citizenship, is “quite a catch.”

Three members of the ECJC board were underwhelmed with the big fish and have resigned in protest over the failure to apply democratic rules. Others, admitted Mr Joseph, “have expressed their concern that we have put his name up without prior consultation with the board. If that is a crime, I am guilty.”

But he insisted that Mr Kolomoisky had “a very high business reputation”.

He has made his fortune in metals and private banking and, latterly, has bought two Ukrainian TV stations.
The new president, who did not utter a word in public at the Berlin conference, has apparently pledged “millions of euros to strengthen Jewish life in Europe.”

Such life, if last week’s meeting of the European Conference of Presidents is anything to go by, is undergoing a seismic shift.

On stage at a number of sessions and feted by the organisation’s leadership were a variety of people with, shall we say, difficult reputations.

Alexander Mashkevitch, the Kazakhstan-born billionaire who is president of the Euro-Asian Congress, hit the headlines in September when found on board a 450-foot luxury yacht raided by Turkish police investigating alleged prostitution and human trafficking of minors.

He was not arrested, but questions are still being asked in Israel, where he also holds citizenship.
Vadim Rabinovitch, an ECJC vice-president, has also had his fair share of run-ins with authorities in Ukraine and elsewhere.

President of the All-Ukrainian Jewish Congress, Mr Rabinovitch is another oligarch who has been accused of a variety of offences, but has overcome them and is a committed figure at European Jewish events.

For the dawning truth may well be that the tide has turned and that old Europe — cash-poor, still struggling with the legacy of the Holocaust, and reeling from the effects of the global financial crisis — is now going to have to swallow its pride and turn to new Europe.

Restitution money is drying up and the much-relied-upon financial support of the Americans, who often took great delight in telling the European peasants what to do, has also dissipated.

In contrast many communities of the Former Soviet Union are rolling in oligarchs, who appear to have more money than they know what to do with.

But, luckily, there are plenty of rabbis around to advise them how to invest in their Jewish identity.

    Last updated: 10:48am, October 29 2010