Express delivery: Richard Desmond's mission to rabbi’s Pinsk orphanage
Robert and Richard Desmond at the orphanage with Rabbi Moshe Fhima and Rabbi Barry Marcus
Throughout my life, I have always felt a responsibility to help many charities — UK based, those in Third World countries and Jewish causes worldwide. Rarely a day passes when I don’t get a call from someone telling me about another commendable organisation that needs help — and they all genuinely do.
But after many years of giving and even using my own “talents” as a drummer alongside other musicians to raise both funds and awareness for the likes of Norwood, Marie Curie and the Teenage Cancer Trust, I have resolved to dedicating significant amounts of resource to the causes that really touch my heart, but more importantly the hearts of those who run them.
In other words, if I meet someone who is so passionate about the charity they represent that they will stop at nothing to make it work, I’ll help them wherever they are. And when I met Rabbi Moshe Fhima, I knew instantly my heart had guided me in the right direction.
To fully appreciate the enormity of Rabbi Fhima, you have to walk beside him along the corridors of Beis Aharon School and Orphanage in Pinsk, Belarus. Along the way, he will tell you the history of every object, painting and pencil, as he is responsible for it being there. And having saved and improved the lives of thousands of children — both Jewish and non-Jewish — the pride he feels is justified.
So how did I come to meet the exuberant Rabbi Fhima and his hundreds of fortunate children? Well, last year I wrote in the JC about the ancestry pilgrimage I thought I’d never make to Ukraine. The trip, which also included a visit to Auschwitz, was at the behest of my son Robert, who was then 22 and has always been interested in our family history and had a friend who worked at World Jewish Relief.
I cannot begin to describe the impact that trip had, not just on Robert — who is committed to encouraging others to make the same journey — but on me. For the first time, I could actually imagine the horror of the camps and I’ve been unable to forget the less famous ditches of bodies buried with no suitable memorial. These ditches are everywhere in Ukrainian towns that before the war had a 50-80 per cent Jewish population. Unthinkable and unpalatable, but the world moves on and WJR is making that happen through its work in a country where there is a small, but significant Jewish community made up of Holocaust survivors and a new, optimistic younger generation.
It was on our first trip that we visited the thriving Heseds (Jewish community centres) in Krakow and Kiev run by the WJR where people of all ages can gather for social and welfare purposes. Robert is a practical philanthropist and, while we could both see that my donations to the charity these past 30 years have been needed, we felt that, going forward, it had to be less about “giving presents” and more about enabling people to do things. As the old saying goes, “teach a man to fish” — though in Lvov it is more about providing buses for trips, new buildings for more activities and instruments so there is even more music. With that in mind, we decided to commit funds to a programme for three years into which Robert and I have both made input. But the best way to see a charity at work is first-hand, so we decided a second trip to the Ukraine was in order.
This time, we went to Lvov and met our WJR hosts, who generously entertained us. But, once again, it was bitter-sweet as we also had a heartbreaking tour of the Holocaust sights in yet another Eastern European destination with a tragic past. On a brighter note, we got to see how our programme is benefiting the recipients, who meet on a daily basis for music workshops, dancing and computer classes, where they get to Skype their families in the USA and Israel. Let’s just say it’s as good as the Jewish Care centre in Golders Green, which my late mother enjoyed visiting regularly.
We attended what the WJR call a “Warm Home”, a regular gathering of older people, mostly survivors, in a private apartment to socialise, do crafts and celebrate holidays. Evidently such gatherings were popular in Soviet times and there was a genuine feeling of warmth. Meeting 75-year-old survivor Raisa Popytak — whose mother miraculously escaped with her two children from the Bobrujsk ghetto — was humbling and I found myself asking another survivor, Alfred Schreyer, how he got up every morning while in Nazi captivity. His response was matter-of-fact - the alternative was to die, so he had to carry on. As someone who carries on regardless of life’s stresses, his words put a lot into perspective for me.
So what of the legendary Rabbi Fhima? As I said earlier, it is the passion and drive of a charity leader that alerts my interest and secures my support and when I met Rabbi Barry Marcus of London’s Central Synagogue just over two years ago, I was intrigued. We did not know each other, but having decided simultaneously to leave a rather dull London wedding, I offered him a lift home and we became friends.
In time, Rabbi Marcus - who pioneered the concept of a one-day educational trip to Auschwitz - told me about his work in Belarus with the Beis Aharon School and Orphanage which needed help. I cajoled a few friends into making considerable donations ( as well as me) and didn’t give it another thought until Robert and I returned to Ukraine. Belarus is only 55 minutes by air from Lvov and so it made sense to check up on the rabbi everyone spoke of so highly and see what he was doing with my money. Born in Manchester, Rabbi Fhima has been working in the former Soviet Union for close on 20 years and having founded Belarus’s only Jewish boarding school for boys in 2005, he went on to open Beis Aharon in Pinsk, which also has a yeshivah, a synagogue, a mikveh and a soup kitchen serving the whole of Belarus.
It’s an impressive operation and all the more so because Rabbi Fhima, together with his Israeli wife Rivka, do everything, as well as looking after their own seven children. The rabbi even went the extra mile – 101 miles to be precise - and drove from Pinsk to meet us at the airport. “I wanted to welcome you,” said the effusive 37-year-old, who acts in loco-parentis for 150 children from anti-social backgrounds who have lost mothers, fathers or both.
“Look at this,” he said to me, insisting that I accompany him on a dormitory tour, which meant examining almost every bed. Rabbi Fhima even had me climbing ladders to inspect the roof. The schools are certainly spotless, the library immaculate, and all the students are well behaved, which is a testament to Fhima’s teaching and ground-rules. “Regardless of their background they are all taught a Jewish way of life,” he told us, going on to describe the programme he has set up that enables his school’s graduates to go abroad to further their education in colleges and universities in Israel and the US.
Though he only ever meant to stay three days in Belarus, Rabbi Fhima fell in love all those years ago with helping the communities and he runs the massive educational and welfare complex on a voluntary basis. He and his family lead a humble life, though he had the acumen to build a burgeoning real estate business Star PM to support his charitable work. He is also most definitely not a “freier” (his word), which is Yiddish for “sucker”. “Only children and the elderly are excused from helping,” he says. “Everyone else has to do something.”
There were times during my meeting with Rabbi Fhima when I thought he was the ideal person to run this country. He is certainly a great advert for our faith as he doesn’t discriminate in his role as a carer and can cope with any challenge. In fact, I’ve a good mind to let Beis Aharon School and orphanage share the motto for my company - “Forti nihil difficile’ (nothing is difficult for the strong)”. What could be more fitting for the resourceful Rabbi Fhima?