Fundraisers, I am willing to bet, don’t get much more disarming than Irina Nevzlin Kogan. Alabaster of skin and sporting no jewellery except the most discreet of wedding bands, Kogan, 36, excuses herself before we even start to talk. She needs to call her babysitter back in Israel to make sure her two small children, aged five and three, are OK.
Then she comes back and begins her story, and I can understand why President Shimon Peres was charmed, even if he calls her “the woman who talks too much”.
Kogan has set herself an uphill task. She is relaunching Tel Aviv’s Beit Hatfutsot, the somewhat shabby Diaspora Museum on the city’s university campus. In its new, sparkling incarnation, it will be retitled Beit Hatfutsot — the Museum of the Jewish People.
Kogan is its chairman and we meet in London where she is on a flying visit to drum up early support for the ambitious relaunch, the first stage of which is set to open in 2015.
She is certainly not your standard fundraiser. She is an oligarch’s daughter, and not just any old oligarch, but one who was the focus of Vladimir Putin’s ire. Leonid Nevzlin, managed to leave Russia in 2003 before he, like his former partner, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, was arrested. The two men were founding partners of the Yukos Oil conglomerate, which had made them Russia’s richest men. Khodorkovsky served 10 years in a Russian prison for a variety of alleged crimes before being released in December last year. Warrants for similar alleged crimes — including conspiracy to murder — were issued against Nevzlin, but he was safe in Israel. And Yukos, of course, was gobbled up by Putin.
Nevzlin was unusual because he was firmly and proudly Jewish. Before he left Russia he was president of the Russian Jewish Congress and established the Moscow Jewish Cultural Centre and the International Centre for Russian and Eastern European Jewish Studies in Moscow. So it can be imagined that Nevzlin’s dramatic appearance in Israel was the answer to many charitable institutions’ prayers — a high-flying, preposterously rich Russian businessman who could not go back to Russia. Kogan is convinced her father would have been killed had he stayed. “With a strong Jewish identity, I don’t think a Russian prison would have been a very good place for him.”
Her connection to Beit Hatfutsot began with her arrival in Israel. “In 2005 my father was approached by [then Prime Minister] Ariel Sharon and Natan Sharansky to see if he would help to stop Beit Hatfutsot closing. He agreed, as long as there was matching funding from the government.”
The matching money was agreed and in the following year there were prolonged discussions on how to relaunch the museum. Originally it was along the lines of “a lick of paint and a reopening”. But gradually it became apparent that a more exciting concept was possible — not simply, as Kogan says, “to tell diaspora memories, but to tell the story of the Jewish people”. The new museum will be entirely interactive, using technology unavailable to the original Beit Hatfutsot founders in 1978.
At the time of the initial discussions, Kogan was not living in Israel. “But I was completely hooked,” she says, “because my personal Jewish journey was so fractured.” Even though, way back, her family had Chasidic roots, when Kogan was a child she was not allowed to mention her Jewishness outside her home. “Like all my generation who were not allowed to be Jewish, we were trying to find ways of exploring our Jewish identity in a not very nice environment.”
She was keenly aware of the antisemitism faced by her parents at university, but two things happened to make her experience different from that of most young Russian Jews. First, when she was 14, Kogan’s grandmother, who was a teacher, took her to Israel on her first trip outside Russia. “We went to Jerusalem and when I went to the Kotel I just cried for so long — and I am not the crying type. It was overwhelming and there was a deep sense of belonging, which was not based on any knowledge.”
Lucky break number two was a change in schools. Almost by accident she attended a Jewish school in Moscow when she was 15. “I had a friend in my regular school and we sat together from first grade. One year he disappeared and then he called and said: ‘Listen, you should come to this school, there are people like us here.’” Neither teenager ever explicitly spelled out that they were Jewish. Because the school had a good academic reputation, her parents agreed to the change. But almost by default Kogan began learning Hebrew, and Jewish history and was taken to Israel on school trips.
“It was a life-changing experience for me. It was something that I was searching for and I felt really at home in this school.”
Kogan studied at university in Moscow but by mid-2003 it became apparent that there was no place for her father in Russia. She left later that year and spent two years working in London, travelling to Israel every couple of weeks, before deciding to take a break in 2006 and help her mother and stepfather (her parents had divorced when she was three) make aliyah.
“On the plane [from London to Tel Aviv] I suddenly decided that I would make aliyah, too. It was not well-thought through or very rational, it was just emotional. The rest is history.”
Being an oligarch’s daughter opens some doors but makes others stick. “I didn’t have any insecurities about being ‘daughter of’ before I got to Israel, because I had had a career [she was a high-flyer for a Washington-based marketing and strategic communications firm] and I know that people make assumptions.” Then she adds with a grin: “I’m not beyond making assumptions myself.”
Now — aside from her adored family — Kogan devotes almost every moment to getting the Beit Hatfutsot project up and running, using her considerable charm and her professional skills to inspire and excite.
“We are trying to tell the story of the Jewish people and make it about the Jewish world now — creative, global, competitive over-achievers.”
She is conscious of the enormity of the project and thinks she has an amazing opportunity to help make it happen.
As for Shimon Peres thinking Kogan talks too much — she doesn’t — he has been gently persuaded to kick off the renovation by laying the cornerstone for the relaunched museum at a special reception on May 29.