Jewish Journal

‘The Missionary Mogul’

by Brad A. Greenberg

September 19, 2007 | 11:13 am

A fairly boring—maybe just too long—story by the usually engaging Zev Chafets in this week’s New York Times Magazine. The subject of the piece is Lev Leviev, the former dirt-poor Soviet youth who broke the De Beers diamond cartel (they’ve got a cartel for everything) and rose to become Israel’s richest man.

“As a boy, they used to make us stand at attention and salute the statue of Lenin,” he told me. “I’d curse him and the other Communists under my breath. They sent my grandfather to Siberia. They wouldn’t let us keep the Sabbath — we had to go to school on Saturdays. Just being Jewish was dangerous.”

Still, he saw business potential in Russia. He spoke the language, knew the local customs. His father, sensing danger, begged Leviev not to go. So Leviev traveled to Brooklyn, to the headquarters of the Lubavitcher rebbe, for a second opinion.

It is a meeting that has become folklore, both in Chabad and in the diamond industry. Leviev tells the story with obvious relish: “I spoke to the rebbe in Hebrew. I asked him, Should I go or not? He answered me in a kind of antique Russian. He said: ‘Go. Go to Russia and do business, but don’t forget to help the Jews. Remember your family tradition.’ ”


Of course, Leviev hasn’t. The 51-year-old philanthropist gives an estimated $50 million to Jewish causes each year, Chafets writes, and “subsidizes an army of some 10,000 Jewish functionaries from Ukraine to Azerbaijan, including 300 rabbis.”

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