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“I think you have got the right people behind this one,” said Leonard Petlakh, a Russian-speaking community leader from Brooklyn.
The Israeli government certainly seems to think so. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman each sent letters welcoming the formation of the group.
Levin has co-opted several established Russian-speaking organizations, such as the American Forum of Russian Jewry, under his umbrella. There are forums in Canada, Israel, Europe and Australia, and plans for 18 new offices this year, located in Russian-speaking communities worldwide.
Igor Branovan, president of the American Forum of Russian Jewry, said Russian-speaking Jews worldwide had struggled for years to find an organization that could advance a common agenda with an emphasis on Jewish education and pro-Israel advocacy. “By having greater numbers, by having greater access to media and greater budgets, we can do more in this important arena,” Branovan said.
The Brooklyn-based World Congress of Russian Jewry was supposed to fulfill that role. But Branovan, an early member, said the now dormant organization fell from grace amid suspicion that it was a puppet of the Kremlin.
Levin insists that his organization is independent and owes its allegiance to no one.
“We come from the bottom up,” Levin said.
Wearing black jeans, a black zip-up sweater and a black yarmulke, Levin, 43, hardly looks the part of a communal leader.
Mindful of the reputation that precedes most Ukrainian businessmen, he insists that he made his fortune in Kiev during the 1990s — “a crazy time” — without any mafia involvement.
“If you work legally, [the mafia] can’t come to you and give you a hard time,” Levin said, “and we were strong enough to not be afraid of anybody.”
Levin is an American citizen. He speaks English deliberately, occasionally slipping into Russian when he can’t find the vocabulary he picked up during almost six years living in the Brighton Beach section of Brooklyn in the late 1980s and early ’90s.
But his speech quickens when he turns to his newfound faith in God.
“What I want to do with this organization is to bring moshiach [the anointed one] to Israel and to make this country [Israel] very, very powerful,” he said.
Being Jewish meant little to Levin during his formative years. As was the case for most Soviet Jews in 1970s Ukraine, it was significant only as an unfavorable designation on his passport and for attracting unwelcome attention from anti-Semitic bullies.
In recent years, Levin began attending Kiev’s historic Brodsky Synagogue. There, under the guidance of Chabad Rabbi Moshe Reuven Azman, one of the most influential rabbis in Ukraine, he gradually became more religious.
He puts on tefillin daily, prays three times a day whenever he can and keeps kosher “as much as possible.” He believes that God “or maybe an angel” helps him tell the people he can trust by looking into their eyes. He attributes his business success to “Hashem.”
Since moving to Kiev in the 1990s, Levin has earned a fortune dabbling in commerce, energy and, most recently, real estate. His reputation is as one of the richest Jews in Ukraine, but no one can say exactly how rich. Levin recalled how, a few years ago, when he became leader of the Kiev Jewish community, he realized that God’s plan for him was to become more than a businessman. “I started to think: How can I do more? How can I help Jews, Israel and the world?” he said.