Len Blavatnik, the Odessa-born industrialist and philanthropist, says he came to philanthropy “in stages” and learned a great deal from Lord George Weidenfeld (1919-2016), the famed British publisher, patron and master networker who consulted with world leaders and was an advisor to Chaim Weizmann. “He was brilliant, and a Zionist leader and I learned much from him,” he said.
Matthew Bronfman credits his late father, Edgar Sr., as a mentor for his own career as a businessman and philanthropist, citing his father’s “passion and care for the Jewish people” as president of the World Jewish Congress.
Bronfman and Blavatnik (“Sir Leonard,” having been knighted in England for his philanthropic efforts) took part in a session (moderated by this reporter) on “The Art of Giving” last Sunday morning at a Limmud FSU conference held at Columbia University.
Four hundred attendees, many of them millennials from the Russian-speaking community, participated in the day-long program that also featured legal expert Alan Dershowitz, Academy Award-winning producer Howard Rosenman (“Call Me By Your Name”) and transgender activist Abby Stein. During the day, a number of participants joined in an anti-BDS protest on the Columbia campus.
At the session on philanthropy, Bronfman and Blavatnik described some of their favorite causes and emphasized that each donor, large or small, should focus on charities and issues important to him or her. Both men talked of seeking to engage young Jews in Jewish life. Blavatnik, a billionaire who came to America from Russia 40 years ago and has degrees from Columbia and Harvard, has a foundation that supports a number of Chabad programs, here and in Israel. He said his funds to launch a Chabad program at Harvard, where Hillel already existed, helped create competition on campus that was good for the Jewish student community.
Bronfman explained that he chose to become involved with Limmud FSU – he serves as chair – because of its goal to transition from a Soviet Jewry movement whose slogan was “Let My People Go,” when Jews sought to leave the Soviet Union, to “Let My People Know,” providing Jewish education to a young generation coming from an assimilated background.
He said a trip to Russia that he made with his father in 1990, witnessing the bravery and commitment of Jews there, had a profound impression on him.
On reaching younger Jews, he said “it’s important to be flexible, to listen to them and engage them where they are” rather than impose one’s own views. “If your approach is top-down,” he said, “you lose.”
Blavatnik, who seemed reticent in public and often deferred to Bronfman’s responses, noted that the children of Russian immigrants in the U.S. are “more American than Russian” by now, and hopefully they still identify as Jews.
In discussing Israel, Bronfman said he is more involved in doing business in Israel than working with charities there. (He is a chief investor in IKEA in Israel and the Israel Discount Bank.) “My father used to say, ‘Don’t do business in Israel, give money there.’ But I guess we’ve changed that,” he said, adding that among the programs he supports in Israel are those for soldiers and their families, at-risk girls and other disadvantaged children.
Blavatnik is a major supporter of a range of social and educational programs in Israel — his foundation gave $20 million to Tel Aviv University recently — but he drew laughter when he said, “I also do business in Israel but sometimes it feels like philanthropy.”