When London’s Chabad of Belgravia decided to host an event with two of the biggest names in Jewish philanthropy, Mikhail Fridman and Matthew Bronfman, one might have guessed the focus would have been on the featured guests’ climb to the financial heights, with their Jewish identities as a secondary theme. Instead, the evening was of a decidedly spiritual nature, with the two famed financial magnates expounding on the importance of Torah for Jewish continuity.

In his opening remarks, Fridman, ranked by Forbes in 2017 as the seventh-richest Russian with a net worth of $14.5 billion, talked about how in growing up in the former Soviet Union, his Jewish identity was based on what he was not allowed to do as opposed to anything positive. Nonetheless, he said, it provided an identity.

“In times of discrimination, it was quite easy,” said Fridman, who struck a commanding yet amiable posture at the podium. “I was a Jew because I wasn’t allowed to enter certain universities or get certain jobs or travel abroad. My passport mentioned I was a Jew. Whether I liked it or not, I had to show my passport in each place so that everyone knew I was a Jew.”

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But when the Soviet Union collapsed and discrimination diminished, he and other Soviet Jews had to do some soul-searching and learning, he said, to determine what, if anything, would then distinguish them as Jews. The journey led him to the discovery of the distinctive positive principles at Judaism’s core.

He identified monotheism, the precedence of good over evil and the power to choose between them using free will as three key concepts that Judaism pioneered in the world, with Torah as their “backbone.” He went on to say the three tenets allowed Judaism to survive in hostile environments throughout history, and gave Judaism a chance to prevail against increasing assimilation among a rise in non-religious influences in the modern age.

As a prescription for the future, Fridman said: “We should always understand what the distinction is between our philosophical concepts and those of others ... and should care a lot about how to preserve our tradition and Jewish phenomena.”

Bronfman, in his remarks, also stressed the threat of assimilation and underlined the need for taking responsibility for embracing fellow Jews in our own families and society at large as an antidote.

“How can we expect the next generation to embrace the beauty and values of Judaism if he or she is not exposed to them?” he asked. “Ignorance and apathy can only lead to assimilation. It is upon our shoulders to share the beauty, the wisdom and the truth that is in our Torah—to share with our immediate families and klal Yisrael [the Jewish people]. We must do our best to engage unaffiliated Jews or we are, as Mikhail said, risking our future.”

The event, titled “Living Torah,” drew an audience of nearly 200 people. (Photo: Ramis Karamatov)
The event, titled “Living Torah,” drew an audience of nearly 200 people. (Photo: Ramis Karamatov)

Discovering the Relevance of Torah Later in Life

Fridman and Bronfman were the first in a series of global personalities asked this past spring by Rabbi Mendel Kalmenson, Chabad-Lubavitch emissary in the Belgravia section of London, to address the import on their lives of Torah and Jewish practice. The idea for the lecture series was Fridman’s, who suggested that influential people who discovered the relevance of Judaism later in life could have great impact on others. Fridman lives in London part-time, and Bronfman flew in from the United States at the rabbi’s invitation.

The event, titled “Living Torah,” drew an audience of nearly 200, many of whom were not observant Jews.

“I thought it was a fantastic idea and asked if he would be kind enough to give the inaugural talk,” recalls Kalmenson about Fridman, who built his fortune partly as co-founder of Alfa-Group, a multinational Russian conglomerate. “Then I reached out to Matthew Bronfman, and he agreed to join the panel as well. They come from very different worlds: one from Russia and one from America.”

Bronfman, himself a leading entrepreneur and philanthropist, is one of the largest American Jewish investors in the Israeli economy as a main shareholder in IKEA Israel, Israel Discount Bank and the Shufersal supermarket chain.

While Fridman grew up in a country where synagogue attendance was virtually unheard of and Jewish practice virtually eradicated, Bronfman, the son of well-known Jewish philanthropist, Edgar Bronfman, grew up in a Jewish household but was not exposed to much Jewish observance, a circumstance he said he regretted. The young Bronfman did not have a bar mitzvah, but would later witness his father at age 50 study Torah with a rabbi once a week—a practice that served to more firmly root his father’s philanthropic activities in Jewish traditions, he said, as he later learned from a prominent rabbi who was witness to his father’s learning.

Bronfman proudly announced that he was told by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, the noted Talmudic scholar, that Steinsaltz considered his father to be “a remarkable man.”

“I had heard that before a lot about my father but had not paid much attention,” Bronfman said. “Why do you, one of the most esteemed rabbis, the translator of the Talmud into many, many languages, why do you consider my father, a relatively secular Jew, to be a remarkable man?”

Bronfman said Steinsaltz answered: “Because at the age of 50, when most people, certainly of your father’s influence and wealth, basically drift into the sunset, he decided to learn Torah.”

Steinsaltz, said Bronfman, concluded: “Ultimately, that is what came to define him as a real Jewish leader.”

Kalmenson hoped that the nature of the event and its speakers would move participants to greater engagement in Jewish life.

“Both of the speakers are legends in their own areas of industry and philanthropy,” he said. “The fact that they care about Jewish topics and have devoted much of their lives to Jewish continuity should cause people to pay attention. I think it encourages people to look at how they can further their own involvement. If Torah study was important to Edgar Bronfman, then there’s obviously something there for me, too.”

Kalmenson also hoped the event would serve as a model for similar events in other cities, where distinguished speakers devoted to the continuity of the Jewish people and the perpetuity of Torah, share their insights and inspiration.

“When a rabbi gets up and gives a sermon, OK big deal,” Kalmenson said. “Torah is obviously of interest to him. But if a businessman who is internationally renowned from a secular background finds Torah relevant and important, then [people will say] I can also spend time on it. A large percentage of people who came to the event may see Torah as dated and irrelevant to their lives. The purpose was to change that.”