Via Financial Times

The rabbi gazes out of the window at a half-finished worksite, drums his fingers against his desk, and then bursts into song. “If I were a rich man!” he sings in a deep baritone fit for a grand synagogue — or the Broadway stage. “Ya-da Dee-dee Ya-da Dee-dee Da-da-dumb! I’d build a big tall house . . . Right in the middle of a . . . field!”

The site, in a 15-acre pasture about an hour’s drive from Kyiv, is where Moshe Reuven Azman, one of Ukraine’s most prominent rabbis, has been building his dream: Anatevka, a modern village built to house Jewish refugees displaced by fighting in the eastern part of the country between government forces and Russia-backed separatists.

Anatevka has come a long way in five years. It features a school, a dormitory, apartments for about 150 residents, a rustic synagogue built from pine logs, a woodworking shop, a football pitch and a nearly-completed rehabilitation centre for the infirm. Yellow American school buses, donated from Brooklyn, are parked on the grounds. 

Mr Azman, the chief rabbi for Kyiv — and possibly Ukraine, depending on who you ask — borrowed Anatevka’s name from the nearby shtetl, or village, depicted a century ago by Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem in his stories about the trials of Tevye, a Jewish dairyman in the Pale of Settlement in imperial Russia. These were the basis for the musical Fiddler on the Roof. The Ukrainian village, Hnativka, is just across the road.

“It’s my dream! We are in a dream!” Rabbi Azman says, showing off the half-finished Anatevka, which features a logo borrowed from Fiddler on the Roof.

Giuliani azman key from facebook
Rudy Giuliani with Moshe Reuven Azman, one of Ukraine’s most prominent rabbis

But the dream of Anatevka has lately turned into a nightmare, thanks to Rabbi Azman’s close ties to Rudy Giuliani and what he calls “the American scandal”. That is, the recent US presidential impeachment proceedings in which Mr Giuliani — in his capacity as President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer — was shown to be criss-crossing Ukraine in search of possible evidence of corruption involving his boss’s political rival, former US vice-president Joe Biden.

Mr Giuliani has not faced any charges but has drawn intense scrutiny for conduct that Democratic lawmakers argue was part of a plan to improperly leverage US foreign policy to benefit the president’s political fortunes.

The 53-year-old rabbi met Mr Giuliani years earlier, on his first visit to Ukraine. He later made him Anatevka’s honorary mayor, even presenting him with a symbolic key the size of a tennis racket. The two Soviet émigrés, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, who served as Mr Giuliani’s fixers in Ukraine — and have since been indicted on US campaign finance violations — are listed as board members for the American Friends of Anatevka charity. Its registered address is an accountant’s storefront in Brooklyn.

School in Anatevka, Ukraine
A school in Anatevka, Ukraine. The village has come a long way in five years © Sergey Korovayny/FT

Their familiarity with the rabbi was captured in a video that emerged at the height of the impeachment saga and has since gone viral. It shows Mr Giuliani and his friends in the lobby of the Trump International Hotel in Washington, DC, in 2018. Mr Fruman, holding out a phone, urges Mr Giuliani, to wish his friend “Moshe” a happy birthday. “Moshe, how are ya, baby?” Mr Giuliani asks in his Brooklyn twang.

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Then, last May, when Mr Giuliani was pushing — unsuccessfully — for a meeting with Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s newly elected president, he met Rabbi Azman for two hours in Paris. 

Mr Azman insists the men enjoy a genuine friendship, and suggests that he courted Mr Giuliani because he thought it would boost fundraising. But, even with fresh donations of $1.5m — that the rabbi touted on Facebook — the flow of cash he has relied on to build Anatevka has been constrained as wealthy philanthropists, particularly in the US, have become more fearful of being drawn into the controversy.

Ukraine map

“They’re afraid,” Rabbi Azman complains. “If you have a big company — it doesn’t matter if you’re a Democrat or a Republican — you don’t want to be involved in scandal.”

To some degree, the rabbi believes he is also being punished for his unabashed support for Mr Trump. “There were no presidents who helped and loved Israel as Donald Trump does,” he told an Israeli publication in August. “I pray for him every Saturday.” 

The Anatevka saga is a reminder of the powerful but fraught role that a handful of rabbis have come to play in Ukraine, a place that was one of the bloodiest killing fields of the Holocaust but is now undergoing a Jewish revival. 

Its territory boasts some 5,000 mass graves from the second world war. One is Babyn Yar, a ravine in Kyiv where some 34,000 Jews were massacred by the Nazis and their local helpers in just two days in September 1941 in one of the most horrific events of the so-called “Holocaust of bullets”. Later, the Nazis would switch to the gas chamber, a more industrial method of murder. 

Improbably, Jewish life has returned to Ukraine, with thriving communities boasting tens of thousands of members in cities such as Kyiv, the capital, and the central city of Dnipro. The country is also the only one outside Israel that has briefly boasted two Jewish heads of state after Mr Zelensky, a comic and actor, was last year elected president with 73 per cent support while Volodymr Groysman was prime minister. “I think God wanted a laugh!” Rabbi Azman quips.

The community has been rebuilt, in part, with the largesse of a select group of Jewish businessmen, or oligarchs, who took control of Ukraine’s industry after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Their patronage and political connections have aided the work of rabbis such as Mr Azman but also present risks in a country caught up in a swirl of political intrigue with a reputation for corruption and money laundering.

A chief donor to Menorah, a stunning Jewish cultural and community centre in Dnipro that is one of the world’s largest, is Igor Kolomoisky, an oligarch whose PrivatBank was taken over by the state in 2016 after regulators found a $5.5bn hole in its balance sheet. Mr Kolomoisky and his aides have denied wrongdoing. Nonetheless, this complicates life for a rabbi in search of funding.

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“A rabbi who needs to fundraise is a little bit [of a] zombie,” says one Jewish official in Ukraine who, like others, describes Rabbi Azman as big-hearted and charismatic but also a bit naive.

Further confusing matters, the community itself is riven with factions and rivalries and sometimes competing interests, according to a longtime observer of Ukrainian politics. 

“What you have to understand about the Ukrainian Jewish community is [that the power struggles within it] are vicious,” this person says. “You have five different people at any time claiming to speak for the community.”

Rabbi Moshe Azman in the tzaddik Mordekhai Chornobyl's grave. Antaevka, Ukraine.
Rabbi Moshe Azman in the tzaddik Mordekhai Chornobyl’s grave, Antaevka, Ukraine © Sergey Korovayny/FT

Rabbi Azman has a playful manner that belies the hardship of his youth. He grew up in the Soviet Union and studied Torah at an underground religious school whose older members at first suspected he might be a KGB informant. That experience makes him scoff at speculation that he might somehow harbour sympathy for Russia’s authoritarian government or be serving as a go-between for the Trump administration.

He left Leningrad for Israel in 1987 and then spent time in Toronto before moving to Kyiv in 1995. One of his greatest achievements was the reconstruction of the historic Brodsky Synagogue in the city centre. It was shut down by the Soviets in 1926, ransacked by the Nazis and then turned into a puppet theatre until it was reborn as a synagogue in 2000. Much of the funding came from Vadim Rabinovich, an oligarch with political ambitions who hosted Mr Giuliani’s first trip to Ukraine in 2003.

During that visit, Mr Giuliani commemorated a Kyiv memorial to terrorism victims, sponsored by Mr Rabinovich, who had built strong links to New York’s Orthodox Jewish community during his two terms as mayor of the city visited the synagogue. 

“He was young and I was young,” Rabbi Azman says, “I blessed him.”

He declined to say much more about the relationship, but adds that visitors across the political spectrum have paid their respects at Brodsky, including Chelsea Clinton, the daughter of the former US president. A thank-you note she penned to Rabbi Azman is one of several framed on his wall. 

The Anatevka project began in 2014 as the fighting tore through eastern Ukraine, a region with about 20,000 Jews. Many fled the violence. “One day the rabbi in [the city of] Lugansk called me and said: a few buses are coming to you’,” Rabbi Azman recalls.

He managed to resettle some in Israel and others in Kyiv. A further 300, were housed at a Jewish summer camp in the town of Shpola. “I didn’t know what to do with them — it was the middle of the forest,” Rabbi Azman says. 

He wanted something more permanent. Searching on the internet, he found an empty parcel of land that happened to be near the actual shtetl that inspired Sholem Aleichem. It also featured a destroyed Jewish cemetery, whose gravestones had been used as building materials in a nearby town, and a tomb to a renowned Hasidic rabbi, the Chornobyl tzadik.

“I’d renovated the [Brodsky] temple but I’d never built from scratch before,” Rabbi Azman says. “I gave the downpayment to the contractor and I said: ‘Build!’ And I prayed.”

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First came a dormitory, and then a school and eventually a synagogue, whose Torah crowns — a decorative piece that adorns the scroll — were provided by Marcy Kaptur, an Ohio Congresswoman. “She’s a Democrat!” the rabbi jokes. “I checked!” 

He declined to discuss Anatevka’s financials or disclose its donors — except to say it had been easy before the scandal to find people to support the cause of Ukrainian refugees.

One benefactor was Mr Fruman, whose name graces a plaque outside one of Anatevka’s buildings. Before becoming caught up in the impeachment scandal, he was regarded in Ukraine as a businessman of moderate prominence — the owner of a car dealership and the Buddha Bar, a Kyiv club. 

Joiner's workshop. Journalists talked to him, so it might be useful to have his portrait. Antaevka, Ukraine
The plan is for Anatevka to one day become self-sufficient as a tourism destination and producer of artisanal crafts © Sergey Korovayny/FT

Some suggest that Rabbi Azman may have viewed Mr Fruman, who also lived in Florida, as a way to raise money in America — while for Mr Fruman, his association with the rabbi was another means to try to enhance his business and political connections.

Whatever the source of Anatevka’s funding, it appears to have been put to good use. On a recent afternoon, dozens of students filed in and out of bright and well-equipped classrooms, each decorated in a different theme — nature, Great Britain and so forth. 

“I found it on Ukrainian Monster.com,” says Noah Lloyd, a former Peace Corps member from Los Angeles, who took a job at Anatevka in September teaching English. Far from shunning Anatevka, some non-Jews in the surrounding area have sent their children to its school, according to the rabbi.

Stepping outside, the rabbi points out a half-built music school and the foundations that have been poured for three additional apartment buildings. “This will be an orphanage,” he declares, amid a whirring of buzz-saws, adding: “I’d like to buy all the land around here . . . If I were a rich man!”

The plan is for Anatevka to one day become self-sufficient as a tourism destination and producer of artisanal crafts. Its wood shop is manned by two craftsmen who in 2014 fled the shelling in eastern Ukraine. “It’s hard to understand how frightening it is,” Sergey Yarelchenko, 56, recalls, explaining how his religious faith has been rekindled since he arrived in Anatevka — and how he had no intention of going back.

In addition to working on Anatevka’s synagogue, Mr Yarelchenko also helped turn out the oversized “key to the city” that Rabbi Azman presented to Mr Giuliani. “We didn’t know that we’d be making the key that led to an international scandal,” his colleague, Slava, 52, adds with a smile.

Rabbi Azman says the recent fundraising will only help to cover school costs for the next year. Then he declares: “We need to finish Anatevka . . . We need millions of dollars. We have to build!” For now Anatevkans will have to do so with their rabbi — but no mayor.