“Planning is good, but nothing I did was planned,” said Aaron G. Frenkel, entrepreneur, philanthropist and community leader, in the first of a series of coffee chats organized earlier this week by Limmud FSU Canada.
TORONTO, ON, July 29, 2020 /24-7PressRelease/ — The online conversation was held with the aim of bringing a small taste of Limmud FSU programming, even during the lockdown, to Russian-speaking Jews around the world. Frenkel is the president of Limmud FSU.
The organization, founded in 2005 by Chaim Chesler and Sandy Cahn, generally mounts volunteer-based gatherings of Jewish learning that reach out to Russian-speaking Jews around the world, from Europe to Israel and Australia. Since the lockdown made physical conferences impossible, Limmud FSU International and the volunteer organizing committees worldwide have been providing digital e-learning opportunities on Jewish, coronavirus and general topics. These online gatherings are an opportunity for Russian-speaking Jews to learn – and be – together, virtually.
Interviewed by Limmud FSU Canada country director, Mila Voihanski, and one of the prominent festival’s activists, Dan Petrenko, Frenkel recalled his childhood, and discussed his business activities, his commitment to Jewish philanthropy, and his attitude to addressing antisemitism.
Born to Holocaust survivors who met on the way to pre-state Israel, and brought up in the Israeli town of Bnei Brak, Frenkel recalled a childhood studying in religious schools and religious seminaries, an early sense of volunteerism that led him to be active helping youth from difficult families, a curiosity to examine things beyond the boundaries of the world he knew, and a family with limited means. “My father was a civil engineer who worked for the army. He would come home at 5.00 pm and then start a second shift of work, carrying 50 kg bags of building material to building sites. As a child I did not have all I wanted or dreamed of, and this made me ambitious to achieve. So I left the path my parents wanted for me and chose an independent one. I wanted to be myself and realize my own dream.”
That path led him to a variety of business ventures behind the Iron Curtain in the 1980s, first in Poland, and later in the Soviet Union. Yet, Frenkel stressed, there was nothing planned; “If I had a plan, it was entirely different from what happened. I never dreamed I would visit the USSR, but nevertheless I have been doing business there for over 30 years successfully. When I first got there, despite such huge cultural differences, I knew and felt a connection to the Russian soul. I felt for the people and sensed that I understood their situation, dreams and aspirations.”
Early business ventures in producing and distributing of consumer goods in the Eastern Block led Frenkel to play a critical role in negotiating with the Polish airline LOT to fly Jews out of the detorriating USSR via Poland and from other 17 destinations to Israel. This in turn enabled him, afterwards in the post-Soviet era, to promote and negotiate the purchase of western airplanes by the airline companies that emerged together with the countries born out of the Soviet Union. “Today, my name is known throughout the aviation industry. Maybe someone had a plan back then, but I did not know about it.”
“I do not define myself as a businessman,” said Frenkel. “I introduce myself as a creator, entrepreneur. When an idea that starts in your mind from nothing is realized, it provides you great satisfaction. If it also brings money, that is very good, but it does not always have to.”
On the question of philanthropy, Frenkel admitted that in his first years in business there was what he regards as a natural instinct to care for yourself first. “But I came to understand that by sharing, you create opportunities for others, and I learned to give.” It is an approach he lauded in some of the leading philanthropists in the world, those who “give their wealth back to society. They are lucky to make money, but they also want to do good with it. The way people behave with their money shows who they really are.”
Frenkel, who today lives in Monaco with his wife and five children, stressed that this philosophy is one he has inculcated in his children. “They see my involvement in various philanthropic projects and actions, and they generously donate the money they are given as Bar Mitzva presents to causes that are important to them.”
When asked how to address the growth in antisemitism across the world, Frenkel argued that “we cannot eradicate it. We need to be good people as individuals and show that to everyone around us, day after day. This will bring us friends.” To make his point he recounted a meeting he and other Jewish leaders held last year with Russian president, Vladimir Putin. “Russia is perhaps the country with the lowest level of antisemitism, and when we have asked Putin about his good connection to the Jewish people, he recalled how, as a child growing up in very straitened circumstances in St. Petersburg, there was a Jewish family living two floors below his. Whenever I was hungry, I would come to them, and they would treat me as a son, with food wholeheartedly.”
Looking at the current crisis in the world, he stressed the good side of the impact of the coronavirus on life. “We have more time together as a family; I used to fly abroad two-three times a week, but since early March I have not been flying. The air is cleaner, you can see dolphins in the sea around, and you learn that you do not need to be everywhere physically to manage everything by yourself. You can do much by the updated technology and connectivity.”
Turning to the future, Frenkel wished for Limmud FSU – “an organization that I will continue to support” – that it will grow in numbers, in locations, and in scope of programming to include more year-round opportunities for Jewish learning. The formula of volunteerism, pluralism, democracy, and the chance for Russian-speaking Jews to come together and become aware of the richness of Jewish culture, history, heritage, and its noble people. “At a conference I attended last year a participant said to me, ‘I am a Jew of Limmud.’ Some of these Jews do not go to synagogue, do not attend other community events, but without Limmud FSU they would be lost souls.”
And what of the future of Israel? When asked by Limmud FSU board member, Michal Grayevsky, Frenkel said that, “More than ever, there are leaders in the Arab world who have told me personally that they are open to having, more than ever, relations with Israel, and willing to take actions which we could never have dreamed of, but the leadership must be able to show their people some good will steps.”
And does his personal future include an autobiography? and if so, what would be the title? Frenkel noted that he has already started writing, “but it may be only for my children. If I give it a title? it might be ‘To Excel,’ or ‘Rise and Excel.’ That has been my motive my entire life. I think my mother wanted me to be a religious leader and a good man. I hope I have fulfilled at least one of these.”
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