If you’d told a young Gennadiy Bogolyubov that a synagogue he conceived in the heart of London would be the obvious setting for an interview with the future oligarch he may have choked on his bacon sandwich.
But little of the 55-year-old’s life to date has been predictable. Having grown up in the Soviet Union, where “people who saw a rabbi walked across the road because Judaism had been suppressed for 70 years”, the businessman admits he didn’t even know his local shul was a couple of blocks from his home.
A quarter of a century later, Bogolyubov (his adopted name meaning God-loving) has long since ditched non-kosher food for shul kiddushes and he’s very much at home at Chabad of Belgravia, where he recounts a journey which began with a “miracle” meeting.
“I remember the day in 1995, when my business partner asked about going to the rabbi for Friday night dinner. I said no the first time,” the major Chabad donor told Jewish News during a rare interview. “When he asked a second time, I agreed but suggested we don’t bring our wives as I didn’t know what to expect.”
Bogolyubov recalls a shul building that wasn’t well kept “and I wasn’t impressed by the synagogue or the Torah – I was just not interested”. His interest was ignited, however, when he was told that the shul’s soup kitchen served anyone in need.
It was Bogolyubov’s very first encounter with what he describes as the “Chabad hug” and one that would transform his life. Today, he observes Shabbat and prays daily while maintaining a business empire spanning banking, construction and mining that has turned him into one of Ukraine’s richest men with an estimated worth in 2010 of $6billion. Quite a change for someone who, as a youngster, sometimes
“had to wait another day” for a proper meal.
He studiously shuns the limelight, but his passion is on full display when discussing the projects of the Bogolyubov Foundation.
Unquestionably the biggest initiative is the Menorah Centre, the world’s largest Jewish
hub, spread over 56,000 square metres in the Dnepropetrovsk in Ukraine. So named because of its seven towers, it features a school, hotel, communal offices, Holocaust museum and kosher restaurants.
“If you want to see a space shuttle, you go to Canaveral. If you want to see what human beings can build, you go to Dubai. If you want to see Jewish life, you have to go to Dnepropetrovsk,” says Bogolyubov. “Generations of Jewish people who otherwise would have been lost are now connected.”
While there was never such an issue with communal life in parts of London, he set his sights on augmenting the Jewish scene in the centre of the capital before moving here in 2009. The result is Chabad of Belgravia. “Before, if you wanted to separate yourself from Judaism, you could come and live in Belgravia,” he says. “Now it’s different.”
With the shul operating from his own home in the opening years, the community’s Rabbi Mendel Kalmenson says Bogolyubov could hardly have been further removed from the ‘you pray we’ll pay’ approach to philanthropy.
The early days of struggling to attract a minyan on Shabbat are a distant memory, and the community’s ‘hug’ for Jews of all levels of observance and none, attracted 500 people taking part in High Holy Day services.
Now in a larger base, the centre seeks to provide “many paths to connecting”, including socials for young professionals, teens’ sessions to nurture the next generation of leaders, and a dedicated programme for Russian and French speakers. Its Sunday school – which started with the philanthropist’s children – boasts 170 pupils.
Having now moved back to Ukraine, he feels this is the right moment to speak publicly for the first time about his “pride” in the centre.
“Without it, many of the children wouldn’t know much about the religion,” he said “People who live around here are generally not religious – that’s why I love to see someone come for Yom Kippur in his best crocodile shoes and with the newest iPhone, and in six months he’s shy about parking a car here. The transformation is so important.” Having only had his brit milah aged 44, he is in no doubt that becoming more observant must be organic.
It is believed the father-of-six has donated more than $80million to Chabad. He established a fund whereby every Chabad rabbi celebrating a family simcha was sent $5,000, amounting to tens of millions over the years. Another of his passions is supporting excavation and conservation projects at the Kotel.
So how different might things have been if he hadn’t accepted that invitation to see the rabbi 22 years ago? “If I had not gone to Friday night at that time, they would have found me anyway,” he says without hesitation. “Chabad s special.”
When a close friend recently suggested he was losing the best part of two days a week to Shabbat, Bogolyubov insisted he actually gains six days.
He explains: “My friends are spread across the world and most invitations I receive are for Friday or Saturday, so I have to reject most. If you ask me if my life has become more difficult, the answer is yes, but it’s also much better. Judaism has given me understanding that there is a life other than the physical.
“I was born in the Soviet Union and grew up in a very difficult time. I now have spirituality, which made me look at people differently and teach my children differently.”
He leaves the UK confident the future of Chabad of Belgravia is secure. “This is the right moment to say something about this beautiful project,” he says. “I believe it will be here forever because there are a lot of people who need it. I see how many people are ready to support and want to be part of the project. It isn’t dependent on one individual.
“Every time I come to London, I enjoy spending Shabbat here. I hope this article may encourage someone to come and bring the