BY GEORGE EDELSTEIN
NEW YORK, USA - For many, the name Lev Leviev is synonymous with the most beautiful and rare colored diamonds in the world. Lifestyles Magazine was granted an exlusive look recently at the man behind the image. What we saw was that Leviev, 51, is an active philanthropist, donating more than $50 million annually with a special and passionate commitment to Jewish causes and heritage, which has provided the spiritual compass in his life. "A lot of very rich men wait too long to give their money away," Leviev told The New York Times Magazine recently. "Bill Gates is a young man, and he's already giving to help the world, That's the right way to do it."
Leviev's philanthropy is an extension of who he is and what he can do, representing the art of the possible. Growing up as an impoverished immigrant in Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, Leviev attended a yeshiva but only stayed for a few months; he readily admits that it wasn't in his destiny to become a rabbi like his father. He wanted to start a business. Soon after leaving yeshiva, he traveled to the headquarters of the Lubavitcher Rebbe in Brooklyn, New York, for guidance on whether to leave home and set out toward his goal.
"I spoke to the rebbe in Hebrew. I asked him, 'Should I go or not?' recalled Leviev in the Times. "He answered me in a kind of antique Russian. He said: 'Go. Go to Russia and do business, but don't forget to help the Jews. Remember your family tradition.”
More than three decades later, Leviev - a member of the Lubavitch community-has followed that advice.
As the chairman of the Leviev Croup of Companies, he heads a fast-growing multibillion-dollar global group of companies that encompasses diamonds, real estate, construction and infrastructure, energy, industries, financial services, tourism and leisure, telecommunications, fashion, and high-tech. He is ranked among the wealthiest men in the world and he is admired as the leading Israeli entrepreneur. But Leviev is also making a name for himself for his generosity.
Like his business ventures, Leviev's philanthropy is global. He is the president of the FJC (the Federation of Jewish Communities of the CIS (Common-wealth of Independent States)), which supports Jewish communities in Russia and the CIS, Israel, Germany, and the United States, funding Jewish schools, synagogues, orphanages, as well as an international group of 10,000 employees and collaborators around the world. Leviev's philanthropic activities have also touched U.S. cultural institutions, such as the Musei of the City of New York, and U.S. char ties, such as the annual Angel Ball (which raises money for cancer research;, the Carousel of Hop Ball (one of the most prominent and influential charitable even of its kind), and Oxfam America.
Guiding Leviev's charity is a belief that philanthropy should build communities. In Queens New York, which is home to thousands of immigrants, Leviev has brought this community closer by founding educations ventures, inter alia, a school for 1,000 students. "All I want is for people in these places to know they are Jewish and to learn about their history," Leviev said in 2003. In the Ukrainian village of Zhitomir, Leviev rebuilt the area's only synagogue, restoring pride for the residents. And in Dresden, he established a school to educate nonreligious Jewish emigres about Judaism.
As one of his earlier philanthropic missions, Leviev established the Ohr Avner Foundation in 1992 in memory of his father Rabbi Avner Leviev, a leader ir the Bukharan Jewish community in Uzbekistan and Israel. The foundation, which has started over 100 schools, universities, kindergartens, and camps in former Soviet states and Easts European countries, is the largest supporter of the Jewish communities in the region.
Supporting the cultivation of Jewish culture has also been the aim of his work as president of the FJC. The group formed after the breakup of the Soviet Union to restore Jewish life and culture to Eastern Europe and represents 500 Jewish communities in the former Soviet republics and Eastern European countries. Like Ohr Avner, FJC funds schools, public kitchens, and orphanages in these communities. The schools, in particular, have helped to revive the Jewish community in an area where anti-jewish restrictions were prevalent prior to the fall of communism.
Leviev is also a generous giver to the Chabad-Lubavitch community, supporting the work of their shluchim (missionaries) who are sometimes sent to the farthest corners of the globe to establish communities where there is little or no Jewish life.
Lev Leviev’s career as a leader in the diamond industry started when his family escaped the yoke of Communism in Uzbekistan and moved to Israel in 1971. Leviev, then 15, took a job as an apprentice diamond cutter through a family friend. Although it was an industry tradition never to teach anyone all 11 steps of the diamond-cutting trade, Leviev was driven to learn and persuaded colleagues to teach him each step. Within six years of starting as a diamond cutter, he achieved his goal of working for himself. He set up his own diamond-cutting business and grew it to a dozen small factories. His success over the next decade caught the attention of De Beers, which invited Leviev to be among its 150 sight-holders—an elite group of individuals who have access to De Beers's diamond supply. Though considered a privilege to join the group, Leviev had bigger ambitions. In 1989, he seized an opportunity to purchase state-owned mines in Russia, It was the first of many mines he has purchased over his career.
With his own stones from his mines, he was no longer dependent on De Beers. Leviev streamlined the diamond process under his company— from "mines to misses" as he has been known to say. In 1995, he broke off from the De Beers Group and has since expanded his holdings in the industry. Leviev owns mines in Russia, Angola, Namibia, and other countries, and has the distinction of being the largest diamond cutter and polisher in the world, supplying several of the world's luxury jewelry brands with thousands of diamonds. In his own words, Leviev has said that "nothing is stable unless you own your own mines." When he spoke to Women's Wear Daily recently in a feature story announcing the new Leviev diamond boutique on Madison Avenue, he noted the importance of the diamond structure he has created; "We feel that our complete control from production to retail, entailing an unsurpassed inventory, coupled with extremely high levels of design, workmanship, and service, will place us in a unique position to market directly to serious diamond buyers."
The "crown jewel" of Leviev's work in the diamond industry has been Leviev diamonds. The brand has been chosen by celebrities like Drew Barrymore, Salma Hayek, as well as by cognoscenti. As a rigorous supporter of the U.N.-mandated Kimberly Process, which ensures that rough diamonds are not obtained from war-torn regions, Leviev has also upheld the industry's top standards. When the first Leviev store opened on Old Bond Street in London last spring, it caused a sensation. Newspapers called the store a blazing "fireworks display of colored diamonds." This fall it opened its 6,200-square-foot New York store with more than 4,000 carats of diamonds ranging from the purest whites to the deepest blues, and the most precious of all colored diamonds, green and red. According to Thierry Chaunu, the president and chief operating officer of Leviev, as in London, it contains more carats than all the other jewelers on Madison combined. "It's like building an extraordinary art collection," says Chaunu. "Just as you can't have just one beautiful painting, you can't have just one beautiful diamond, especially when it comes to colored diamonds."
The stores have been designed to have the feeling of a private salon, with a soft pink, cream, and platinum decor accented by crystal chandeliers. Other Leviev store openings in cities such as Dubai, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Paris, and Beverly Hills will follow, but at a pace consistent with the brand's hyper-exclusivity.
All of this has made the public focus on Leviev and his diamonds. But Leviev continues to focus on the work his groups have done to improve communities and help them realize their Jewish heritage and faith "I am a believer; I believe in G-d. I believe that we, as people, have to do good acts." Indeed, in the Jewish community, there is a tradition that whatever charily one gives will be rewarded in multiples.
Leviev prefers to keep a low profile even as he is so active, attending global roundtables, like the World Economic Forum last year in Davos. He grants few interviews and though he circulates among world leaders like Russian president Vladimir Putin - whom he calls a "true friend"- he stays close to his home in Israel, where he lives in a modest house with his wife, Olga, and nearby their nine children and several grandchildren. Leviev likes to be the force behind change rather than the face of it. But there are times when Leviev can't escape the appreciation. He has been described as being in "a class by himself" when it comes to supporting the Jewish community. In 2004, when the government in Baku, Azerbaijan, threatened to close down all private schools – including a local Jewish school - because a growing number of madrassas were becoming influential in the area, Leviev flew to the city to speak with the Azerbaijani president and convinced him to keep the school open. It's actions such as this that have made Leviev a hero in many communities. When he returns to communities in the Ukraine, Kazakhstan, or anywhere else to visit philanthropical projects he funds, he receives a warm welcome. Last month, Leviev traveled to New York City to receive the Partners for Democracy
Award from the America-Israel Friendship League. The award recognizes individuals who have worked to develop the U.S.Israeli relationship.
Leviev works to transform the communities he reaches out to like the many stones he has transformed into jewels. He has stayed true to his faith and to the advice given him by the Luabavitcher Rebbe as he develops his businesses and expands his philanthropy. "In the Holy Book, King Solomon said a man is born to work hard, to maximize himself, and to achieve something," Leviev told the London Times last year. "I believe that if I can work hard, as the Holy Book says, and do good things for others with my money, that's my mission in life."