A friend directed me to a fascinating portrait of the Israeli billionaire, Lev Leviev.
From The Missionary Mogul by Zev Chafets (New York Times Magazine, September 16, 2007):
Three years ago the [Azerbaijan] government, concerned about the influence of neighboring Iran and the spread of local madrassas, decided to close all the private schools in the country. This, of course, included the Jewish school in Baku, Azerbaijan’s capital. The community elders petitioned the government, but to no avail.
“They even tried to get American Jewish organizations to intervene,” Leviev recalled. “But the Jewish organizations couldn’t do a thing.” He smiled thinly. He has a generally low opinion of American Jewish activists, especially his fellow billionaires.
And so Leviev decided to ride to the rescue. He flew to Baku on his private plane, parked at the airport and went straight to the synagogue.
“The Jews were all gathered there,” he recounted in what is obviously a favorite story. “I told them to wait while I talked to the president.” At the time, that was Heydar Aliyev. “There were journalists in his outer office. Everyone was excited to see me there, because they thought I had come to invest money in the country. Heydar thought so, too. He said: ‘Just tell me what you’re interested in — oil? Gas? Tourism? What can I do for you?’
“I asked him, ‘How can I invest in a country that doesn’t like Jews?’ Heydar got very upset when I said that. He began telling me how many Jewish friends he had and how much the Jews had contributed to his culture and the country and so on.
“ ‘But you’re closing down the Jewish school,’ I told him. ‘I’ve come to ask you to allow it to remain open. Right now the Jews of Baku are gathered in the synagogue, awaiting your answer.’ ”
Leviev paused at this point in the story. Dramatic tales of peril and salvation are part of the Chabad oral tradition.
“Heydar consulted his advisers,” Leviev said. “Then he returned to me and said: ‘The school can remain open. All right?’
“I told him: ‘Well, there’s another problem. The Jewish institutions here are in bad shape. Can you arrange for me to acquire a plot of land to rebuild?’
“ ‘Yes,’ said Heydar. ‘Is that all?’
“ ‘Not quite. I’d appreciate it if you would personally open the school next year. That way there will be no misunderstandings about what the government’s position is.’
“Heydar said: ‘I’ll do that. Are you satisfied now?’
“I told him: ‘Just one last thing, sir. Those journalists in your outer office? Would you mind announcing our agreement to them?’ ”
After Aliyev’s press conference, Leviev remembers returning triumphantly to the synagogue to deliver the good news. Shortly thereafter, Aliyev died and was succeeded by his son, with whom Leviev is on friendly terms.
“And did you invest after that?” I asked.
Leviev smiled. “No,” he said. “Azerbaijan has so many natural resources they don’t need my investment. But I told them that they would get a blessing from God.”