The Happy-Go-Lucky Jewish Group That Connects Trump and Putin
Chabad of Port Washington, a Jewish community center on Long Island’s Manhasset Bay, sits in a squat brick edifice across from a Shell gas station and a strip mall. The center is an unexceptional building on an unexceptional street, save for one thing: Some of the shortest routes between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin run straight through it.
Two decades ago, as the Russian president set about consolidating power on one side of the world, he embarked on a project to supplant his country’s existing Jewish civil society and replace it with a parallel structure loyal to him. On the other side of the world, the brash Manhattan developer was working to get a piece of the massive flows of capital that were fleeing the former Soviet Union in search of stable assets in the West, especially real estate, and seeking partners in New York with ties to the region.
Their respective ambitions led the two men—along with Trump’s future son-in-law, Jared Kushner—to build a set of close, overlapping relationships in a small world that intersects on Chabad, an international Hasidic movement most people have never heard of.
Starting in 1999, Putin enlisted two of his closest confidants, the oligarchs Lev Leviev and Roman Abramovich, who would go on to become Chabad’s biggest patrons worldwide, to create the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia under the leadership of Chabad rabbi Berel Lazar, who would come to be known as “Putin’s rabbi.”
A few years later, Trump would seek out Russian projects and capital by joining forces with a partnership called Bayrock-Sapir, led by Soviet emigres Tevfik Arif, Felix Sater and Tamir Sapir—who maintain close ties to Chabad. The company’s ventures would lead to multiple lawsuits alleging fraud and a criminal investigation of a condo project in Manhattan.
Meanwhile, the links between Trump and Chabad kept piling up. In 2007, Trump hosted the wedding of Sapir’s daughter and Leviev’s right-hand man at Mar-a-Lago, his Palm Beach resort. A few months after the ceremony, Leviev met Trump to discuss potential deals in Moscow and then hosted a bris for the new couple’s first son at the holiest site in Chabad Judaism. Trump attended the bris along with Kushner, who would go on to buy a $300 million building from Leviev and marry Ivanka Trump, who would form a close relationship with Abramovich’s wife, Dasha Zhukova. Zhukova would host the power couple in Russia in 2014 and reportedly attend Trump’s inauguration as their guest.
With the help of this trans-Atlantic diaspora and some globetrotting real estate moguls, Trump Tower and Moscow’s Red Square can feel at times like part of the same tight-knit neighborhood. Now, with Trump in the Oval Office having proclaimed his desire to reorient the global order around improved U.S. relations with Putin’s government—and as the FBI probes the possibility of improper coordination between Trump associates and the Kremlin—that small world has suddenly taken on outsize importance.
Trump’s kind of Jews
Founded in Lithuania in 1775, the Chabad-Lubavitch movement today has adherents numbering in the five, or perhaps six, figures. What the movement lacks in numbers it makes up for in enthusiasm, as it is known for practicing a particularly joyous form of Judaism.
Mort Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, recalled having this trait impressed upon him during one family wedding at which the two tables occupied by his first cousins, Chabad rabbis, put the rest of the celebrants to shame. “They were dancing up a storm, these guys. I thought they were black. Instead they’re just black-hat,” Klein said, referring to their traditional Hasidic garb.
Despite its small size, Chabad has grown to become the most sprawling Jewish institution in the world, with a presence in over 1,000 far-flung cities, including locales like Kathmandu and Hanoi with few full-time Jewish residents. The movement is known for these outposts, called Chabad houses, which function as community centers and are open to all Jews. “Take any forsaken city in the world, you have a McDonald’s and a Chabad house,” explained Ronn Torossian, a Jewish public relations executive in New York.
Chabad adherents differ from other Hasidic Jews on numerous small points of custom, including the tendency of Chabad men to wear fedoras instead of fur hats. Many adherents believe that the movement’s last living leader, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who died in 1994, is the messiah, and some believe he is still alive. Chabad followers are also, according to Klein, “remarkable” fundraisers.
As the closest thing the Jewish world has to evangelism—much of its work is dedicated to making Jews around the world more involved in Judaism—Chabad serves many more Jews who are not full-on adherents.
According to Schmuley Boteach, a prominent rabbi in New Jersey and a longtime friend of Democratic Sen. Cory Booker, Chabad offers Jews a third way of relating to their religious identity. “You have three choices as a Jew,” he explained. “You can assimilate and not be very affiliated. You can be religious and Orthodox, or there’s sort of a third possibility that Chabad offers for people who don’t want to go the full Orthodox route but do want to stay on the traditional spectrum.”
This third way may explain the affinity Trump has found with a number of Chabad enthusiasts—Jews who shun liberal reform Judaism in favor of traditionalism but are not strictly devout.
“It’s not a surprise that Trump-minded people are involved with Chabad,” said Torossian. “Chabad is a place that tough, strong Jews feel comfortable. Chabad is a nonjudgmental place where people that are not traditional and not by-the-book feel comfortable.”
He summarized the Chabad attitude, which is less strict than the Orthodox one, as, “If you can’t keep all of the commandments, keep as many as you can.”
Torossian, who coincidentally said he is Sater’s friend and PR rep, also explained that this balance is particularly appealing to Jews from the former Soviet Union, who appreciate its combination of traditional trappings with a lenient attitude toward observance. “All Russian Jews go to Chabad,” he said. “Russian Jews are not comfortable in a reform synagogue.”
Putin’s kind of Jews
The Russian state’s embrace of Chabad happened, like many things in Putin’s Russia, as the result of a factional power struggle.
In 1999, soon after he became prime minister, Putin enlisted Abramovich and Leviev to create the Federation of Russian Jewish Communities. Its purpose was to undermine the existing umbrella for Russia’s Jewish civil society, the Russian Jewish Congress, led by oligarch Vladimir Gusinsky, a potential threat to Putin and President Boris Yeltsin. A year later, Gusinsky was arrested by Putin’s government and forced into exile.
At the time, Russia already had a chief rabbi as recognized by the Russian Jewish Congress, Adolf Shayevich. But Abramovich and Leviev installed Chabad rabbi Lazar at the head of their rival organization. The Kremlin removed Shayevich from its religious affairs council, and ever since it has instead recognized Lazar as Russia’s chief rabbi, leaving the country with two rival claimants to the title.
The Putin-Chabad alliance has reaped benefits for both sides. Under Putin, anti-Semitism has been officially discouraged, a break from centuries of discrimination and pogroms, and the government has come to embrace a state-sanctioned version of Jewish identity as a welcome part of the nation.
As Putin has consolidated his control of Russia, Lazar has come to be known derisively as “Putin’s rabbi.” He has escorted the Russian leader to Jerusalem’s Western Wall and attended the opening ceremony of the Sochi Olympics, Putin’s pet project, on the Jewish Sabbath. Putin returned that favor by arranging for Lazar to enter the stadium without submitting to security checks that would have broken the rules for observing Shabbat.
In 2013, a $50 million Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center opened in Moscow under the auspices of Chabad and with funding from Abramovich. Putin donated a month of his salary to the project, while the Federal Security Service, the successor to the KGB, pitched in by offering relevant documents from its archives.
In 2014, Lazar was the only Jewish leader present at Putin’s triumphal announcement of the annexation of Crimea.
But the rabbi has paid a price for his loyalty to Putin. Since the annexation, his continued support for the Russian autocrat has caused a rift with Chabad leaders in Ukraine. And for years, the Russian government has defied an American court order to turn over a trove of Chabad texts called the “Schneerson Library” to the Chabad Lubavitch headquarters in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Shortly after the opening of the tolerance museum, Putin ordered the collection transferred there instead. The move made Lazar the custodian of a prized collection that his Brooklyn comrades believe is rightfully theirs.
If Lazar has any qualms about his role in all the intra-Chabad drama, he hasn’t let on publicly. “Challenging the government is not the Jewish way,” the rabbi said in 2015.
Trump, Bayrock, Sapir
Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, as Trump looked for business and investors in the former Soviet Union during the first years of this century, he struck up an enduring relationship with a firm called Bayrock-Sapir.
Bayrock was co-led by Felix Sater, a convicted mob associate.
Sater and another Bayrock employee, Daniel Ridloff, who like Sater later went on to work directly for the Trump Organization, belong to the Port Washington Chabad house. Sater told POLITICO Magazine that in addition to serving on the board of the Port Washington Chabad house, he sits on the boards of numerous Chabad entities in the U.S. and abroad, though none in Russia.
The extent of Sater’s ties to Trump is a matter of some dispute. Working out of Trump Tower, Sater partnered with the celebrity developer on numerous Trump-branded developments and scouted deals for him in the former Soviet Union. In 2006, Sater escorted Trump’s children Ivanka and Don Jr. around Moscow to scour the city for potential projects, and he worked especially closely with Ivanka on the development of Trump SoHo, a hotel and condominium building in Manhattan whose construction was announced on “The Apprentice” in 2006.
In 2007, Sater’s stock fraud conviction became public. The revelation did not deter Trump, who brought him on as “a senior advisor to the Trump Organization” in 2010. In 2011, a number of purchasers of Trump SoHo units sued Trump and his partners for fraud and the New York attorney general’s office opened a criminal inquiry into the building’s marketing. But the purchasers settled and agreed not to cooperate with the criminal investigation, which was subsequently scuttled, according to the New York Times. Two former executives are suing Bayrock alleging tax evasion, money laundering, racketeering, bribery, extortion and fraud.
Under oath, Sater has described a close relationship with the Trumps, while Trump has testified under oath that he barely knew Sater and would not be able to pick his face out in a crowd. Several people who worked closely with Sater during this period and who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity, citing fear of retaliation from both men, scoffed at Trump’s testimony, describing frequent meetings and near-constant phone calls between the two. One person recalled numerous occasions on which Trump and Sater dined together, including at the now-defunct Kiss & Fly in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District.
“Trump called Felix like every other day to his office. So the fact that he’s saying he doesn’t know him, that’s a lot of crap,” said a former Sater colleague. “They were definitely in contact always. They spoke on the phone all the time.”
In 2014, the Port Washington Chabad house named Sater its “man of the year.” At the ceremony honoring Sater, the chabad’s founder, Shalom Paltiel, recounted how Sater would spill his guts to him about his adventures working as a government cooperator on sensitive matters of national security.
“I only recently told Felix I really didn’t believe most of it. I thought perhaps he watched too many James Bond movies, read one too many Tom Clancy novels,” said Paltiel at the ceremony. “Anyone who knows Felix knows he can tell a good story. I simply did not put too much credence to them.”
But Paltiel went on to recount receiving special clearance years later to accompany Sater to a ceremony at the federal building in Manhattan. There, said Paltiel, officials from every American intelligence agency applauded Sater’s secret work and divulged “stuff that was more fantastic, and more unbelievable, than anything he had been telling me.” A video of the event honoring Sater has been removed from the Port Washington Chabad house’s website but is still available on YouTube.
When I contacted Paltiel for this article, he hung up the phone as soon as I introduced myself. I wanted to ask him about some of the connections I’d come across in the course of my reporting. In addition to his relationship with Sater, Paltiel is also close to “Putin’s rabbi” Lazar, calling Lazar “my dear friend and mentor” in a short note about running into him at Schneerson’s gravesite in Queens.
According to Boteach, this is unsurprising, because Chabad is the sort of community where everybody knows everybody else. “In the world of Chabad, we all went to Yeshiva together, we were all ordained together,” Boteach explained. “I knew Berel Lazar from yeshiva.”
The Port Washington Chabad house has another Bayrock tie. Among its top 13 benefactors, its “Chai Circle,” as listed on its website, is Sater’s partner, Bayrock founder Tevfik Arif.
Arif, a former Soviet bureaucrat turned wealthy real estate developer, owns a mansion in Port Washington, an upscale suburb, but he makes a curious patron for the town’s Chabad. A Kazakh-born citizen of Turkey with a Muslim name, Arif is not Jewish, according to people who have worked with him. In 2010, he was arrested in a raid on a yacht in Turkey that once belonged to the founder of the modern Turkish state, Mustafa Kamal Ataturk, and charged with running an international underage prostitution ring. Arif was later cleared of the charges.
Before the scandal on Ataturk’s yacht, Arif partnered closely with Trump, Ivanka Trump and Sater in the development of Trump SoHo along with the Sapir family, a New York real estate dynasty and the other half of Bayrock-Sapir.
Its patriarch, the late billionaire Tamir Sapir, was born in the Soviet state of Georgia and arrived in 1976 in New York, where he opened an electronics store in the Flatiron district that, according to the New York Times, catered largely to KGB agents.
Trump has called Sapir “a great friend.” In December 2007, he hosted the wedding of Sapir’s daughter, Zina, at Mar-a-Lago. The event featured performances by Lionel Ritchie and the Pussycat Dolls. The groom, Rotem Rosen, was the CEO of the American branch of Africa Israel, the Putin oligarch Leviev’s holding company.
Five months later, in early June 2008, Zina Sapir and Rosen held a bris for their newborn son. Invitations to the bris described Rosen as Leviev’s “right-hand man.” By then, Leviev had become the single largest funder of Chabad worldwide, and he personally arranged for the bris to take place at Schneerson’s grave, Chabad’s most holy site.
Trump attended the bris. A month earlier, in May 2008, he and Leviev had met to discuss possible real estate projects in Moscow, according to a contemporaneous Russian news report. An undated photograph on a Pinterest account called LLD Diamond USA, the name of a firm registered to Leviev, shows Trump and Leviev shaking hands and smiling. (The photograph was first pointed out by Pacific Standard.)
That same year, Sapir, an active Chabad donor in his own right, joined Leviev in Berlin to tour Chabad institutions in the city.
Jared, Ivanka, Roman, Dasha
Also present at the Sapir-Rosen bris was Kushner, who along with his now-wife Ivanka Trump has forged his own set of ties to Putin’s Chabad allies. Kushner’s family, which is Modern Orthodox, has long been highly engaged in philanthropy across the Jewish world, including to Chabad entities, and during his undergraduate years at Harvard, Kushner was active in the university’s Chabad house. Three days before the presidential election, the couple visited Schneerson’s grave and prayed for Trump. In January, the couple purchased a home in Washington’s Kalorama neighborhood and settled on the city’s nearby Chabad synagogue, known as TheSHUL of the Nation’s Capital, as their house of worship.
In May 2015, a month before Trump officially entered the Republican presidential primary, Kushner bought a majority stake in the old New York Times building on West 43rd Street from Leviev for $295 million.
Kushner and Ivanka Trump are also close with Abramovich’s wife, Dasha Zhukova. Abramovich, an industrialist worth more than $7 billion and the owner of the British soccer club Chelsea FC, is the former governor of the Russian province of Chukotka, where he is still revered as a hero. He owes his fortune to his triumphant emergence from Russia’s post-Soviet “aluminum wars,” in which more than 100 people are estimated to have died in fighting over control of aluminum refineries. Abramovich admittedin 2008 that he amassed his assets by paying billions of dollars in bribes. In 2011, his former business partner, the late Boris Berezovsky—an oligarch who had fallen out with Putin and gone on to live in exile at the Trump International on Central Park West—accused him of threats, blackmail and intimidation in a lawsuit in the United Kingdom, which Abramovich won.
Abramovich was reportedly the first person to recommend to Yeltsin that he choose Putin as his successor. In their 2004 biography of Abramovich, the British journalists Chris Hutchins and Dominic Midgely write, “When Putin needed a shadowy force to act against his enemies behind the scenes, it was Abramovich whom he could rely on to prove a willing co-conspirator.” The biographers compare the two men’s relationship to that between a father and a son and report that Abramovich personally interviewed candidates for Putin’s first cabinet. He has reportedly giftedPutin a $30 million yacht, though Putin denies it.
Abramovich’s vast business holdings and his personal life overlap with Trump’s world in multiple ways.
According to a 2012 report from researchers at Cornell University, Evraz, a firm partly owned by Abramovich, has contracts to provide 40 percent of the steel for the Keystone XL pipeline, a project whose completion was approved by Trump in March after years of delay. And in 2006, Abramovich purchased a large stake in the Russian oil giant Rosneft, a company now being scrutinized for its possible role in alleged collusion between Trump and Russia. Both Trump and the Kremlin have dismissed as “fake news” a dossier that alleges that a recent sale of Rosneft shares was part of a scheme to ease U.S. sanctions on Russia.
Meanwhile, his wife, Zhukova, has long traveled in the same social circles as Kushner and Ivanka Trump: She is a friend and business partner of Rupert Murdoch’s ex-wife Wendi Deng, one of Ivanka’s closest friends, and a friend of Karlie Kloss, the longtime girlfriend of Kushner’s brother, Josh.
Over the years, Zhukova has grown close to Jared and Ivanka themselves. In February 2014, a month before Putin illegally annexed Crimea from Ukraine, Ivanka Trump posted a photo to Instagram of herself with Zhukova, Wendi Deng, a bottle of wine, and the caption, “Thank you [Zhukova] for an unforgettable four days in Russia!” Deng was recently rumored to be dating Putin, though she denied it. Other photos from the trip show Kushner was also present in Russia at the time.
Last summer, Kushner and Ivanka Trump shared a box at the U.S. Open with Zhukova and Deng. In January, Zhukova reportedly attended Trump’s inauguration as Ivanka Trump’s guest.
On March 14, The Daily Mail spotted Josh Kushner dining with Zhukova in New York. According to the outlet, Josh Kushner “hid his face as he exited the eatery with Dasha.”
A week later, at the same time Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump were vacationing in Aspen with her two brothers and their families, Abramovich’s plane flew from Moscow to Denver, according to a flight tracking service. Abramovich owns two properties in the Aspen area.
A spokesman for Abramovich declined to comment on the record about the Colorado overlap. The White House referred queries about the couples to a personal spokeswoman for Ivanka Trump. The spokeswoman, Risa Heller, initially indicated she would provide answers to questions about the Colorado overlap and recent contacts between the couples, but did not do so.
President Trump has reportedly sought security clearances for Kushner and Ivanka, who have taken on growing roles in his White House. For anyone else, a close personal relationship with the family of a top Putin confidant would present significant hurdles to obtaining security clearances, former high-ranking intelligence officials said, but political pressure to grant clearances to the president’s children would be likely to override any security concerns.
“Yes, such connections to Russia should matter for a clearance,” said Steve Hall, a former CIA Moscow station chief. “Question is, will they?”
“I don’t think the Trump family camp will have any trouble with security clearances, as long as there’s no polygraph involved,” said Milt Bearden, former chief of the CIA’s Eastern European division. “It’s absolutely crazy, but not going to be an issue.”
With Washington abuzz about the FBI’s counterintelligence investigation of Trump world’s relationship with Putin’s Kremlin, their overlapping networks remain the object of much scrutiny and fascination.
In March, the New York Times reported that Lazar had met last summer with the Trump administration’s special representative for international negotiations Jason Greenblatt, then a lawyer for the Trump Organization. The men characterized the meeting as a normal part of Greenblatt’s campaign outreach to Jewish leaders and said it included general discussion of Russian society and anti-Semitism. The meeting was brokered by New York PR rep Joshua Nass, and Lazar has said he did not discuss that meeting with the Russian government.
In late January, Sater met with Trump’s personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, to discuss a proposed Ukraine peace deal that would end U.S. sanctions on Russia, which Cohen then delivered to Trump’s then-national security adviser Michael Flynn at the White House, according to the Times. Cohen has given varying accounts of the episode.
According to one Jewish Republican who said he sees Cohen “all the time” there, Cohen himself is a regular presence at the Midtown Chabad on Fifth Avenue, a dozen blocks south of Trump Tower and a half-dozen blocks south of his current office at 30 Rockefeller Plaza.
Cohen disputed this, saying, “I’ve never been to a Chabad and I’ve never been to one in New York City either.” Cohen then said he last stepped foot in a Chabad over 15 years ago to attend a bris. He said the last Chabad-related event he attended was on March 16 at a hotel in Newark when he spoke at a dinner honoring Trump’s secretary of veterans affairs, David Shulkin. The dinner was hosted by the Rabbinical College of America, a Chabad organization.
To those unfamiliar with Russian politics, Trump’s world and Hasidic Judaism, all these Chabad links can appear confounding. Others simply greet them with a shrug.
“The interconnectedness of the Jewish world through Chabad is not surprising insofar as it’s one of the main Jewish players,” said Boteach. “I would assume that the world of New York real estate isn’t that huge either.”