Tag Archives: Soviet Union

Jew of the Week: Jan Koum

WhatsApp

Jan Koum, creator of WhatsApp

Jan Koum, creator of WhatsApp

Jan Koum (b. 1976) was born in Kiev, Ukraine. When he was 16 years old he moved to California with his mother, having experienced enough anti-Semitism and political turnovers. (His father intended to join them eventually, but passed away several years later before he could do so.) The two survived on food stamps and a subsidized two-bedroom apartment. Koum swept floors at a supermarket to make ends meet. At 18, he started learning programming by himself from a set of used books before enrolling at San Jose University. Soon, he got a job working with computers at Ernst & Young, one of the world’s Big Four auditing companies. By 21, Koum had dropped out of school and was hired by Yahoo to work in its infrastructure engineering. After nine years with the company, Koum quit to do some travelling with fellow employee Brian Acton. Upon returning from their trip, the two applied to work for Facebook, but were turned down. Instead, Koum started thinking about a new iPhone messaging app, inspired by how difficult and expensive it was for him to keep in touch with family in Russia and Ukraine (as well as memories of how his parents avoided using a phone in the Soviet Union for fear of being listened to). The following month, he incorporated WhatsApp Inc. Brian Acton later worked together with Koum to make his vision a reality, together with friend Alex Fishman. WhatsApp became hugely popular very quickly, and became the world’s most popular messaging app. In 2014, Koum’s friend Mark Zuckerberg bought out WhatsApp for $19 billion. This thrust Koum onto Forbes list of the world’s richest people. With his net worth now close to $9 billion, he is among the Top 10 richest US immigrants. Meanwhile, WhatsApp expanded to offer voice calls and document-sharing, became completely free (with no advertising), and now has over 1 billion users worldwide. Yesterday, they launched a new form of encryption, making WhatsApp among the most secure forms of communication available to the public. Koum continues to work on WhatsApp, and on the board of Facebook, and has donated hundreds of millions of dollars to charity. He is also a founding member of San Francisco’s JFE – Jews for Entrepreneurship – an organization that provides opportunities for young Jewish entrepreneurs in the high tech sector.

Words of the Week

From religion comes a man’s purpose; from science, his power to achieve it. Sometimes people ask if religion and science are not opposed to one another. They are: in the sense that the thumb and fingers of my hand are opposed to one another. It is an opposition by means of which anything can be grasped.
Sir William Bragg, Nobel Prize-winning physicist

Jew of the Week: Avigdor Ben-Gal

The Man Who Saved Israel

Avigdor Ben-Gal

Avigdor Ben-Gal

Janusz Ludwig (1936-2016) was born in Lodz, Poland. At the outbreak of World War II, his family managed to escape to the Soviet Union. Unfortunately, they were soon mired in Siberia, where Ludwig’s parents disappeared. Thankfully, Ludwig and his sister made it to Israel, together with a group of other Polish children (many of whom were orphans) by way of Iran. They settled in Tel-Aviv, and were raised by their cousin. In Israel, Ludwig adopted a new name: Avigdor Ben-Gal. Though he initially aspired to be a physician, Ben-Gal enjoyed his military service with the IDF, and decided to be a career military man. He saw his first action in Egypt during the 1956 Suez Crisis. Just over a decade later, he was an operations chief during the Six-Day Way. By 1973, Ben-Gal was commander of the 7th Armored Brigade. He sensed that a war would soon break out, but was ridiculed by most others within the political and military sphere. Nonetheless, he began preparing his own brigade for war. When the Yom Kippur War did indeed break out, Ben-Gal’s brigade was the only one ready for combat. They were able to miraculously defeat the Syrians in the Golan Heights despite being heavily outnumbered (700 Syrian tanks vs. 175 Israeli tanks). Ben-Gal’s skill and heroics turned back the Syrian invasion after just 3 days of combat. He then led a brave counter-offensive that brought the IDF within 20 miles of Damascus just 4 days later. At the war’s conclusion, Ben-Gal was credited with having “saved the State of Israel” by defense minister Moshe Dayan. In 1976, Ben-Gal helped to plan the rescue operation of Israeli hostages in Entebbe. A year later, he was put in charge of Israel’s Northern Command. After retiring from the military, Ben-Gal served on the board of Israel Aerospace Industries, the state-owned aviation manufacturer (and one of Israel’s largest employers). He was also on the board of Tahal – an engineering and infrastructure company that is an important defense contractor – as well as the NSO Group, an Israeli tech start-up focusing on surveillance and security. Sadly, Ben-Gal passed away last Saturday.

Words of the Week

I will always stand with Israel. I can’t tolerate people who criticize Israel without walking in their shoes. I hate the lies they spread and their lack of knowledge. I’m proud to stand up for the Israelis.
– Adam Sandler 

Jew of the Week: Roman Abramovich

Abramovich

Roman Abramovich

Roman Arkadyevich Abramovich (b. 1966) was born in Lithuania. His parents died before he turned four years old, so he was raised by his grandparents in the cold, remote Arctic region of Komi. Dropping out of college, Abramovich initially worked as both a mechanic and merchant, selling goods from his apartment (at one point, his main wares were rubber ducks and retreaded car tires). In 1988, he started a doll-making business with his wife, and by then had also began investing in Russian oil and gas. By 1995, natural resources were his sole focus, and he had generated a great deal of wealth. Partnering with Boris Berezovsky, the two bought the oil company Sibneft in 1995 and quickly turned it into a multi-billion dollar company. The following year, just thirty years old, he was invited to live in the Kremlin by Russian President Yeltsin. Three years later, he was elected governor of the impoverished and bankrupt province of Chukotka, where he has since contributed over $2 billion of his own money in charitable funds and investments, turning the region into one of the most flourishing in Russia, multiplying its average salary more than five-fold. Unfortunately, Abramovich has also been mired in controversy, bribery scandals, and affairs with the mafia – whom he reportedly paid hundreds of millions per year for protection. (To be fair, most businesspeople, and politicians, in post-Soviet Russia are in the same boat.) Abramovich did try to clear his name and get away from it all, restarting his life in London, and even paying his former partner Berezovsky over $1 billion in 2001 to leave him alone. As a close friend of Yeltsin, he was given the task of interviewing potential presidential candidates who would succeed Yeltsin. It is said that Abramovich was the one who first recommended Putin. Most famously, Abramovich bought the Chelsea Football Club in 2003 and quickly turned over its fortunes, soon making it the league champion for the first time in 50 years, followed by ten more titles in a decade. Abramovich also started a charity organization called the National Academy of Football, which has built over 50 soccer fields across Russia and funds sports programs for disadvantaged youth. He also contributes to Chabad, and is the chairman of Russia’s Federation of Jewish Communities. Having donated countless billions, Abramovich has the distinction of being the most generous philanthropist in Russia. Despite having lost a sizable portion of his wealth in the recent financial crisis, he is still the 12th richest person in Russia, and 137th in the world. The father of seven children has been awarded the Order of Honour and was Russia’s Person of the Year in 2003. Earlier this week, he bought his first property in Israel, spending $25 million on a historic hotel in Tel-Aviv, which he will be converting into his private residence.

Words of the Week

Try not to become a man of success. Rather, become a man of value.
– Albert Einstein