ANATEVKA, Ukraine — Less than 20 miles outside of the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, there’s a little village inspired by Fiddler on the Roof that is playing an outsize role in the political scandal embroiling Washington, thanks to a cast of characters that includes the village’s honorary mayor.
And who’s he?
None other than Rudolph W. Giuliani, who was recently presented with an oversize ceremonial key to the village by its pro-Trump rabbi founder.
Anatevka, named after the village from the musical, was founded in 2014 by Rabbi Moshe Reuven Azman, primarily as a refuge for Jewish families displaced by Russia’s five-year war against Ukraine in the country’s eastern Donbass region that has killed around 13,000 people.
The Anatevka project was also at the center of an aborted effort — brokered by Giuliani’s associates Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman — to get the former mayor of New York to come to Ukraine in May for a meeting with Volodymyr Zelensky, then the president-elect, whom he planned to push for investigations that would help President Donald Trump politically. Among the village’s funders are a former pro-Russian Ukrainian presidential candidate, a notorious Kazakh oligarch — and Fruman.
Fruman and Parnas stand accused of funneling money, much of it allegedly foreign, into Republican campaigns in the United States. The two men pleaded not guilty to four counts of campaign finance violations in a federal court in New York City on Wednesday and are now awaiting trial.
Meanwhile, another aspect of their alleged influence campaign has gone relatively unexamined.
For at least two years, Parnas and Fruman made donations to, and solicited financial support for, Jewish charitable causes as part of an international effort to build ties with influential politicians, according to interviews and records obtained by BuzzFeed News and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project.
In addition to contributions to the Anatevka project, financial documents show that Fruman and Parnas made a previously undisclosed donation of $25,000 to an affiliate of the National Council of Young Israel, a New York–based nonprofit run by Joseph Frager, who was formerly a fundraiser for the outgoing United States energy secretary, Rick Perry. The donation was given in the same month Parnas and Fruman traveled to Israel with NCYI and Republicans such as Mike Huckabee and Anthony Scaramucci.
The Giuliani associates’ financial support of both charitable causes appears to have bought them access to conservative figures in the US and Israel, as well as businesspeople in Ukraine. That access helped to bolster their back-channel campaign with Giuliani to try to dig up dirt on, and push conspiracy theories about, the Democratic presidential candidate and former vice president Joe Biden.
The payment to the Young Israel affiliate was from a bank account likely among those subpoenaed last week by the grand jury looking into the men’s trail of extravagant spending, as well as financial ties to figures including Giuliani, whose shadowy efforts in Ukraine Democrats are zeroing in on as they build a case for the impeachment of Trump.
When asked if Parnas and Fruman would comment about this article, their lawyer, John Dowd, said: “Don’t hold your breath.”
Rudy Giuliani lounges in the lobby of the Trump International Hotel in Washington, DC, his tie undone, alongside Parnas and Fruman.
Grinning widely as Parnas drapes an arm across his shoulder, Giuliani looks into a phone while someone records a video of them. He greets his friend Azman: “Moshe, how are ya, baby?”
The three men chuckle and each flash a thumbs-up before telling their rabbi friend, “We love you.”
The scene plays out in a now-viral video shot in 2018 that was published on the Facebook page for the Anatevka Jewish Refugee Community. In the video, which was unearthed this month by Jewish Insider, Giuliani and his associates discuss plans to soon visit Ukraine and Anatevka — “the best place in the world,” Fruman says.
The village of Anatevka, located just miles from the fictional setting of Fiddler on the Roof, is a dusty, fenced-in, and mostly treeless cluster of buildings. This week, work crews could be seen building two new structures. Residents who had relocated from the eastern war zone said that, despite the village’s lack of amenities, they were thankful for a peaceful place to live and a roof over their heads. As they spoke, a young girl rode by on a bicycle, an activity that one man said she wouldn’t have been able to safely do back in the east.
The site, which also contains the nearly 200-year-old grave of a prominent Hasidic rabbi, Mordechai Twersky, currently houses around 140 people. Its facilities include schools for children, according to the settlement’s administrator, Yoel Azman, who is the rabbi’s son.
The project has thus far cost somewhere between $6 million and $7 million, said the younger Azman, adding, “We’re constructing buildings every two or three months.”
He declined to discuss donations to the project, other than to point out plaques bearing donors’ names scattered around the complex. A tree sculpture adorned with those names in the center of the complex provided a fuller picture of Anatevka’s benefactors.
The list, mainly businesspeople from the former Soviet Union, included such controversial figures as Vadim Rabinovich, a Ukrainian oligarch, 2014 presidential candidate, and lawmaker who founded a pro-Russian party with a close friend of Vladimir Putin's, and Alexander Mashkevich, a Kazakh Israeli mining billionaire whose company, Eurasian National Resources Corporation, is being investigated for corruption in the United Kingdom. ENRC has denied the allegations.
For at least two years, Fruman has also been a public backer of the project. In late 2017, he set up a New York–based charity, American Friends of Anatevka, which, according to its financial records, took in just over $1,300 that year. Figures for 2018 are not yet publicly available.
In early 2018, Fruman also organized for a consignment of yellow American school buses to be sent to the village. The shipment was a debacle.
“None of them actually worked,” said David Milman, Rabbi Azman’s deputy. “But that’s not his fault. He bought some written-off buses, and they were transported to Ukraine. We spent a lot of time and money on customs clearing and, after that, we discovered they weren’t suitable for transporting small children.”
One of the bigger mishaps faced by Anatevka was the cancellation of the planned visit by Giuliani in May, which fell apart after Zelensky refused to take a meeting with him, and Giuliani faced public backlash over the trip.
The attention garnered by the trip was one of the first hints of what would become the impeachment scandal that has consumed the White House, revealing the links between Giuliani and a cast of characters in Ukraine.
Before canceling the trip, Giuliani told the New York Times he intended to give a paid speech to an unnamed Jewish group in Ukraine. In a Facebook post four days later, Azman revealed Giuliani had been invited to speak by both the Anatevka community and Fruman’s New York–based charity.
Instead of going to Ukraine, Giuliani and Parnas traveled to Paris the following week, where they met Nazar Kholodnytsky, the head of Ukraine’s Specialized Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office, who was one of the sources for Giuliani’s back-channel Ukraine campaign. Azman also flew in to join them and presented the former mayor of New York with the symbolic key to Anatevka, a moment the rabbi posted about on Facebook.
“When Giuliani had to cancel his visit in May for political reasons, he called Rabbi Azman and told him he wanted to meet anyway,” Milman said. “He had already bought a good bottle of kosher cognac for the rabbi and wanted to present it to him.”
Giuliani did not respond to a request for comment about this article. Reached by phone, Azman refused to discuss potential payments to Giuliani and his relationship with him.
“I don’t want to be involved in [an] American political scandal. I work with refugees,” Azman said, referring to Anatevka. “It’s a really beautiful project, and now you want to involve it in dirty politics.”
Parnas and Fruman made use of Giuliani’s closeness to the project to attempt to direct money toward the New York charity, rather than toward the local fund for the Anatevka project. According to a Ukrainian businessperson who encountered Parnas and Fruman in Kyiv this year, the two men used Giuliani’s planned visit to Anatevka as a selling point to drum up contributions to the project from members of the country’s Jewish community.
The businessperson, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said he found it strange that the two men were asking Ukrainian businesspeople to send money to the US-based nonprofit.
“How come I should give to an American charity?” the businessperson recalled replying to Parnas and Fruman, adding that he told them it would make more sense to donate directly to the Ukrainian charity.
Photos posted by Azman to Facebook show that his relationship with Giuliani goes back at least as far as January 2017, when the two of them were pictured together at Kyiv’s Brodsky Synagogue. The pictures also show Fruman as a speaker at a May 2018 event at Anatevka. Another image shared by Azman showed him, Giuliani, Parnas, and Fruman sitting with other men around a table at an undisclosed location on Nov. 2, 2018, as their Ukraine campaign geared up.
Azman declined to speak about his relationship with Fruman and Parnas, asking for a reporter to call back later to set up a time for an interview. A subsequent call went ignored. Another was answered by his press secretary, who said the rabbi would not be available for an interview. The next day, Milman said Azman would no longer be speaking to the media.
Parnas and Fruman were, by this point, earning a reputation as hustlers in Republican circles, jetting around the world, and pressing people from all walks of life for money while touting their connections to Giuliani and the Trump administration.
While they supported Anatevka in Ukraine, Parnas and Fruman also built political ties in the US via at least one five-figure donation to Chovevei Zion, an affiliate of the National Council of Young Israel, an Orthodox Jewish nonprofit.
Financial records show the men donated $25,000 to the organization on Aug. 21, 2018, from one of their companies, Global Energy Partners LLC. The company has a similar name to Global Energy Producers, a Delaware LLC set up by the men to pursue a deal selling American liquefied natural gas (LNG) to Ukraine.
A $325,000 donation made in 2018 in the name of Global Energy Producers to America First Action, a pro-Trump super PAC, is one of several political contributions that US prosecutors allege in their indictment to have been made while Fruman and Parnas were concealing the true origin of the money.
Young Israel, an association of over 100 US Orthodox synagogues, has in recent years become a staunch supporter of Trump and the Israeli right, a partisan shift that caused some to split from the group. The association’s first vice president, New York gastroenterologist Joseph Frager, is a longtime supporter of conservative Republicans, including outgoing energy secretary Rick Perry and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee.
Both Fruman and Parnas attended a trip organized by Frager to Israel in late July and early August 2018, which was attended by Huckabee and former Trump White House spokesperson Anthony Scaramucci. On the trip, Parnas and Fruman met David Friedman, the US ambassador to Israel, and were pictured together with the son of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the home of Israeli billionaire and conservative donor Simon Falic.
Also pictured on the Israel trip with Fruman, Parnas, and Huckabee was Anatevka’s Azman.
When asked about the 2018 trip, Scaramucci said he interacted with Parnas and Fruman “four or fives times maybe,” calling them “friendly.”
“Igor had difficulty with English. Lev spoke English fluently. And he was a talkative guy, a pleasant guy, didn’t think anything of him one way or the other,” he said, adding that there was one thing about the men that stood out. “They were name-dropping Rudy like a machine gunner.”
Scaramucci said he thought about Parnas and Fruman again this week — after the two men pleaded not guilty to the charges — and about the fact that they had dined and posed with Trump on several occasions.
“What you have to understand about Trump, despite the bombast and the big rallies, he’s a fairly reclusive guy. You know, like when he’s home, he wants to be alone, reading magazines and newspapers and watching TV. He's not hosting like, you know, 200-person parties and stuff like that. It’s not his personality,” Scaramucci said. “So if you’re having dinner with him in the White House residence, he knows who the hell you are.”
The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
Fruman and Parnas, and their LNG export company, Global Energy Producers, were handed Young Israel’s Chovevei Zion (Lovers of Zion) award at a gala in New York in March this year, an event attended by Giuliani and Huckabee. Also in attendance were Rep. Kevin McCarthy and Tommy Hicks Jr., co-chair of the Republican National Committee and former head of America First Action — both of whom had received donations from Fruman and Parnas in 2018.
Josh Nass, owner of a New York–based public relations agency, recalled Parnas and Fruman standing out in the VIP room before the gala dinner. Nass said he approached the men, who introduced themselves as entrepreneurs in the gas business. Fruman stayed mostly quiet, while Parnas did the talking.
“Based on what [Parnas] was saying, it seemed like he was trying to sell me on the fact that he was a very important, influential person that has some very exciting business propositions,” Nass said.
Parnas, Nass continued, boasted of “incredibly vast” connections “in the pro-Trump apparatus, and they go all the way up to the senior-most echelons of the party.”
What the men seemed less interested in was the charity event itself. “They didn’t mention the organization [Young Israel] a single time to me. We may as well have been at the Trump International Hotel,” Nass said.
Nass said the conversation was cut short when Parnas got a phone call from Giuliani.
Frager said that he did not introduce Parnas and Fruman to Perry. “Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman met Mike Huckabee at a Republican event in June of 2018 before they came on the Israel trip,” he said. Huckabee did not respond to a request for comment.
The president of Young Israel, Farley Weiss, said Parnas and Fruman’s $25,000 donation was connected to their attendance on the 2018 Israel trip. “I don’t know [Parnas and Fruman], and if I met them it was very brief. Likely I was in a picture with them at the [March gala] dinner, but they did not give us a donation for that honor,” Weiss said.
The men were given an award at that event in exchange for bringing Giuliani, he said. ●
Michael Sallah is a senior investigative reporter and editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington D.C. He is a recipient of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting and was twice named a Pulitzer finalist, once for public service in 2012 and the other for local reporting in 2016.