OAKLAND, California — Almost every chair in the Oakland Marriott’s windowless conference hall was full last Saturday evening when Russian-speaking Jews came to meet one of the most successful members of their own community: Jan Koum, founder of WhatsApp.
The young Ukraine-born billionaire came to the Limmud conference for Jews from the Former Soviet Union dressed simply in a t-shirt and hoodie, with a bottle of water in hand — and requested that everything that he said be off the record.
After answering questions in English for about an hour (although he also offered to speak Russian), he posed for pictures with anyone who wished to be photographed next to him.
“I think it was very interesting to see Jan Koum present and to see what a Russian-Jewish guy who immigrated to the US has accomplished,” said Alexander Kutman, an engineer originally from Belarus. “It is a reminder of the opportunities that may be open in front of all of us.”
Koum, 41, immigrated to the United States from Ukraine with his mother and grandmother when he was a teenager. The family lived on welfare and food assistance from the government. Koum’s mother worked as a babysitter, and he swept the floor of a grocery store.
His mother died of cancer when he was in his mid-20s, and Koum found himself alone: his father had already passed away and he had no brothers or sisters. So the mogul-to-be bought an iPhone and decided to make an app. Three years ago, Facebook bought his messaging platform WhatsApp for $19 billion.
Limmud FSU co-founder Sandra Cahn, who also attended the question and answer session, was impressed by Koum’s humility, she said.
“I was very surprised. He wasn’t boastful, he wasn’t hawkish, he was private,” she said. “He represents for us someone who used his brains and achieved success. It gives the Russian Jewish community a sense of pride.”
She added that she was particularly taken by how much Koum cares about the State of Israel.
Indeed, according to Koum’s Facebook page, which has almost 90,000 followers, the young billionaire is a strong supporter of the Jewish state.
At the end of October, he posted a link to the Israeli national anthem on his wall (after they refused to play it at the Abu Dhabi Grand Slam judo tournament, he wrote); in September, he shared a video of an American comedian’s first day in Israel; in May, he posted a picture of the Israeli flag to congratulate Israel on its independence day, and in February he shared a video of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu telling Chuck Norris that Israel is indestructible.
Koum was invited to the conference by Anya Eychis, who served as chairwoman of the programming committee of the Limmud FSU conference.
Limmud FSU often brings Russian-speaking celebrities to its events. Previous speakers included Russian-American-Jewish journalist Masha Gessen, Russian television personality Aleksander Drouz, and Yelena Khanga, a Russian television journalist who has both African and Jewish heritage.
But for its San Francisco – Silicon Valley weekend, Limmud really tried to focus on innovation and technology, especially because computer science is such a popular vocation for Russian-speaking Jews, said Natasha Chechik, the communications director of Limmud FSU.
“We really wanted to make everything about innovation because it’s very big in Israel. We have people in cafes just writing code and 50 percent of them are Russians,” she said. “In Haifa’s Technion — the Israeli MIT — it can feel like about 90% of the students are Russians.”
About 800 people attended Limmud FSU’s weekend conference in Oakland, across the bridge from San Francisco.
Other than the appearance from Whatsapp’s founder, the conference featured lectures about the effort to send an unmanned Israeli spacecraft to the moon (with some advice from the Russian scientist who worked on the Lunokhod, the Soviet moon-rover); a session for entrepreneurs about how to get financing for a start-up (some of the panelists were Russian-Jewish investors), and a presentation about using data analysis in medical research from a Russian-speaking professor at the University of California.
A performer from Odessa sang onstage in Yiddish, out in the hallway an author sold his Russian book about a Jewish musketeer, and Abby Stein — America’s most famous transgender onetime Hasidic rabbi — sat on a table in a tight dress and spoke about transgender theory in the Kabbalah.
Just before Koum left, the cofounder of Limmud FSU invited him to attend the next conference in Israel in December — an offer that Koum did not decline.
“With fingers crossed, he’ll come again. Hopefully he will speak on the record next time,” Chechik said.