The Jewish multi-billionaire philanthropist that nobody knows about

WhatsApp’s co-founder Jan Koum, worth nearly $10 billion, has donated to charities supporting Ukrainian refugees, Friends of the IDF and some right-wing causes in Israel, among others.

By Batya Jerenberg, World Israel News

American-Jewish philanthropist Jan Koum is an anomaly among megadonors, conditioning his charitable donations that run to the millions of dollars on privacy rather than publicity.

Based on its digging through IRS records, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported Thursday that the co-founder of WhatsApp has quietly given mostly to Jewish causes since selling the most popular messaging app in the world to Facebook in 2014 for a combined cash and stock price of some $19 billion.

Among them are organizations that have jumped to help Ukrainian refugees since Russia’s February invasion, with the Chabad-led Federation of Jewish Communities of the CIS and the European Jewish Association receiving $10.5 million and almost $17 million respectively by 2020, the last year for which such information is publicly available.

Since Koum has not spoken out about the war and, according to the report, those who receive his foundation’s funding are not allowed to talk about it, it is unknown whether he has backed those or other relief organizations in the last several months.  An indication of his sympathies may lie in the fact that the philanthropist was born near Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, leaving for California with his mother only as a teen in the early ’90s, after the Iron Curtain fell.

Although at least outwardly secular, his affinity for Chabad, the most prominent Jewish outreach group, also extends to over $9 million in funding to its Jewish Community Center of Moscow, which provides religious services to the Russian capital’s Jewish citizens.

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He has been generous to Israeli institutions as well as American organizations that support Israeli causes. Through 2020, he gave more than $13 million for healthcare in Israel, including $7.7 million specifically to Shaare Zedek Hospital. His foundation also donated $5.3 million to Friends of the IDF and $7 million to Itrek, which brings graduate students in law, business, policy and STEM to Israel so that future leaders can experience the country first-hand and meet leaders in their fields.

His tax records back a politically rightward tilt exposed by posts he wrote on Facebook, as he shared pro-Trump articles and took “a hardline pro-Israel stance,” according to JTA, before he let his social media account go almost quiet.

Among recent beneficiaries were Friends of Ir David, the foundation that is excavating and developing the Biblical City of David and supports recovering Jewish ownership of homes in eastern Jerusalem, which received $3 million in both 2018 and 2019.  Koum also gave $600,000 to the Maccabee Task Force Foundation, founded by the late Sheldon Adelson to aid Israel advocacy on college campuses.

What is known of the 46-year-old’s background comes mainly from a Forbes interview when he sold WhatsApp. He swept the floor of a grocery store to supplement his mother’s tiny income when they immigrated, taught himself about computers, and eventually dropped out of San Jose University to work for Yahoo!. He and coworker Brian Acton came up with the idea that eventually became WhatsApp in 2009.

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Offers to buy the company started coming even before it was very profitable, but Koum and Acton held out for another few years before becoming multi-billionaires courtesy of internet giant Facebook, now called Meta.

According to Forbes, his current net worth is almost $10 billion. His Jan Koum Foundation has an endowment that was worth more than $2 billion as of 2020. Since foundations are required to give away at least 5% of their assets annually, there is a lot of money available to those causes that strike the officially retired tycoon’s fancy, a majority of which seem to be Israeli, Jewish, or both.