The cat's meow

When fashionista Karl Lagerfeld helped fund a synagogue for Holocaust survivors

The Chanel director who died last month was famous for his style, attitude, and to one small congregation on the French Riviera, for his contribution to the shul fund

Yaakov Schwartz is The Times of Israel's deputy Jewish World editor

Fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld walks over the stage at Chanel's pre-fall Metiers d'Art fashion show in the new Elbphilharmonie concert house in Hamburg, northern Germany, Wednesday, December 6, 2017. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)
Fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld walks over the stage at Chanel's pre-fall Metiers d'Art fashion show in the new Elbphilharmonie concert house in Hamburg, northern Germany, Wednesday, December 6, 2017. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)

If you ask Rabbi Shalom Betito who Karl Lagerfeld is, he’ll probably point to a marble plaque on his French Riviera synagogue’s wall.

Lagerfeld, who died February 19, was famous for reviving the Chanel brand and recognized the world over by his signature look — black sunglasses, fingerless gloves, and high-collared shirts (Glamour magazine reported that he had 1,000 of them).

Even after his death, the quirky — and sometimes contentious — Chanel creative director continues to make headlines. He’s reportedly left a significant chunk of his $195 million estate to his pet Choupette, which will do far more than keep the cat in kibble. Her lavish lifestyle includes the attention of two personal assistants, dinners of caviar and pate served on designer dishes and private air travel. Choupette herself has some 300,000 Instagram followers.

But at Betito’s small congregation in Menton, a quiet town of 28,000 located on the French Riviera, Lagerfeld also has quite a reputation — for his contribution to the synagogue’s building fund back in the early 1980s.

Speaking with The Times of Israel this week, Betito said the synagogue was started in 1964 by a small group of Holocaust survivors who accidentally discovered that they had the numbers to build a congregation.

“It began with a circumcision,” Betito said. “They brought in a mohel from Nice, the closest big city, and they put the word out, hoping to get some guests. They were completely surprised when 200 people showed up.”

Centre Altynter, the synagogue in Menton, France, to which Karl Lagerfeld made a donation. (Courtesy Shalom Betito)

Betito, who is originally from Lyon and has been the synagogue’s spiritual leader for the last eight years, said that following the celebration the local Jews were inspired to form a community. They started out in a temporary space, and then, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, decided it was time to expand.

At the time, Lagerfeld lived in the La Vigie mansion in neighboring Monaco. When he was informed of the project by his friend, Jewish philanthropist Edmond Safra (known for supporting countless synagogues the world over, including funding the renovation of the Grand Choral Synagogue in St. Petersburg), Lagerfeld was moved to make a donation.

Uncharacteristically, the usually flamboyant Lagerfeld insisted that his contribution be anonymous.

Contradicting recent reports that Lagerfeld funded the bulk of the renovations made to the small residence that would be the synagogue’s new home, Betito said that the fashion designer’s donation was not among the largest – though it was far from insignificant.

“I don’t know exactly how much he gave, but to get on the plaque you had to give at least the equivalent of 2,000 euro [$2,260 US] in today’s money,” Betito said. “But it wasn’t only about the money. The community really benefited from the moral support that Lagerfeld gave, too.”

“He knew that most of the community was survivors of the Shoah, and so he wanted to participate,” Betito said.

The plaque in the synagogue of Menton, France, listing Karl Lagerfeld among the donors. (Daniel Bensoussan)

Though he requested to remain anonymous, in the end, Lagerfeld’s name was discreetly – if somewhat incongruously – listed among the roughly two dozen donors on the otherwise run of the mill plaque, not unlike others decorating synagogue walls the world over.

And while it is unusual to find a non-Jewish name on a list of synagogue backers, in the case of Lagerfeld it is even more unique given his history of heading up the company founded by Coco Chanel — a notorious anti-Semite who was the lover of a Nazi officer and was even thought to be a Nazi intelligence agent.

Then again, Lagerfeld’s apparent soft spot for Holocaust survivors also seemed at odds with accusations against him of insensitivity (or outright bigotry) towards women and minorities.

Lagerfeld, born in Hamburg, Germany in 1933, sparked controversy in 2017 when he criticized German PM Angela Merkel’s open-door policy to Muslim refugees.

“You cannot kill millions of Jews and then take in millions of their worst enemies afterwards, even if there are decades [between the events],” he said during an appearance on a French talk show.

Regardless of Lagerfeld’s motivations for making the contribution, one thing remains fairly certain: Had Lagerfeld not chosen to donate the money to the nascent congregation, there’s a good chance it would have eventually gone toward cat food.

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