The Russian Connection

Tamar Snyder writing in The Jewish Week:

Genesis Philanthropy Group, the foundation founded by five Russian oligarchs two years ago, will be sharing more of its largesse with Russian-speaking Jews in its own backyard.

The foundation, which has made headlines with its high-profile grants meant to strengthen Jewish identity among Russian-speaking Jews primarily in America and Israel, announced a $6 million gift to The Jewish Agency for Israel to support floundering Jewish schools and summer camps in the former Soviet Union during the next three to four years.

In March, GPG announced a $4.5 million grant to the Foundation for Jewish Camp and a $10.8 million gift to Brandeis University to provide scholarships and establish the Brandeis Genesis Institute for Russian-speaking Jewry. And in April, GPG gave $2.7 million to the Wexner Foundation. The foundation has also committed $2.1 million for leadership development for Russian Jews in North America, with grants to the Center for Leadership Initiatives and the Jewish Immigrant Aid Society in Canada and Moishe House.

The $6 million gift to the Jewish Agency represents Genesis Philanthropy Group’s largest grant in the former Soviet Union.

The heads of the Genesis Philanthropy Group – longtime business partners in their mid-40s who have ties to Alfa Group, Russia’s biggest private equity firm – hope that other Russian Jews will follow suit and support Jewish education and other projects in the former Soviet Union.

“We believe that it’s time for Russian Jews to start taking responsibility for their communities, not just in the former Soviet Union but in other regions of the world,” Stan Polovets, CEO and one of the five founders of Genesis Philanthropy Group, told The Jewish Week.

The latest grant doesn’t reflect a shift in priorities for the foundation, those familiar with the Genesis Philanthropy Group say, but rather the gradual maturing of Jewish organizational life within the former Soviet Union, as well as a vote of confidence in Sharansky.

“They’d like to put the lion’s share into the former Soviet Union, but they need to have projects that can sustain the investment,” says Greenberg.

In the past year, GPG gave approximately $15 million within the former Soviet Union. Recipients of these grants… include Moscow State University’s department for Jewish studies, The Centre for Biblical and Jewish Studies at Russian State University for the Humanities, and the Adain Lo/St. Petersburg Institute for Jewish Studies. This summer, GPG supported… 17 camps for children living in the former Soviet Union.

Unlike Lev Leviev, the Russian real estate mogul who has recently fallen on hard times and largely supports Chabad and other religious institutions in the former Soviet Union, the Genesis Philanthropy Group’s approach is much broader, Greenberg says. “They understand the culture and sociology of Russian Jews. Many have an allergy to go into a synagogue, so they approach them in their own language and their own cultural receptivity.”

In its agreement with the Jewish Agency, GPG won’t just deliver funds, but will also upgrade capacity. The foundation will conduct an evaluation of the Jewish Agency, an organization not known for its efficiency, and make recommendations for restructuring.

GPG is also committed to empowering Russian-speaking Jews to take on leadership roles within the Jewish community worldwide. To that end, the foundation insists that grantee organizations hire a Russian-speaking Jew in a senior role of the initiatives funded by GPG.

Gauging GPG’s impact in the way Russian Jews approach their Jewishness will take decades, but certain metrics – including the intermarriage rate, sense of Jewish identity and relationship with Israel – will be closely studied by the foundation. At the end of the day, we hope to “put the word Jewish back into ‘Russian Jews,’” Polovets says.

excerpted from For Russian Oligarchs, Charity Begins at Home; posted with permission