A Q&A with Marina Yudborovsky, head of Genesis Philanthropy Group

How has COVID-19 damaged the structure of Jewish communal organizations?

The pandemic has not spared a single area of life or segment of the economy.  The Jewish non-profit sector is no exception.  Of course, we are seeing organizations who are struggling financially, with reduced or eliminated revenue streams and severely curtailed fundraising efforts, as well as significant layoffs across the sector. Beyond economic implications, community as a concept, as a place and source for communication between people, has suffered due to quarantine restrictions all over the world.  These are all difficult challenges, but we are also seeing incredible creativity, innovation and perseverance.  The communal landscape will of course be changed by the pandemic and while many of the effects are deleterious, some are and will be positive and strengthen us in the long run.

Specifically, how has the global pandemic affected the activities of Genesis Philanthropy Group?

Throughout GPG’s 13 years, our work has been dedicated to strengthening Jewish identity among Russian-speaking Jews worldwide, supporting pillar Jewish organizations in several focus countries and strengthening the relationships between Jews in Israel and in Diaspora. So, the kinds of social services and humanitarian aid that may have been affected during the pandemic have always been outside our mandate.

However, once it became clear that COVID-19 had become a global pandemic, with far-reaching implications economically and communally, we knew that we could not continue with business as usual.  We made several strategic decisions at that point that have become the backbone of our approach during these challenging times.  

First, we were going to work with our existing partners hand-in-hand to determine the best steps forward for each  individual organization and program. It was clear that one-size-fits-all solutions were not going to be effective during this crisis. We have been gratified to see many of partners pivot successfully to continue to provide connection for their constituency and are determined to help in these efforts.

Second, we started looking at COVID-19-related emergency assistance grants. Since social services are not a customary field for us, we had to think thoroughly about the criteria of our aid and how we could leverage the expertise we do have to have the most positive impact.  We have chosen to focus primarily  on geographies that do not have a robust and historically rooted philanthropic infrastructure, as they were being most hard-hit – such as the FSU and in the local small European Jewish communities. We focused on partnering with large organizations that had significant reach and infrastructure, wherever possible, and directed our resources primarily towards urgent humanitarian needs that arose specifically as a result of the pandemic. 

In addition, we have also directed some emergency assistance grants to institutions serving critical roles in communities to help ensure that, once the crisis is over, these infrastructure organizations do not need to be rebuilt from scratch. In our aid, we have prioritized efficiency, seeking to help those who with a clear plan and a willingness to restructure to adapt to these new circumstances and weather the storm. 

After COVID-19, will the Jewish world return to the way it was beforehand, or will some things change permanently?

I am certainly looking forward to the return of many aspects of Jewish communal life after the pandemic, but our community has also undoubtedly changed in a number of permanent ways. We are seeing tremendous value and success in some virtual programs. They have been able to expand their audience beyond their local geography and leverage speakers or teachers around the world. We will be benefiting from these kinds of programmatic innovations for years to come. I believe that we’ll also see more consolidation. For the world of Jewish philanthropy, in particular, it is a time to realize that the past abundance of resources and egos alike, when several different and even competing operators could work in the same space and in the same geographical area, might not ever return. Now is a time for unity, for compromises, for setting organizational egos aside, for pooling resources and sharing the work.

Has COVID-19 affected the Jewish world in any positive way, and if so, how?

As I have said, we are seeing very positive things in some areas. More broadly, social distancing and forced isolation presented the Jewish world with a terrifying real-life perspective on a possible future – if the current tendencies of polarization and division within the Diaspora and between the Diaspora and Israel are not reversed and our communities drift apart. This realization that our communal prosperity and our peoplehood are very fragile, is generating new thinking and creating an appetite for dialogue in a search for a new Jewish consensus. We see this in the enthusiastic response to Our Common DestinyGenesis Philanthropy Group’s joint initiative with Israeli Ministry of Diaspora under the patronage of the President of Israel. These are challenging and uncertain times, but Jewish communities around the world have already shown an encouraging level of resilience. While many challenges still oie ahead, we will come out of this and my hope is that we will have learned a lot and become stronger, and more unified.