MOSCOW (JTA) – A closely allied group of prominent and controversial Russian billionaires has thrown its largesse behind a multinational philanthropic fund to develop Jewish identity among Russian speakers worldwide.
The Genesis Philanthropy Group already is providing targeted grants in the United States, Russia and Israel for a bevy of Jewish educational, travel and community development programs.
Operating in relative anonymity since its founding in September 2007, the group represents a new effort to bolster Jewish identity among Russian-speaking Jews worldwide – with the financial wherewithal to back it up.
While figures like Lev Leviev and Vladimir Goussinsky have made names for themselves in the world of Jewish philanthropy, this appears to be the first time that a group of top Russian Jewish business figures have launched a coordinated philanthropic effort.
Grantees describe the group as businesslike in its approach to philanthropy. The board has outsourced its grant-making functions to philanthropic management organizations in the three countries where it operates.
The foundation also differs from predecessor groups backed by wealthy Russians in that the founders have sought to keep their distance from the groups they are funding with grants for hundreds of thousands of dollars at a time.
“The people behind the foundation are people who are capable of spending tens of millions of dollars a year, which is really what is needed,” said Avraham Infeld, the president of the Chais Family Foundation and a Genesis board member. “There’s nobody in Genesis that wishes to fund a new Jewish congress that they will head.”
Some of Genesis’ five founders are the CEOs, executive directors and chairmen of a consortium that is now mired in boardroom warfare for control of Russia’s third largest oil company, TNK-BP.
Their names have been splashed across the business pages of Russia and the world for months as a saga of expelled workers, visa denials and boardroom espionage unfolded between the Russian investors and British Petroleum. The takeover bid has stirred fears that the Russian government is seeking a stake in the company through a state-controlled enterprise.
Stan Polovets, the president and CEO of Genesis, is the chief executive of Alfa-Access-Renova, or AAR. AAR, a consortium that controls 50 percent of TNK-BP, has launched an effort to depose the company’s chief executive officer, Robert Dudley, and secure a controlling stake in the company.
Mikhail Fridman, the most prominent of Genesis’ founders, is Russia’s fourth-richest man, according to Forbes Magazine, and the chairman of the Alfa Group.
Other founders include German Kahn, the executive director of TNK-BP and Russia’s ninth-richest man; Pyotr Aven, the president of Alfa Bank, which acts as Alfa’s treasury and private bank; and Alex Knaster, the CEO of a capital management firm with close ties to Alfa.
Genesis was founded long before the corporate struggles emerged early this year.
Polovets has taken a hands-on role in the nascent stages of the foundation, meeting with grantees and directing the group’s efforts through its local philanthropic subsidiaries.
In New York, Genesis has tapped the Jewish Funders Network to run its grant-making and proposal operations. It has similar agreements with Matan in Israel and Charities Aid Foundation Russia, a British-based organization that handles charity efforts for companies and individuals.
A spokesman for Charities Aid told JTA that Polovets was not available for an interview on the project.
“The directors made the decision early on that they wanted to avoid the foundation having a significant infrastructure of its own and wanted to look for trusted partners where possible to take responsibility for the operational side,” said Mark Charendoff, the president of the Jewish Funders Network.
Genesis is registered as a nonprofit charity in Israel, but it is working through the nongovernmental organization status of the funders network and Charities Aid in the other two countries, Charendoff said.
For nearly a year, the group has consulted with and established connections with some of the most prominent names in Jewish philanthropy and teamed with organizations in the United States and Israel.
A brochure posted on CAF-Russia’s Web site features testimonials from Lynn Schusterman of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation and Misha Galperin, the head of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, among others.
A Web site for Genesis (www.gpg.org) appeared for the first time this week.
“The directors of the foundation have wanted the focus to be on doing good and getting our bearings in terms of grant-making,” Charendoff said. “Their preference is that any impact flows out results as opposed to press releases.”
The New Israel Fund was one of the first recipients, receiving a $450,000 grant to map the Russian-speaking populations in Israeli cities while developing a socio-economic profile of the community.
Eliezer Yaari, the fund’s executive director, said the Genesis board asked for a serious proposal and a laundry list of results before making an initial investment that could be increased once the project takes off.
“They don’t pour cold water on you, but they are very professional and very careful,” Yaari told JTA. “They are looking for the right return for the investment.”
Many of the grants have been aimed primarily at developing the Jewish identity of young Russian-speaking Jews across the world.
The New-York based Council of Jewish Emigre Community Organizations received a grant to train teachers and possibly expand its network of Russian-speaking day schools to Philadelphia and Boston.
Roman Shmulenson, the council’s executive director, said Polovets contacted his organization and asked it to work up a proposal for Genesis. The council also receives funding from the UJA-Federation of New York.
The council’s $100,000 grant is a standard baseline amount from Genesis for groups that apply, according to grantees.
“It’s good to work with Genesis because they understand Russian-speaking needs,” Shmulenson said. “Sometimes we feel that there is a gap in understanding with American Jewish funders.”
Ezra USA, a Brooklyn-based group that organizes Birthright Israel trips and leadership seminars for Russian speakers, received a grant to subsidize an Israel trip and a Jewish identity-building trip to Argentina, the first of which was in February. Ezra is planning to expand the group to Boston.
Sara Pinsky, the associate executive director of Ezra, said Polovets met twice with her group on a recent trip to Israel and spoke about the best way to draw young, Russian-speaking Jews to their ethnic roots.
Ezra USA first worked with Genesis in the early spring, and the grant money is now helping its operations, Pinsky said.
In Russia, Genesis faces a crowded field of Jewish organizations seeking to pull Russia’s largely assimilated community into a closer Jewish orbit.
The organization has set its sights on the younger generation, contributing to Jewish studies at Moscow State University and establishing a partnership with Hillel in the former Soviet Union.
Polovets sits on the steering committee of Hillel FSU, an exception from Genesis’ policy of not joining the leadership of organizations they choose to fund.
Ilya Pestrikov, Hillel’s Russia director, said that Polovets was familiarizing himself with the organization and its inner workings before Genesis decided to become a funding partner of the largest Jewish youth organization in the region.
The brochure on CAF’s Web site also prominently features Rabbi Avraham Berkowitz, the former executive director of the Chabad-led Federation of Jewish Communities.
Berkowitz has left the federation to set up an independent office in Moscow focused on reaching out to unaffiliated Jews in Russia, a central goal of Genesis.
“Avraham has been among the group of people whose expertise we called on in shaping our thinking,” Charendoff said.