How Jewish Communities Are Responding to the Global Impact of COVID-19


A small group discussion at the 2019 Focal Point Conference (Photo: Shulamit Seidler-Feller)

Mass suffering at the grips of a global pandemic. Entire communities left homeless after tropical storms. Sweeping poverty as workers face widespread unemployment.

These hardships are more than just headlines; they are the daily and lasting realities that millions of people across the globe experience today. But instead of despairing, affected populations are finding solutions to confront these challenges head-on—and a network of over 60 Jewish and Israeli NGOs is stepping up to support their efforts.

This network is coordinated by OLAM, a grantee in Schusterman Family Philanthropies’ U.S. Jewish portfolio. Launched in 2015, OLAM brings together Jewish and Israeli organizations working in global service, international development and humanitarian aid to help strengthen their collective impact. Today, the OLAM network is tackling a new dilemma: addressing the impact of COVID-19 and its exacerbation of the world’s most devastating global crises.

To learn more, I spoke with Dyonna Ginsburg, OLAM's CEO and a Schusterman Fellow, about why mobilizing the Jewish community remains at the center of OLAM’s work and how OLAM’s organizations are responding to COVID-19 in real-time.

Dyonna Ginsburg, CEO of OLAM

OLAM focuses on mobilizing Jewish communities through its network of partners. What was the purpose of building a network?

OLAM was created to increase collaboration among Jewish and Israeli organizations committed to social justice on a global level. Before OLAM, these organizations mostly did their work in silos, sometimes interacting with just a few close partners. In being part of a network, OLAM’s partners—which vary in focus, size and geographical location— now have access to a wide breadth of resources, connections and potential donors that they would not have had otherwise. This has allowed not only for individual organizations to thrive but also for the field to grow collectively and have a greater impact on the communities we serve.

How has COVID-19 pandemic impacted the communities that OLAM’s partners serve?

Worldwide, the pandemic has revealed and compounded inequalities within societies, with the most vulnerable—such as women, asylum seekers, LGBTQ people and minority populations—facing the brunt of the impact. Our partners have really stepped up to meet the needs of the communities that they serve by doing everything from providing emergency food, hygiene and medical supplies to dispelling misinformation about COVID to addressing the long-term economic impacts of the pandemic in developing countries.

IsraAID, for example, has been doing amazing work around global vaccine equity in Eswatini, formerly known as Swaziland. American Jewish World Service has led vaccination advocacy efforts in collaboration with its grantees through methods such as radio, which is the main form of communication in most of the world, and sending vans with loudspeakers into remote areas. JDC Entwine has largely pivoted to a virtual volunteering model, allowing volunteers to teach Hebrew, provide English language skills and forge meaningful relationships with vulnerable Jewish communities from anywhere in the world.  

These are just a few of the tremendous ways our partners have pivoted their strategies during the pandemic. 

Do you think these shifts will impact the field long-term?

The pandemic has really turned back the clock on a lot of the major improvements we’ve seen over the last several decades. Today, the world has nearly 80 million refugees, asylum seekers and other forcibly displaced people—the highest number since we started keeping count around World War II. The climate crisis continues to loom, disproportionately impacting developing countries with limited resources to recover from natural disasters. And for the vast majority of the world, the pandemic is far from over, both in terms of the medical implications of the disease and its lasting economic impact.

These challenges have led our partners to shift their strategies, from how they direct funds to how they engage their volunteers. Notably, they are doing so in tandem with navigating operational challenges due to the pandemic. According to our latest annual partner survey, more than half of our partners experienced a significant financial loss in 2020.

Why does OLAM focus on the Jewish community’s role in addressing global issues?

First, I believe it is important for Jewish communities to be involved in the most significant challenges facing the world today. For possibly the first time in history, many Jews are in a privileged position with the ability to use that privilege to help others. I think it’s essential to view this change in status as an opportunity for Jewish communities to step up and exercise responsibility.

Second, many Jewish people feel an obligation to work towards social change because we have a history of facing oppression and other forms of persecution. For example, Jews have experienced forced migration from the Biblical days to modern times with events like the Holocaust and mass exoduses from the former Soviet Union and countries in the Middle East. While these events have contributed to a collective memory of trauma, for many, these experiences are recent and personal, and I believe we should tap into these memories to help others facing similar experiences.

Finally, if you look to the earliest texts of Jewish tradition, there is a long-standing commitment to justice and standing up for the most marginalized in society. Judaism has inspired many social change revolutions throughout history, and we at OLAM aim to tap into this legacy by using a Jewish lens to achieve social change.

How can people get involved in shaping how Jews respond to global issues?

Our Focal Point Conference is a great opportunity for people who are deeply passionate about global issues and the Jewish community’s role in addressing them. Our sixth Focal Point Conference is taking place November 3-4 and will be largely virtual, with some in-person networking events in New York, Washington D.C., Israel and London.

One of the beautiful things about Focal Point, even in its virtual format, is that it simultaneously provides the opportunity to hear from top-notch speakers and experts while offering a wide variety of intimate networking opportunities.

Participants engaging in a small group discussion at the 2018 Focal Point Conference (Photo: Larson Harley)

What highlights can participants expect this year?

We have a fantastic line-up of speakers. Just to name a few, participants will have the opportunity to hear from:

  • Michéle Duvivier Pierre-Louis, former Prime Minister of Haiti, Founder and President of the Fondation Connaissance et Liberté – FOKAL (Foundation for Knowledge and Liberty)
  • Dr. Orin Levine, Director of Vaccine Delivery at the Gates Foundation
  • Mark Hetfield, President and CEO of HIAS
  • Lisa Eisen, Co-President at Schusterman Family Philanthropies

I’m also excited about all the important sessions we’ll be offering because I think there will be something for everyone. The theme this year is, “Jewish visions for an equitable and sustainable world.” Together, we’ll unpack topics ranging from global health equity to the climate crisis, to forced migration, to anti-racism. All the offerings at the conference are opportunities for participants to learn more about the Jewish community’s response to these issues and how they can get involved.

As you reflect on OLAM, is there a particular Jewish text that motivates you in this work personally?

There’s a teaching I love from the Hasidic master, Rabbi Simcha Bunim, who advised that every person should keep two pieces of paper in their pockets. On one piece of paper, it should read, “the world was created for my sake.” On the other, “I am only dust and ashes.”

That image of both feeling motivated and able to do anything while at the same time holding a profound sense of our own smallness in the world is an image that I find deeply compelling and a guidepost for doing this work. It reminds me of the need to be aspirational, to take responsibility for the world’s brokenness. At the same time, I am reminded that I cannot do this work alone, that I am but one person in the tapestry of humanity.

Repairing the world means working in deep partnership with communities most impacted by listening, learning and following their lead.

Register here for OLAM’s Focal Point Conference taking place November 3-4.

Rachel Sacks is a Communications Associate at Schusterman Family Philanthropies.