Within days of the announcement that soonto- be-former Mayor of New York Michael Bloomberg had been awarded the very first Genesis Prize from the Genesis Philanthropy Group – which includes a purse of $1 million – some head scratching ensued in the Jewish community.
Does a man worth an estimated $31 billion really need another million? Bloomberg was selected for having "attained excellence and international renown in [his] chosen professional field" but he acknowledged that, "I don't need the money," and vowed to donate it.
The Genesis Prize itself was quickly given the nickname "The Jewish Nobel," and the committee who chose Bloomberg received a bit of derision for such a wealthy and somewhat controversial first choice for a laureate.
But for Stan Polovets, cofounder and CEO of the Genesis Philanthropy Group, the prize is less similar to the Nobel or the Pulitzer, and more analogous to a project like Taglit- Birthright. Nor is it about the money. In fact, Polovets said, one of the unofficial criteria for the prize selection was whether the laureate would do something philanthropic with the money. Instead the prize is about trying to engage the younger generations to be proud of their Jewish identity.
While programs like Taglit- Birthright, or the Masa Israel Journey professional program attempt to connect young Jews to Israel, the Genesis Prize was conceived as a way for young Jews to connect with other Jews who are both extremely accomplished in their chosen fields, proudly outspoken about their Jewish heritage and how Jewish values have influenced their work, Polovets explained.
The major idea, he said, is not only to make young Jews proud of their people's achievements, but also to give them a Jewish role model in whatever field they may eventually choose.
"We're not the ones calling it the Jewish Nobel Prize," Polovets said, not unkindly.
"But we're happy to be associated with something as prestigious as that."
The difference, Polovets told The Jerusalem Post, is that unlike a Nobel or a Pulitzer, whereafter the laureate is not really expected to do anything except add a line to their resume and put the trophy on their shelf, for a laureate of the Genesis Prize, the ceremony and the parties are just the beginning. What follows is a year of programming in which the laureate, whoever he or she may be in the future, is expected to engage with young Jews and young Jewish adults from around the world to educate them about the contribution of Jews to the laureate's field.
"The idea behind the prize came as result of our [the Genesis Philanthropy Group's] realization, confirmed by the recent Pew study, that more and more young Jews don't identify as Jewish, even those that are 100 percent Jewish," Polovets said. "They may say, 'My grandparents are Jewish, my parents are Jewish, but I'm an American, I'm British, I'm a Russian.' So we were very concerned about that trend, and began to think about something that would help slow down, if not reverse that trend.
While programming for Bloomberg is still in the works, Polovets said they are planning events in around the US as well as in the UK, Israel and Russia for young Jewish entrepreneurs as well as anyone interested in the non-profit field to meet the former mayor, either in person or through webcasts and any other broadcasting options available.
"We thought that the idea of a prize could be one of the instruments, one of the tools in the toolbox of the Jewish people."
Over the next 10 years of programming, Polovets said the committee hopes to award the prize to Jews in enough diverse fields so most young people can learn about the Jewish contribution to business, writing, science, politics, and many other fields.
For this first year, he said, the selection committee's priority was to choose someone who would be willing and able to serve as an inspirational role model.
"The prize is just an excuse to launch a year's worth of programming," Polovets emphasized, admitting that they may not have done a good enough job communicating the strategy behind the Genesis Prize.
"It's not about the recognition and having a nice gala and that's it. This is about picking someone who would be willing to spend part of his or her time over the next 12 months engaging with younger Jews."
As for the selection of Bloomberg, ultimately Polovets thought the mayor was a very wise choice, but said that he welcomed the criticism.
"I'm very glad that we're getting the critical feedback," he said. "One of the things that I was concerned the most was that we'd get no reaction, that there'd be a big yawn at this announcement. So I'm glad we've started a debate, and I'm glad that people whose views I respect have taken the time to express their opinion on this.
"The committee's number one objective was to select somebody who met most of the criteria," Polovets said, "and someone who would be willing and able to serve as an inspirational role model of Jewish values and ethics, and make young Jews who didn't care about their Jewish identity, make them proud."
The Genesis Philanthropy Group plans to award the Genesis Prize in perpetuity, through a partnership in Israel with the Prime Minister's Office and the Jewish Agency.