Last October when Michael Bloomberg was named the first recipient of the Genesis Prize, billed as "the Jewish Nobel Prize," more than a few eyebrows were raised at the choice of the then-New York mayor.
The annual award was created in partnership with the Israeli government through a foundation established by several Russian Jewish oligarchs to honor "exceptional people whose values and achievements will inspire the next generation of Jews."
Critics questioned why a group of Russian billionaires would choose to give a $1 million award to an American billionaire. Not only did he not need the money (which he announced he was donating to charity), but why choose a 72-year-old man with virtually no public Jewish identity to inspire young Jews?
Bloomberg himself may have had similar reservations. When he was first approached after being chosen from among more than 200 nominees by a blue-ribbon panel of international Jewish leaders, as the result of a sophisticated selection process, he took about a month before agreeing to accept the prize. It called for him to come to Israel in the spring for the award ceremony and agree to a series of outreach meetings in the months ahead with Jewish young people around the world.
Even those most closely associated with the prize are uncertain about the extent and substance of Bloomberg's involvement as the May 22 date for the award ceremony approaches. It will be held at the Jerusalem Theater, with some 300 prominent guests expected, including Jewish and business leaders from around the world, and a number of Israeli public officials. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will present the $1 million award, which Bloomberg has pledged to donate to a cause promoting good works.
Mikhail Fridman, 50, the Ukrainian-Russian businessman whose fortune was assessed recently at more than $17 billion, is a founder of the Russian Jewish Congress as well as of the Genesis Philanthropy Group, which seeks to "develop and enhance a sense of Jewish identity among Russian-speaking Jews worldwide," according to its website. The group created the Genesis Prize Foundation through an endowment of $100 million.
During a recent visit to New York, Fridman and his associate, Stan Polovets, chair of the prize, spoke about their hopes and goals for the award, and explained the choice of the first recipient. They defended the selection of Bloomberg despite the fact that neither his former wife nor current partner are Jewish, that his children were not raised as Jews and that he does not speak publicly about his Jewish values.
Like many Jews, Fridman said, the former mayor is "not traditional [in religious observance], but very proud of his Jewish roots and, most importantly, consistently seeking ways to become more engaged with those roots. His Jewish heritage is very much a part of his multifaceted identity, and many Jews around the world can relate to that."
Polovets noted that Bloomberg is widely admired, by young people and others, as a remarkably successful entrepreneur. "We're not celebrating his wealth but what he is doing with it," as a major philanthropist "seeking to improve the world" in the areas of health, innovation and social justice, and serving as mayor of New York for 12 years at a salary of $1 a year.
Bloomberg, in his statement on being named winner of the prize last fall, said his parents instilled in him "Jewish values and ethics that I have carried with me throughout my life, and which have guided my work in business, government and philanthropy." He said the Genesis Prize "embraces and promotes those same values — a common thread among Jewish people worldwide that has helped move humankind forward for centuries."
He is expected to elaborate on those and other Jewish connections in his acceptance speech later this month and in a variety of subsequent appearances in connection with the award.
Fridman was not directly involved in the election process that chose Bloomberg. The selection and prize committees included such luminaries as Elie Wiesel, Lord Jonathan Sacks, Speaker of the Knesset Yuli Edelstein and former Israeli Supreme Court Justice Meir Shamgar. But it seems clear that Fridman identifies with someone like Bloomberg since he himself is a self-made businessman of great wealth who, though far from Jewish observance — he grew up in Lvov with little knowledge of his faith, and neither his first or current wife is Jewish — is proud of his heritage.
He spoke with personal conviction of how his two daughters have accompanied him on a trip to Auschwitz, and noted that one of them in particular has become increasingly interested in Jewish life.
"I want them to make their own choice," he said, "and I firmly believe that Jewishness is not just about blood but is a mindset." Fridman stressed the importance of making a conscious decision about one's Jewishness, based on an understanding of Judaism's "philosophy, tradition and principles before saying 'I am a Jew.'"
He said the findings of the Pew Research Center report on American Jewish identity were "awful, and confirmed what I felt, that assimilation is our No. 1 challenge."
That's especially true, he said, for Russian-speaking Jews, many of whom grew up without a Jewish education or feeling of connection to their heritage. The Genesis programs — through the foundation and the prize — are focused on instilling pride as well as Jewish knowledge in the next generation of Jews around the world, he emphasized.
"This is not just about wealthy people giving $1 million to another wealthy person," Fridman said of the prize. "We would like Mayor Bloomberg to widely promote the message" on his Jewish connections and values, "and we don't expect his engagement to end after a year."
Fridman said he hopes that a decade from now, there will be 10 "exceptional people" named prize laureates, committed in their support for Israel and having publicly "defined their relationship to Jewish values — modern-day Jewish heroes."
For now, though, attention will focus on the first laureate and how he transmits his Jewish beliefs as he navigates the new course of his post-political life.