Bloomberg, in Israel, Wins a $1 Million Prize, and Then Gives It Back



Two very, very rich Americans who recently left very, very high-profile jobs flew to Israel this week, each on a private plane. The less-rich one hosted a ceremony Thursday night where the more-rich one got a $1 million prize from a quartet of Russian oligarchs. Then he gave it back.

If that sounds like something Jay Leno might have poked fun at on "The Tonight Show," well, Mr. Leno — whose net worth is estimated at $250 million to $350 million — was the host. Michael R. Bloomberg, the billionaire businessman who served three terms as mayor of New York, was the one receiving — and then returning — the first-ever Genesis Prize, which honors achievement steeped in what it calls "Jewish values."

Instead of pocketing what to him might be considered pocket change, Mr. Bloomberg and the Genesis organization announced a global competition with 10 prizes of $100,000 available to entrepreneurs ages 20 to 36 with big ideas, also based on Jewish values, to better the world.

"I wanted to pay it forward, so to speak," Mr. Bloomberg told an audience in Jerusalem that included Israel's black-hatted chief rabbi, a rumpled venture capitalist, graying former Soviet dissidents and Zionist war heroes. "To help others with the same sense of optimism and obligation, which is such an important part of Jewish tradition."

Mr. Bloomberg, 72, visited Israel frequently while in office, and he has donated millions of dollars to Jerusalem institutions, financing a hospital wing named for his mother and an ambulance center named for his father. On Thursday, he called the growing international movement for a boycott against Israel "an outrage" that is "totally misplaced," but ducked a question about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Asked whether he might want to own an Israeli newspaper, like another Jewish-American billionaire, Sheldon G. Adelson, Mr. Bloomberg — the founder of the global media company Bloomberg L.P. — said: "What letter in the word 'no' do you not understand?"

He joked that Jerusalem and New York are both cities where one can hear "dozens of languages and millions of opinions" — and where it is impossible to find a parking space, "especially on the High Holidays."

He took a more serious tone when discussing the new prize competition, saying, "After all, if the dream of Israel can be realized, what dream can't be?"

Mr. Leno, 64, is not Jewish and had not been to Israel before Tuesday, when he met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

"This is just like a Hollywood awards show but with fewer Jews," Mr. Leno cracked Thursday night. Taking note of the preshow buffet featuring falafel, gefilte fish, goulash and roast lamb, which was billed as "Jewish cuisine from around the world," Mr. Leno said it was "what is known in New York as a deli."

He made light of the recent sentencing of former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to six years in prison for taking bribes, but avoided the political minefield of Israel's conflict with the Palestinians except to say that the "least popular boys' name" is "John Kerry," a reference to the secretary of state.

The Genesis Prize aspires to be a kind of "Jewish Nobel." "Shows what I know," Mr. Leno said. "I thought the Nobel Prize was the Jewish Nobel Prize. Does anybody else ever win this thing?"

Candidates for the $100,000 prize need not be Jewish, though the video promoting it showcased an all-Jewish cast of achievers, including Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, Marc Chagall, Levi Strauss, Mark Zuckerberg and Sarah Silverman.

Wayne Firestone, president of the prize foundation, said he was seeking proposals for "projects guided by Jewish values that will measurably better the world," adding, "This is a generation worth investing in." Applications can be submitted online starting Aug. 1.

Mr. Bloomberg said his religiously observant parents had inculcated Jewish values around the dinner table, and he identified those qualities Thursday night as "freedom, justice, service, ambition, innovation."

"The values I learned from my parents are probably the same values that, I hope, Christians and Muslims and Hindus and Buddhists learned from their parents," he said at an earlier appearance. "They're all centered around God put us on Earth and said we should take care of each other. We have an obligation not to just talk about it but to actually do it."