Jerusalem — On a grand stage in the capital of the Jewish state, former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg opened up about what Judaism meant to him.
“It stands for helping others, respect for family and working hard,” he said in a video biography shown to several hundred of Israel’s upper crust, including the prime minister and a number of Knesset members, as well as dignitaries from the U.S. and around the world.
“Most important, is a moral compass … a roadmap for life of philanthropy, family and helping others,” he added.
The occasion was his receiving the Inaugural Genesis Prize at the Jerusalem Theater last Thursday, at a program that blended elegance, sophistication and a cosmopolitan air with sharp, sometimes biting, political humor from emcee Jay Leno. At times it seemed like a cross between “The Tonight Show” and an evening at the Bolshoi.
Bloomberg, a billionaire businessman who served as mayor of New York for 12 years, received the $1 million prize from the Genesis Philanthropy Group, created by several Russian-speaking billionaires. But the event was less about the money itself than about how it can be spent for the greater good, and how a group of secular donors and a secular awardee relate to Jewish values.
The Genesis Philanthropy Group, which supports activities that enhance Jewish identity among Russian-speaking Jews around the world, created the award event as a kind of “Jewish Nobel Prize,” to honor people who have distinguished themselves through “Jewish values.” And Bloomberg, who credited his parents for raising him to value public service, announced that the prize money will be used to identify and fund 10 highly innovative projects being developed by young people aged 20 to 36 intended to improve the world in accordance with “Jewish values.”
Although the recipients do not have to be Jewish, the organizers said, every reference to Jewish innovation at the event referred to someone Jewish.
The prize is administered by a partnership that includes the Office of the Prime Minister of the State of Israel, the Genesis Philanthropy Group (GPG), and the Office of the Chairman of the Executive of the Jewish Agency for Israel. Its $100 million endowment will fund the prize and related young-adult engagement activities.
“The Genesis Prize is awarded to an exceptional person who embodies the Jewish tradition and Jewish values,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said as he handed the $1 million check to Bloomberg, who appeared to be deeply gratified by the recognition. Bloomberg said that his life, both private and public, has been largely shaped by the Jewish values imparted by his late parents.
“Freedom. Justice. Service. Ambition. Innovation. These values have guided me through life,” he said in his acceptance speech. “I think they’re the same values that have guided the Jewish people through adversity and exile, poverty and plagues — right up to the creation of Israel. They are the reason Israel has such a remarkable start-up spirit, and why it has become such a powerful driver of progress in tech, medicine, and communications.
“To the future awardees in the Genesis Generation, I offer a few words of advice: follow your convictions. Think big. Take chances. Believe that tomorrow can be better than today — and understand that it’s your responsibility to help make it so,” the former mayor said.
Mikhail Fridman, co-founder of the Genesis Philanthropy Group, said the aim of the prize “is to awaken the Jewish identity by recognizing that being Jewish is not just an accident of birth, but a huge gift. Our forbearers have left us something far more valuable than land, castles or titles. They left us the Word, the Book and a set of values and rules, which, if understood correctly and applied diligently, lead to the ultimate reward in life — a sense of fulfillment and self-actualization.”
One of the highlights of the evening was the five-minute video clip that focused on Bloomberg’s childhood, his capacity for innovative brilliance and his passion not only for charitable giving but helping people to help themselves. It featured his late mother and his sister as well as his two daughters, who spoke of his commitment to do well.
Over the course of the evening and a press conference earlier in the day, Bloomberg mentioned his parents several times. He noted that his mother and sister traveled to Jerusalem to dedicate the Mother and Child wing at Hadassah Hospital they funded. A few years later he flew to Israel to dedicate the Bloomberg Magen David Adom center he funded in memory of his father.
In the video, Bette Midler said Bloomberg’s “big heart overrides his checkbook,” noting that he helped her efforts to plant a million trees in New York. To date, 800,000 have been planted.
In his remarks about the prize money, Bloomberg said he “wanted to pay it forward, so to speak. To help others with the same sense of optimism and obligation, which is such an important part of Jewish tradition.
“After all, if the dream of Israel can be realized, what dream can’t be?” he added.
It was clear that the Genesis Philanthropy Group worked hard to make the evening hard to forget.
The foyer of the Jerusalem Theater was transformed into an elegant hall where clusters of white roses graced the tables. The event began with an hour-and-a-half-long buffet of international Jewish cuisine that featured everything from gefilte fish to falafel. Asked to wear “business attire,” the women wore stylish dresses — a rarity in conservative Jerusalem — while many of the men wore suits and neckties, another rare sight.
Grammy award winning pianist Evgeny Kissin performed on a grand piano and four ballet dancers danced completely on pointe. And the audience loved Leno’s comedy routine, which skewered the Obama administration and Israeli political corruption.
“I’ve been doing my research. According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, here in Israel the most popular boys name is Noam. The least popular boys name? John Kerry,” the comedian said.
Leno quipped that “President Obama has declared the month of May Jewish American Heritage Month. He is calling it an opportunity to renew our ‘unbreakable bond with the nation of Israel.’ And he knows it’s unbreakable because he’s been trying to break it for the last five years.”
Taking aim at Israeli politicians, Leno joked that when he first tried to get a friend tickets to the program, “they were sold out. But luckily, two tickets became available when former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said he wouldn’t be using his.”
Olmert was recently sentenced to six years in prison for accepting bribes while in office.
“You guys are tough. You sentenced your former prime minister to six years in prison! Did you hear Olmert’s defense? Not the best strategy. He blamed the whole thing on the Jews,” Leno said.
Leno joked that he “was stunned by how many Israeli politicians are going to prison. When you ask an Israeli politician what his cell number is, it has a whole other meaning.”