Officials of the Genesis Philanthropy Group, which this week named New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg as the first winner of its $1 million Genesis Prize, are hoping he will have more than just a ceremonial role in the coming year.
Wayne Firestone, president of the Genesis Prize Foundation, told The Jewish Week there have been discussions with Bloomberg and his staff about the possibility of his meeting with young adult Jews between January, after he has completed his 12 years as mayor, and next May, when he will be formally presented with the prize by Prime Minister Netanyahu at a ceremony in Israel. It is not yet clear where such a meeting, or meetings, would take place.
Some critics have questioned awarding the multi-billionaire with a $1 million prize. But Firestone said the cash award was never the key element to the contest, whose goal is to highlight a Jewish role model for younger generations of Jews around the world.
“We hope to reach young people, framed around the concept of tzedakah,” or charity, he said, and to inspire them around the themes of Jewish values, culture and heritage. He added that “this generation values people who can get things done and are problem solvers,” noting that Bloomberg is a prime example of such leaders.
“We want to take the concept of ‘Start-Up Nation’ and expand it to Start-Up People, in all fields, with Israel as a catalyst,” said Firestone, who was the top executive at Hillel International for a decade before joining the Genesis group.
(Bloomberg has said he was “flattered” by the award and that he intends to give the $1 million to an “unconventional” charity or project, probably one connected to the Middle East.)
Firestone said Bloomberg the businessman and politician is better known than Bloomberg the philanthropist, who has, with little fanfare, given vast sums to charity. He has supported Jewish causes in the past, including the dedication of a women and child center at Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem in honor of his late mother, and Magen David Adom, the emergency medical service. But the bulk of his philanthropy has been to non-Jewish causes, most notably his alma mater, Johns Hopkins University, to which he has donated more than $1 billion.
Lord Jonathan Sacks, emeritus chief rabbi of Great Britain and a member of the selection committee, said Bloomberg “exemplifies the principle that by being true to our faith we can be a blessing to others regardless of their faith.” He quoted a letter written by the prophet Jeremiah (29: 7): “Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”
The Genesis Prize was established last year and is a partnership of the Genesis Philanthropy Group, Office of the Prime Minister of the State of Israel, and The Office of the Chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel with offices in New York City and Tel Aviv.
More than 200 people from six continents were nominated for the prize. A committee headed by Jewish Agency executive Natan Sharansky narrowed the names down to five finalists, and then a committee headed by Yuli Edelstein, speaker of the Knesset, chose the winner.
The four finalists have not been made public.
JTA contributed to this story.