Mayor Bloomberg, Jewish Hero?

On Monday, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg was named as the first recipient of the Genesis Prize. When plans for the prize were first announced, the Genesis idea seemed promising. According to the group’s mission, the prize is designed to “recognize individuals … whose actions … in addition to their achievements, embody the character of the Jewish people through commitment to Jewish values, the Jewish community and/or the State of Israel.” We are not sure where the selection of Bloomberg fits in that paradigm.

The prize is the creation of several Russian Jewish billionaires, who founded the Genesis Philanthropy Group and funded it with a $100 million endowment. The fund plans to award $1 million each year to a Jewish “hero” who meets the criteria and who would inspire young Jews to devote themselves to the public good in actions that are infused with Jewish values. As a result, we were looking forward to the first selection.

We were further encouraged when Wayne Firestone was hired as the lead professional of the nascent organization last spring, given his recent stewardship of Hillel and his connections with a broad array of organized Jewish leadership. It seemed like a great match: Genesis had the money and the platform, and Firestone has the Jewish communal connections. We felt certain they would find an inspiring choice for this much-trumpeted award.

So we were disappointed when the first Genesis prize went to Mayor Bloomberg. While he is certainly a highly accomplished person with serious Jewish roots, he simply isn’t among the people who come to mind when one reads through the stated criteria for the award. Indeed, his selection seems more intended to promote Genesis than to meet the organization’s lofty and inspired goals.

In making these comments, we intend no disrespect to Bloomberg nor do we seek to demean his many significant accomplishments. But when it comes to achievements that match the Genesis prize criteria, he falls short. Maybe everyone would. Perhaps that’s the consequence of too much Genesis hype. Yet the Genesis Foundation wants its prize to be a peer of the Nobel, the Pulitzer and the MacArthur awards — and be infused with a Jewish flavor. To do that, Genesis prize recipients must meet the organization’s own ballyhooed criteria.

It is likely that Bloomberg will donate his $1 million prize to a worthy charity. That will be the kind of generous gesture for which Bloomberg is known and respected. But do the oligarchs of Genesis really need another billionaire to help them find worthy charities? What young Jewish activist or professional is going to be inspired by that?

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