When I first heard of the Genesis Prize I was intrigued. One million dollars for an individuals “whose values and achievements will inspire the next generations of Jews”? The pure sum was inconceivably vast.
Though it did sound fancy, aspiring to be on par with the Nobels, the Pulitzers, and MacArthur Awards.
I was lucky enough to be invited to meet Wayne Firestone, the president of the prize’s foundation, in a posh art gallery in Midtown Manhattan, where he told some 100 Jews about the prize and asked the young among us what and who inspired them.
One thing that perplexed me, and something I raised with Wayne at the time, was that the nominations for this process would be secret. I told him that a secret process would not help to ingratiate the prize to the young Jewish community it sought to inspire.
This past week, we found out that the inaugural prizewinner was none other than New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. When I heard that the global Jewish community was about to give $1 million dollars to a man worth $31 billion I laughed out loud. Then I got sad.
My sadness was not due to the fact that Bloomberg is not a figure to be respected. A titan of the business world, a global philanthropist and one of the most recognized public officials in the world, Bloomberg is the paradigm of success.
But Firestone had made clear that this so-called “Jewish Nobel Prize” was aimed at helping young Jews find inspiring figures, and while Bloomberg surely is inspiring, giving him $1 million and yet another award makes the prize look silly rather than give a shine to the mayor.
The Genesis Prize has blown its first impression on the world. Rather than putting the awardee on a pedestal for young Jews to emulate, it reinforces the challenges many within the young Jewish community already face. How exactly does it inspire youth to see old, white, mega-rich men awarding each other prizes and accolades, when 20 percent of the community in New York City is poor?
This is not how you inspire a young generation of Jews; it’s how you turn them off. Rather than a Bloomberg, finding a small community group that has been working against the odds, or a volunteer that has made a global impact would have been far more appropriate. Even a regional superstar would have been better than a global public celebrity.
Sadly, none of us will ever know if any such figure was even considered. For not only did Genesis get its debut prizewinner choice wrong, it shut the public out of its selection process. Inspiration does not come from secrecy, but from a global network of nominators with open ballots and public voting. In the age of the Internet, a secret cabal bestowing honors on behalf of the global Jewish people is the last thing that my generation wants or needs.