Can $1 Million Genesis Prize Inspire Jews Year After Year?

Some Doubt the Need for Prize and Selection Committee's Slant

New Home: Wayne Firestone, former head of Hillel, will lead the new Genesis Prize Foundation.
Courtesy of Wayne Firestone
New Home: Wayne Firestone, former head of Hillel, will lead the new Genesis Prize Foundation.

By Josh Nathan-Kazis

Published April 26, 2013.
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Russian oligarchs, right-wing Israeli politicians and American Jewish communal professionals have a plan to get young Jews interested in being Jewish.

Called the Genesis Prize, the plan involves giving $1 million each year to an exceptional Jewish person, then presenting him or her as an inspiration to Jews everywhere.

Prize organizers have hired former Hillel International president and CEO Wayne Firestone to take charge of the new prize-granting organization, giving the effort the imprimatur of the well-regarded Jewish not-for-profit executive. Critics are raising questions, however, about why the prize is necessary at all — and why the people giving it out named a right-leaning, overwhelmingly male selection committee to choose the recipient.

Oligarch: Mikhail Fridman made a fortune in the oil and gas business.
Getty Images
Oligarch: Mikhail Fridman made a fortune in the oil and gas business.

“The gender imbalance among the judges is absolutely stunning,” said Steven M. Cohen, a leading sociologist of the American Jewish community.

Funded by the Russian Jewish oligarchs behind Genesis Philanthropy Group, an international not-for-profit organization that supports Jewish engagement for Russian-speaking Jews, the prize has drawn significant media attention because of its sky-high sticker price.

Each year, one winner will be awarded $1 million. The prize has been given a $50 million endowment.

Firestone said that the exceptionally large size of the cash award was a “recognition that the level of the prize is something like Nobel level.” An early press release issued in June 2012 called the award a “Jewish Nobel Prize,” though that language is now absent from the prize’s website.

The Nobel Prizes each came with a $1.2 million cash award in 2012. While more than the Genesis Prize will offer, even the Nobel is far from the richest annual award. A newly announced science award called the Breakthrough Prize, coincidentally also funded by Jewish donors, will give away $3 million each year.

The key oligarch behind the Genesis Prize is Mikhail M. Fridman, a Ukrainian-born oil and gas magnate who enjoys a good relationship with the Kremlin, and whose company sold oil firm TNK-BP for $14 billion in March.

Both the office of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Jewish Agency for Israel have also signed on as official backers of the award, though they have contributed no money.

Firestone was appointed president of the Genesis Prize Foundation in April, 10 months after plans for the award were first made public. The first honoree will be named this fall, several months later than the group had initially said it would make its first award.

The object of the prize, according to Firestone, is to identify Jewish heroes. “The motivation is to generate interest in contemporary role models in the Jewish world, and building a narrative around that,” Firestone said. “What I’m hoping to do is to build an engagement platform for young adults, to allow them to meet these individuals, hear their stories, potentially interact with them directly.” Firestone said that he saw the prize as a way to engage young Jewish adults. “We’re not talking about building any buildings or really creating programming, per se, but rather thinking about how we can capture the imagination and interest of [Jews in their] 20s and 30s,” Firestone said.

Some remain unconvinced of the demand for a new means of recognizing Jewish achievement. “I’m sort of confused about why we need the award,” said Alan van Capelle, CEO of Bend the Arc, a Jewish social justice organization. “It seems to me there is a great amount of Jewish entrepreneurial spirit and scholarship and academic achievement without this award… I think we’re pretty well represented.”

Unlike the Nobel, the Genesis Prize will not be given in any specific field. Rather, the selection committees will be asked to apply broad criteria requiring that the winner is internationally renowned in his or her field, committed to Jewish values or to Israel, and supports Jewish causes.


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