Nearly two years after its founding, the Genesis Prize Foundation has given away or promised $2 million in prizes. Yet, the hoped-for impact of the award, as defined by the foundation’s founding CEO, remains difficult to gauge.
The CEO himself, meanwhile, has silently left the organization without public notice. Genesis Prize officials decline to say when Wayne Firestone, who was hired in April 2013, separated from Genesis, or why. And Firestone, who came to Genesis from Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, where he also served as CEO, did not respond to a message to his home seeking further information about his departure. Stan Polovets is now chairman and CEO of the foundation.
Foundation officials declined to discuss with the Forward the prize’s achievements in its first years. After making its first $1 million award to billionaire businessman and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2014, the organization announced on January 13 that it would give another $1 million prize to actor Michael Douglas.
In comments to the New York Jewish Week soon after, an unnamed prize official said that the prize had “heightened” Bloomberg’s “connection to Israel and Jewish life,” and that the prize may have had some role in his decision to fly to Israel during the Federal Aviation Administration’s ban on flights to Ben-Gurion Airport at the time of the Gaza War.
The prize official was also described by the Jewish Week as claiming that Bloomberg “seemed increasingly comfortable in discussing his Jewish values” after receiving the prize. The article noted that he spent four days in Israel when he flew in to receive his award.
Those claims seem a far cry from the goals Firestone laid out in an interview with the Forward in 2013. “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 at the time. “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.”
Current foundation officials did not respond to an inquiry about whether Bloomberg had done any of the things that Firestone had mentioned.
Bloomberg used his prize money to fund yet another prize, the Genesis Generation Challenge, which will offer $100,000 grants to 10 teams of social entrepreneurs.
The selection of Douglas, famous for playing Gordon Gekko in the 1987 film “Wall Street,” to receive the 2015 Genesis Prize has drawn criticism in recent days. In its announcement of the award, the Genesis Prize Foundation noted that Douglas’s mother and wife are not Jewish, but that his son had a bar mitzvah in Jerusalem in 2014.
Douglas is not as wealthy as Bloomberg, but the $1 million prize likely won’t be life-changing for him, either: The website celebritynetworth.com estimates his current net worth at $145 million.
Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. He covers charities and politics, and writes investigations and longform.