I tried. I really did. On the morning after the Genesis Foundation announced the inaugural recipient of its prize to the most inspiring Jew in the world, I sat across a breakfast table from Natan Sharansky and listened hard to his ebullient defense of bestowing the $1 million award on Michael Bloomberg.
I didn’t mention the snarky tweets and comments that greeted the announcement or the fact that Bloomberg is worth an estimated $32 billion, with 10 homes across the globe (none, though, in Israel) and seems to us New Yorkers as no more Jewish than the cop on the street who eats a bagel for lunch and picked up some Yiddish from a stint in Brooklyn.
I was there to listen to Sharansky, a hero in his own right, who chaired the Genesis selection committee and knows a thing or two about being persuasive, and a couple of others involved in the process.
The first criteria for the prize, which is funded by Russian oligarchs and heavily supported by the Israeli government, is professional success. Slam dunk. Bloomberg is undeniably accomplished: a self-made man who revolutionized data delivery and created a media behemoth; a stubborn political independent who governed the nation’s largest city with creativity and aplomb; a strategic philanthropist willing to take risks and promote unusual solutions to intractable problems
But the Genesis Prize is a Jewish prize, and its winner is supposed to be proud of his or her Jewish identity and connection to Israel, and serve as a role model for the next generation of Jews.
This is where the disconnect lies.
Bloomberg’s public ties to the Jewish community are tenuous at best. One of his daughters described her upbringing as “kind of … Church of England.” Before he ran for mayor, he had been to Israel once. Since then, he’s bankrolled a wing at Hadassah Hospital and funded the renovation of Jerusalem’s main ambulance center, and made the obligatory stop in Sderot to bad talk terrorism. Other than fixing up his parents’ synagogue in Medford, Mass., none of his considerable philanthropy has been directed to Jewish causes in America.
His potential as a role model requires more imagination than I can muster. One of the Genesis board members at breakfast told me, “he is giving young people the idea that you can think differently about how to give your money away.” Gosh, most of the young people I know are just trying to get a job that pays more than minimum wage.
I think I understand what is happening here. First, there is the distressing emphasis on wealth and with it, the communal adulation of those with enough to give it away wisely. I, too, am grateful for Bloomberg and even more, the many other philanthropists who are fully engaged in Jewish causes, but we have to recognize the way our increasing reliance on such individuals has directed and sometimes warped communal priorities and values.
At a time when one-in-five American Jews live in relative poverty, when Jewish education is all but unaffordable and cultural institutions are starved for funds, there needs to be an effective communal counterbalance to those who hold the philanthropic purse strings.
And something else. Sharansky extolled Bloomberg’s pride in being Jewish. How often he spoke of that as mayor is debatable, but I can appreciate that Sharansky — whose faith and identity were brutally assaulted by the Soviet regime — is thrilled when someone of Bloomberg’s power and wealth openly embraces his background.
Truth is, that’s common now. The recent Pew Research Center survey found that 94% of America’s Jews were proud of their identity. It takes no special courage to say you are Jewish in America.
But pride in what? Jews hardly have a monopoly on giving money away wisely. What are these Jewish values that we so vaguely admire? Is Michael Bloomberg the best person to answer that question before an increasingly skeptical younger generation?
He promises to use the million dollars for a good cause, and I believe him. “A year from now, we’ll see how well it works,” Sharansky said as breakfast concluded. We will.
Jane Eisner, a pioneer in journalism, became editor-in-chief of the Forward in 2008, the first woman to hold the position at the influential Jewish national news organization. Under her leadership, the Forward readership has grown significantly and it has won numerous regional and national awards for its original journalism, in print and online.