Bloomberg to give away $1m. Genesis Prize to fund big ideas based on Jewish values

Ex-NY mayor, in Jerusalem to accept award, says ‘no one religion has a lock on great people or terrible people’

Michael Bloomberg at a press conference in Jerusalem May 22 (photo credit: Avshalom Sassoni)
Michael Bloomberg at a press conference in Jerusalem May 22 (photo credit: Avshalom Sassoni)

Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg will use his $1 million Genesis Prize to establish a new fellowship under the auspices of the Genesis Philanthropy Group.

The fellowship, to be called the Genesis Generation Challenge, was announced Thursday in Jerusalem in advance of a ceremony later in the evening awarding the inaugural prize to Bloomberg.

The $1 million fellowship will be open to anyone aged 20 to 36, and will go to up to 10 groups of young Jews from around the world seeking to promote human welfare based on Jewish values. Recipients will be those with the best “big idea” to benefit the world, said Genesis Prize Foundation President Wayne Firestone.

The fellowship will also provide successful applicants with mentors to help them develop their proposals. The contest, announced via a YouTube video to appeal to the Millennial Generation, is scheduled to go live on August 1, with winners announced in the first quarter of 2015.

“We believe in Millennials,” Firestone said at a news conference Thursday. “We know they’re great communicators and collaborators. We hope their vision will create new learning to better the world… We know that there’s someone out there who’s working on the problems that really matter today,” such as urban design and environmental sustainability, said Firestone.

While the fellowship application will ask candidates about how Jewish values inspire them, non-Jews will be eligible.

Bloomberg had pledged in December to contribute the Genesis Prize money toward promoting Israeli-Palestinian economic collaboration, but at the news conference the billionaire businessman said he deferred to the recommendation of the Genesis Philanthropy group in changing his decision.

“They know better than I what would be inspirational in Israel,” Bloomberg said. “It’s a long way from New York for me to make that decision.”

At the news conference and at an event earlier in the day with Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, Bloomberg struck a universalist tone, saying that Jewish values inspire him but are shared by other religions as well.

The Genesis Prize was established last year by a group of Jewish philanthropists in collaboration with the Prime Minister’s Office and the Jewish Agency for Israel.

The Genesis Prize honors “outstanding individuals who have achieved something truly exceptional in their professional careers, have affected humanity in a positive way, have a strong sense of Jewish values and Jewish ethics and believe those values have played a part in what they achieved,” said Stan Polovets, co-founder and CEO of the Genesis Philanthropy Group. Bloomberg is the 11th richest person in America, 16th richest in the world, and a noted philanthropist, having given away over $2.5 billion over his career.

Bloomberg spoke at the press conference about the impact his parents’ Judaism had on him later in life. “My values come first mainly from my parents, who were practicing Jews. Judaism was a part of our everyday life. I learned many of the values that Judaism and, in all fairness, all religions stand for. What is particularly Jewish is the fact that Jews have been persecuted for centuries,” he said, adding that Jews “have to go more than 50% to be equal.”

He was open to competing worldviews, though. “I’m very proud of being a Jew, but that doesn’t mean other peoples’ religions aren’t appropriate for them.” He added that nobody should dictate who others should love or marry, whether it’s based on religion or anything else.

Asked to explain what he means by Jewish values, Bloomberg said, “To me, Jewish values are a family, honesty, taking care of others, which I guess you’d call philanthropic.

“If you look at the other major religions, they have the same values. It’s a matter of how they instill those values in their congregation.” He added that “no one religion has a lock on great people or terrible people. Unfortunately, there’s a spectrum in both cases.” Bloomberg was optimistic, though, saying that “values I learned from my parents are the same values I hope Christians and Muslims and Buddhists learn from their parents.”

Speaking on the subject of philanthropy, the former mayor said, “Philanthropy’s not enough. What philanthropy can do is show what can be done. Private philanthropy can take risks that can’t be done with public money, that government can’t take.” He noted that private philanthropy can be especially helpful with “orphan diseases,” illnesses which affect a small percentage of the population, making a cure unprofitable for major pharmaceutical companies to develop.

Bloomberg built his wealth from his $10 million severance package from Salomon Brothers, which he used to found Innovative Market Systems, which sought to deliver high-quality business information as fast, and in as many usable forms, as possible. He was elected mayor of New York City in 2001 on the Republican ticket. After winning reelection in 2005, he switched to the Independence Party. In 2008, Bloomberg successfully pushed to extend the mayoral term limit from two to three, arguing that his business experience was important in dealing with the 2008 financial crisis, allowing him to win reelection in 2009. In 2011, he oversaw an agreement between Cornell University and the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology to build Cornell NYC Tech, an applied sciences and technology campus on Manhattan’s Roosevelt Island, slated to be finished in 2017.

During his mayoralty, he focused on abortion rights, gun control and public welfare, though he is strongly in favor of free trade. Looking back, Bloomberg said his service was “a wonderful chance to change the world and I enjoyed every minute of it.”

Firestone noted, regarding Bloomberg’s agreement to use the prize to fund Jewish ideas, that “Bloomberg doesn’t need another million dollars, and there aren’t many people you can say that about.”

The ceremony to bestow the Genesis Prize was being held on Thursday evening at the Jerusalem Theater, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Natan Sharansky, chairman of the Jewish Agency, presenting the award. Jay Leno was hosting the event, with performances by pop star Rita and the Ra’anana Symphony Orchestra.

Most Popular
read more: