Billionaire debutantes, Russians take Bloomberg to the ball

There were ballerinas, a full dance ensemble, soloists, a harpist, a video tribute to Jewish luminaries in multiple fields, a multimedia orchestra, a speech from Israel’s prime minister, standup from Jay Leno, and an audience packed with top Jewish leaders from both sides of the Atlantic.

Officially, the grandiose May 22 ceremony at the Jerusalem Theater was to honor former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg with the first $1 million Genesis Prize  — what some are calling the Jewish Nobel Prize.

Michael Bloomberg (right) receives the Genesis Prize from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) as Genesis Prize Chairman Stan Polovets looks on. photo/jta-flash90-gpo-haim zach

Bloomberg is used to occupying center stage, but in the Jewish world, not so much. Before becoming the Big Apple’s mayor in 2002, his public Jewish and Israel profile was admittedly limited. And other than a handful of high-profile trips to Israel (accompanied by sizable philanthropic gifts to Israeli health care and emergency services), things didn’t change much during his three terms as mayor.

So the festivities in Jerusalem provided a unique chance for official Jewishdom to celebrate Bloomberg as one of its own. But he wasn’t the only debutante at the ball — it was also a coming-out party of sorts for the organizers, the Russian businessmen-philanthropists behind the Genesis Philanthropy Group.

They have been on the scene for nearly a decade, but most of their philanthropic resources and energies have been dedicated to supporting Jewish identity-building initiatives for Russian-speaking Jews around the world. The launch of the Genesis Prize was aimed at influencing the wider Jewish world, inspiring Jewish pride among young people by shining a spotlight each year on one member of the tribe who has made a big impact.

As with much of what these organizers do, they did it big, with the $1 million in prize money and a $100 million endowment to back it up, plus a formal partnership with the Prime Minister’s Office and the Jewish Agency for Israel.

Along the way, some commentators and communal insiders scratched their heads. Why do we need a Jewish Nobel?

Asked about what Jewish values he held dear, Bloomberg offered up honesty, charity, hard work and the responsibility to make the world a better place for future generations.

Bloomberg praised Israel and remarked fondly on his Jewish upbringing that set him on the path to success. But he noted repeatedly that the values he absorbed as a child could have come from any culture or religion.

 “The values I learned from my parents are probably the same values I hope Christians and Muslims and Hindus and Buddhists teach to their people,” he said at a news conference before the award ceremony.

Bloomberg has visited Israel several times, including in 2009 when he came to show solidarity during the Gaza war that year. Last week he paid tribute to the country, asking, “If the dream of Israel can be realized, what dream can’t be?” He dismissed anti-Israel boycotts as an “outrage.”

But he also made sure to emphasize his universalist bent.“We are as one with this city and this country as we can be, to build a brighter future for everyone,” he said.

Bloomberg’s universalist pronouncements were in many ways echoed by Genesis officials.

Bloomberg had said last year that he would use the $1 million to promote Israeli-Palestinian business cooperation. But at the news conference, he said the Genesis group urged  him instead to use the prize money to fund the Genesis Generations Prize, which will provide 10 grants of $100,000 each to candidates with the best “big ideas” guided by Jewish values that benefit the world. Non-Jews will be eligible for the grants.