Sana Britavsky may have one of the most interesting jobs in Israel. The deputy CEO of the Genesis Prize Foundation (GPF) has the rare pleasure of meeting the famous laureates in Israel, overseeing the production of the prestigious prize award ceremony, mingling with Hollywood stars like Helen Mirren, and working with her GPF colleagues in New York and Israel to shepherd the laureates through a philanthropic process of directing their millions of dollars in prize money to worthy causes.
“Receiving the Genesis Prize is a great privilege, even for very accomplished people who have received many other prestigious awards,” Britavsky says during a recent visit to The Jerusalem Post offices. “Our laureates appreciated being welcomed in Israel and having events hosted in their honor. In addition, we help them make an impact on Jewish philanthropy and, hopefully, on the world at large. They really love it.”
According to the GPF website, the million-dollar Genesis Prize (which often ends up being several million dollars as a result of matching donations from other interested philanthropists) “honors individuals who have attained excellence and international renown in their chosen professional fields, and who inspire others through their engagement and dedication to the Jewish community and the State of Israel.”
Founded in 2012, its selection committee awarded the first prize to former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2014, the second to Michael Douglas, the third to violinist Itzhak Perlman in 2016 and the latest to sculptor and human rights activist Sir Anish Kapoor.
“The Genesis Prize recognizes the bond between Israel and Diaspora Jewry and seeks to strengthen it,” Britavsky says. “We are all Jews, and the connection that we have with other Jews is vital to us. We have a mutual responsibility. No matter what the current crisis happens to be, we have to put ourselves above politics and continue doing what we can to help bridge the gaps and unite Jewish people around the world.”
As Britavsky explains, in the eyes of the GPF founders the prize has two primary goals. “The first goal is to unite the Jewish people. We want to emphasize our common values as a people, and it doesn’t matter where we’re from, what language we speak, or how religious or secular we are. We are one people.
“The second goal is to celebrate what is commonly called ‘the Jewish genius.’ We are all different, but together we comprise the Jewish people, with Jewish values, Jewish education and a Jewish work ethic. We have created a bubble of uniqueness, and in today’s world, it is so easy to lose your Jewishness. What we would like to do is to encourage the next generation to preserve our unique heritage and reach the heights of success while remaining Jewish.”
Britavsky notes that the Genesis Prize Foundation works in partnership with the Prime Minister’s Office, the Jewish Agency and the Knesset Speaker’s Office. Its selection committee is headed by Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky and includes other prominent Israelis – among them director-general of the Prime Minister’s Office Eli Groner, former Italian Jewish leader and parliamentarian Fiamma Nirenstein, the PMO’s legal adviser Shlomit Barnea Farago and others.
Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein heads the Prize Committee, on which the late Nobel Prize laureate Elie Wiesel served together with president emeritus of the Israeli Supreme Court Meir Shamgar and retired Supreme Court Justice Tova Strasberg-Cohen. Former chairman of Masa Israel Journey Aaron Abramovich serves as deputy chairman of the Board of Directors of GPF. President of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev Rivka Carmi is a member of the advisory board of the Genesis Prize.
“The fact that so many important and busy people are willing to make time for the deliberations of the prize committees and engage with us speaks volumes about their appreciation of its goals and mission,” stresses Britavsky. “The prize is thoroughly apolitical; our laureates are chosen on the basis of the good work they have done and not for any political purposes.”
When each of the laureates arrives for the prize ceremony in Jerusalem, she says, their excitement is palpable.
“I think they are all special human beings and special Jews. They all feel sentimentally attached to Israel and especially to Jerusalem,” she says. “When each one of them – Bloomberg, Douglas and Perlman – came to Jerusalem, one could see and feel their excitement. They may be some of the most famous and successful people in the world, but when they go to the Western Wall, they suddenly become ordinary Jews and they all feel at home here.”
Regardless of their fame, success and wealth, the most important quality of the Genesis Prize laureates, according to Britavsky, is that they “are simply good people, in large part due to their fundamental Jewish values. This is what the prize is all about – to highlight the Jewish values of the Genesis Prize laureates to the new generation of Jews.”
Besides the elegant award ceremony, which gathers hundreds of Israeli and Diaspora guests to celebrate the laureate’s achievements, the GPF team is in charge of organizing additional events together with such partners as Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat; the Knesset; the Prime Minister’s Office; the Jerusalem Foundation; the capital’s Cinematheque; the Jerusalem Press Club and others.
“Laureates get a chance to meet both Israeli audiences and young Jews from the Diaspora who come to Israel through Taglit [Birthright] and Masa. This way, the Genesis Prize connects between generations and between Israel and the Jewish world at the same time,” says Britavsky.
Because each laureate can choose what to do with their prize money, Britavsky says, “You’re never quite sure how each year will turn out.”
Bloomberg decided to fund a range of innovative projects for young adults to solve major socioeconomic problems, such as providing sanitation solutions in poor communities and combating diseases.
“The projects that were awarded grants as a result of the competition administered in honor of Bloomberg provided tangible hope to people in Israel, Africa and across the world.”
Douglas focused on the issue of inclusion of intermarried families in Jewish life. Because of an additional donation by philanthropist Roman Abramovich and a matching grants initiative administered by Jewish Funders Network, $3.3 million in grants was disbursed to organizations active in this field.
“Whether the Jewish world embraced the children of intermarried couples was a burning issue for Douglas, and in this respect, I’m proud to say that the Genesis Prize provided him with a very unique platform.”
Perlman’s prize was doubled, also by a donation from Abramovich.
“The prize funds in honor of Perlman are distributed to organizations that help people with disabilities as well as talented young musicians and artists from communities on Israel’s northern border and the Sea of Galilee to Beduin villages in the South and Eilat, as well as across North America.
“In April, we had a very moving event at the Prime Minister’s Office to announce the winners of the Israeli part of competition for Perlman’s grants, which was conducted by Matan-United Way. They will give an important boost to cultural inclusion of individuals with special needs in Israel,” Britavsky notes.
This year’s laureate, Sir Anish Kapoor, has decided to direct his prize money to organizations that help Syrian refugees.
“Anish is a great artist who really feels the injustice in the world, and has decided to direct all his prize money to refugees.”
Britavsky, recalling her youth in the former Soviet Union, identifies strongly with Kapoor.
“The pain of refugees, especially from Syria, is something we can all feel as humanists and Jews,” she says. “We, too, remember the many dark chapters in Jewish history, we still feel the pain of the Shoah and pogroms and expulsion, and so we, too, can identify with people who have lost everything.”
It is clear that the Genesis Prize is more than just a job for Britavsky.
“Every year our foundation, our team, must learn a new field of philanthropy,” she concludes. “This makes it fascinating. You meet the laureates, learn about their vision, and help them realize this vision to make the Jewish world, Israel and the world in general, a better place. It’s changing the world in a very practical way, a special kind of tikkun olam [mending the world].”
This article was written in cooperation with the Genesis Prize Foundation.