Feted by a veritable who’s who of Israeli society – including American comedian Jay Leno as MC and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu – billionaire philanthropist Michael Bloomberg was awarded the first Genesis Prize in Jerusalem Thursday night.
The prize, endowed by the Genesis Philanthropic Group, awards the world’s leading contributor to “Jewish values,” with respect to philanthropy, social entrepreneurship, preserving human rights and generally improving the world through innovation and compassion.
“The Genesis Award is being called the Jewish Nobel Prize,” quipped Leno, as Bloomberg and Netanyahu sat side by side a few rows away in the Jerusalem Theater. “That’s news to me – I thought the Nobel Prize was the Jewish prize. I mean, who else wins it?”
In another zinger, Leno asked, “Did you hear Ehud Olmert’s defense strategy? He said he blamed it all on the Jews… I was stunned by how many Israeli politicians have gone to prison. When you ask a former politician here what his cell number is, it takes on a whole new meaning.”
One of the biggest laughs of the night came when Leno took aim at US President Barack Obama, noting that he “describes America’s bond with Israel as unbreakable, because he’s been trying to break it for five years.”
In another jab against the US administration, Leno said that according to the Central Bureau of Statistics, the most popular name for a child in Israel is Noam. “The least popular?” he asked.
After introducing his “Israeli pen pal” and “new best friend” Netanyahu, the prime minister took the stage to honor Bloomberg, whom he described as an “exceptional man.”
Eschewing hot-button political topics, Netanyahu focused on the enduring nature of Jewish tradition, values and thirst for knowledge and innovation, while drawing parallels to Bloomberg’s many accomplishments.
“We cherish our heritage, but are always seeking new things,” he said. “I think that’s what the State of Israel is about, and I think the world marvels at that… Michael has revolutionized an industry, opened vast quantities of information and placed one of the most challenging cities in the world on solid footing.”
Netanyahu continued, saying “Like Michael, we have taken giant risks and shown the world what chutzpah is… He is a man with the ability to identify solutions, and before that, the problem. Thank you for making this a better world.”
The former three-term New York City mayor said he would use the million- dollar prize to fund the “Genesis Generation Challenge,” an inaugural global competition to find the “next big idea and invest in it to ensure the next generation of Jews will be inspired.”
“This is a particularly meaningful award for me because it will hopefully help someone become inspired and make positive contributions to society,” he said. “My parents taught me about responsibility, hard work and caring for others, and this money will be used to support young people who give back to society.”
While contestants for the new prize do not have to be Jewish, President of the Genesis Prize Foundation Wayne Firestone noted that the winning project must embody Jewish values, and contribute to areas including environmentalism, public health and other social entrepreneurial endeavors.
With respect to his Jewish identity, Bloomberg said that while he is “very proud of being a Jew,” he believes all religions must be respected equally.
“I’ve never believed that we should tell someone else what to believe, or how to pray,” he said. “Look, no one religion has a lock on great people or terrible people. 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.”
Bloomberg continued, saying “God put us on the earth to take care of others, and it’s important not to talk about it, but to do it.”
Applications for the prize will open August 1 and anyone between the ages of 20 to 36 is qualified to enter.