‘Charity is good!’

Michael Douglas continues to promote Jewish inclusion, tolerance and pluralism.

December 22, 2016 18:02
Genesis Prize Award Ceremony

Michael Douglas speaking at the Genesis Prize Award Ceremony in Jerusalem in 2015. (photo credit: Courtesy)


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It has been 18 months since Michael Douglas won the 2015 Genesis Prize, and the Hollywood star is more than ever committed to supporting the global Jewish community.

On December 5, Douglas delivered the keynote address at the United Jewish Appeal’s annual Wall Street Dinner, an event that drew more than 2,000 major Jewish donors and raised $28 million, a record sum for the organization’s vital projects.

The December 5 event was one of many for Douglas, who tirelessly continues his campaign to raise awareness of issues impacting intermarried families.

His Genesis Prize award funds have been put to work to advance this cause.

To date, 28 beneficiary organizations received $3.3 million as a result of a program developed in his honor and administered by Jewish Funders Network, “Avenues to Jewish Engagement for Intermarried Couples and their Families.”

Douglas has also used the global platform given to him by the Genesis Prize to share his message with multiple audiences, beginning with his powerful op-ed in the Los Angeles Times on the need to speak against the rise of antisemitism. He spoke about his Jewish experience and vision at Temple Shaaray Tefila (New York) on Yom Kippur and at the Union of Reform Judaism Biennial in November 2015. Last winter he visited US university campuses with Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky to discuss antisemitism and BDS. In May 2016 he addressed the Jerusalem Post International Conference in New York, where the grant winners were announced.

The goal of the Genesis Prize and JFN matching-grant initiative was to mobilize the global philanthropic community to increase the number of funders and grant dollars supporting organizations and projects that foster a culture of acceptance within the Jewish community.

“I am very pleased with the breadth, scope and innovative spirit of the projects that received funding,” said Douglas.

“No doubt, they will open the door to many intermarried couples and their children who wish to connect with their Jewish roots.”

Douglas followed in the tradition of regifting his Genesis Prize award established by Michael R. Bloomberg, the inaugural Genesis Prize Laureate in 2014. Bloomberg directed his $1 million prize money to provide funding for the Genesis Generation Challenge, a competition for young social entrepreneurs.

Violinist Itzhak Perlman, who received the 2016 Genesis Prize, donated his $1 million, plus another $1 million contributed by philanthropist Roman Abramovich, to philanthropic projects that support individuals with disabilities as well as to projects in the field of music.

PROJECTS SUPPORTED by grants resulting from Michael Douglas’s award are already well under way. One of them is Honeymoon Israel, which seeks to engage couples who do not have a strong prior connection to the American Jewish community, but are open to incorporating Judaism in their relationship, family and home. Honeymoon Israel “provides highly subsidized immersive trips to Israel for couples with at least one Jewish partner, early in their committed relationship. Couples participate as part of locally based groups. The purpose of the trips and local follow-up programming is to create communities of couples who are committed to exploring raising Jewish families.”

Another such project is the JCC Manhattan, whose “Circles of Welcome” program offers an accessible entry point for “positive and joyful engagement in Jewish life and community” for interfaith couples and families on the Upper West Side of New York City, which boasts a diverse Jewish population with 28% of Jewish households identifying themselves as intermarried. The program, based on mentor-led havurot (small peer-driven groups) is unique in that it provides an open atmosphere for both intermarried an in-married couples and families of all backgrounds.

“Rather than segregate these couples and families, our goal is to create thoughtful micro-communities that mirror the social diversity that occurs organically within our constituents’ lives,” the program says. “Not only are we serving the interfaith population, but we are integrating them so they truly feel a part of the community.”

In addition to inspiring the matching grants project that has already had an impact throughout the Jewish world, Douglas continues to devote time to supporting the Jewish community. At the December 5 UJA Federation of New York’s annual Wall Street Dinner he was interviewed on stage by Jill Smith, senior adviser to the chairman of the Genesis Prize Foundation and a UJA board member.

Asked by Smith what corporate raider Gordon Gekko, whom he played in the 1987 blockbuster Wall Street, would say in response to the UJA’s raising the huge sum of $28m., Douglas drew laughter from the audience of some 2,000 VIP donors when he did a take-off of Gekko’s infamous slogan (“Greed is good”), saying instead, “Charity is good!” Speaking to Smith about his experience after being selected as the 2015 Genesis Prize laureate, Douglas said, “It’s been wonderful for me spiritually.

I don’t have a glowing history of formal Jewish education, but I’m so happy to be part of a tribe.”

TODAY, DOUGLAS attends a Reform Jewish synagogue in New York with his actress wife, Catherine Zeta-Jones. They have celebrated the bar mitzva of their son, Dylan Michael, and bat mitzva of their daughter, Carys Zeta, much to the delight of Douglas’s Jewish father, Kirk Douglas.

Smith noted that Kirk Douglas, a strong supporter of the UJA for decades, addressed the organization in California in 1955. She shared a letter with the audience that he had written to its Western Regional Office director, Ernest Michel, in which he wrote, “It was certainly a pleasure to speak at your recent meeting in San Diego, and I’m delighted to hear that my efforts helped to raise such a fine sum for the United Jewish Appeal.”

Douglas said in the year following his 2015 receipt of the Genesis Prize from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, he “delved into” issues of Judaism, intermarriage and antisemitism.

His subsequent tour with Sharansky of three US college campuses – Stanford, Brown and his alma mater, UC Santa Barbara – was a real eye-opener for him, and he believes that antisemitism is something “you should confront every second and everywhere.”

Smith recalled their first meeting, when she and Genesis Prize Foundation Chairman Stan Polovets first visited Douglas to inform him that he was the recipient of the prize. The Genesis Prize is awarded to extraordinary individuals who embody the character of the Jewish people and exemplify commitment to Jewish values. Douglas said his initial response was: “You’ve made a major mistake. My mother’s not Jewish.

Y’all looked at me like, ‘Shmuck, you don’t think we know that?’” “It was a very cathartic moment, very emotional,” Douglas said. “You were saying that I am a Jew, and I was unaware after all these years of how much it touched me, and so I was very grateful, and then I began to learn that there was a little method to the Genesis madness. Wouldn’t it be nice to get a celebrity or well-known person of an interfaith relationship to come forward and talk about this?” IN LINE with Douglas’s profession, one of the Israeli grantees of the JFN initiative is the 18th Jerusalem Jewish Film Festival, which opens on Saturday, December 24, and will highlight Jewish inclusion and pluralism. Although Michael Douglas will not be there himself, his philanthropic contribution via the direction of his Genesis Prize award resonates through the offerings at this year’s festival.

“This year’s program will reflect different issues in Jewish cinema, such as intermarriage and Jewish identity in our day and age. ‘Intermarriage through the Prism of Cinema’ is one of the programs that received funding through the JFN matching grants initiative in honor of Michael Douglas,” Jerusalem Jewish Film Festival programmer Daniella Tourgeman-Glass told The Jerusalem Post.

“Through this unique program, the Jewish Film Festival has set out to bridge two important cornerstones that have defined the Jerusalem Cinematheque since its very inception – cultural pluralism and artistic excellence. Like the Jerusalem Jewish Film Festival, JFN and the Genesis Prize Foundation are strong proponents of Jewish inclusion and pluralism. All are welcome within our walls as we promote internationally relevant art, ideas and issues.”

The festival, which has a diverse program of some 40 films, features several films related to the inclusion theme:

• Hannah’s Sleeping Dogs, by Andreas Gruber, tells the story of Johanna, a girl who grows up Catholic in a provincial Austrian town, and upon discovering her grandmother is Jewish, decides to change her name to Hannah.

• The Tenth Man, directed by Argentinean Daniel Burman, about a man’s return to his childhood neighborhood in the Jewish quarter of Buenos Aires, and his renewed relations with his father and the traditions that once connected them.

• A Time to Say Goodbye by German director Viviane Anderegeen – a coming- of-age comedy that offers a glimpse into contemporary German-Jewish life from the point of view of a son of intermarried parents.

• The festival’s closing event, “in the spirit of pluralism,” will include a screening of Katharina Waisburd’s documentary Holy Zoo, the story of Jerusalem’s Biblical Zoo, where Israelis and Palestinians work together, “coexisting in a unique cosmos of cooperation.”

The screening will be followed by a tribute to the zoo, in which the film’s director, zoo CEO Shai Doron, will join with its Jewish and Arab workers to speak to the audience.

“It is in this vein that we have truly created a program that offers a glimpse into the complex cinematic portrayal of intermarriage and the manner in which it has come to define Jewish identity,” said Tourgeman-Glass.

GENESIS PRIZE Foundation co-founder and chairman Stan Polovets observed that acceptance of inclusivity and its importance to the Jewish world is gaining momentum.

“The challenges of today’s environment make a strong and inclusive Jewish identity very important to the long-term future Jewish people. In this respect, Michael Douglas is a powerful example to so many Jews worldwide who have been disconnected from their roots and heritage. It has been an honor to work hand-in-hand with Michael on this vital issue and we are very pleased to witness the continued success of this campaign, which is both global and personal at the same time.”

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