The Jewish world does not need a “Jewish Nobel Prize.” In fact, it does not need another Jewish award of any kind.
As reported in the Forward by Josh Nathan-Kazis, a group of Russian Jewish oligarchs has decided to fund a yearly prize of $1 million to an individual internationally renowned in his or her field who is also committed to Jewish values and Israel and supports Jewish causes.
The purpose of the award, to be called “The Genesis Prize” and originally referred to by its donors as a “Jewish Nobel Prize,” is to inspire and engage young Jews.
The problem is that it will not inspire young Jews. In fact, it will have precisely the opposite effect: If it catches their attention at all, it will only serve to further alienate them from Jewish life.
Critics of the award have pointed out that those involved in selecting the winner are overwhelmingly male and rightwing, creating suspicions that the donors have a political agenda. That is a legitimate concern, but not the primary issue. The real problem is that not a week passes without some Jewish organization bestowing an award on someone for something, and the Jewish press is filled with reports of award dinners and rankings of Jewish leaders. Awards are already given for every possible achievement in every conceivable area of Jewish endeavor.
Up to a point, this is acceptable. Award events are often intended to raise funds for Jewish good works; furthermore, in a volunteer religious community, it is right that achievement should be recognized and individuals should be thanked for their efforts. Still, even many not-so-young Jews are profoundly weary of what seems like an orgy of self-congratulation, and those in their 20s and 30s are absolutely dismissive of the entire process, which they see as gratuitous and self-indulgent. It is bizarre to think that they will applaud and be inspired by yet another prize—this one accompanied by a big check and funded by oligarchs. (One young Jew that I spoke to wryly observed that “Jews don’t need a Jewish Nobel Prize; they already win most of the real Nobel Prizes.”)
Billionaire Russian Jews are entitled to spend their money however they wish, but I would hope that they could be convinced to make better use of the $50 million endowment that has been created to fund the award. Perhaps the distinguished individuals on the committees making the selection—including Natan Sharansky, Yuli Edelstein, and Eli Wiesel—could make the case, after a year or two, for other options that would both bring honor to the donors and do far more than a big prize to strengthen the foundations of Jewish existence.
Young Jewish adults are not beyond the reach of the Jewish community. We are losing some, to be sure, but these trends are neither inevitable nor irreversible. Yet younger Jews will only be drawn to our ranks if we move beyond the old patterns that have constrained us for generations and turned the young against us. It would be far better if the $50 million were directed to Jewish educational projects that, as we know from both academic research and common sense, really make a difference: Jewish camps, Jewish day schools, Jewish pre-schools, and Israel trips and experiences.
These are the things that work; these are the things that inspire; these are the things that engage. Young Jews are more likely to smirk than swoon over our award obsession, seeing it as a triumph of ego over education. But they never dismiss serious learning. If they are taught in the proper way and educated in the right spirit, they will be drawn into a rich Jewish life that will tie them forever to the Jewish people, the Jewish faith, and the Jewish state.