On the road to the Genesis Prize - opinion

It’s tempting to be cynical about The Genesis Prize Foundation, whose founding fathers were Russian oligarchs.

 PRESIDENT ISAAC HERZOG, Stan Polovets, chairman and co-founder of The Genesis Prize Foundation, and Genesis Prize recipient Dr. Albert Bourla at last week’s ceremony in Jerusalem (photo credit: AMOS BEN-GERSHOM/GPO)
PRESIDENT ISAAC HERZOG, Stan Polovets, chairman and co-founder of The Genesis Prize Foundation, and Genesis Prize recipient Dr. Albert Bourla at last week’s ceremony in Jerusalem
(photo credit: AMOS BEN-GERSHOM/GPO)

In 2006, I self-published a book called Jewish Medicine. What It Is and Why It Matters. It didn’t attract much attention at the time, so Imagine my surprise when, this past January, I received an email from Steve Rakitt, who identified himself as the president of the Genesis Prize Foundation and said he wished to discuss my book.

Although I’d never heard of the Genesis Prize, a quick Google search informed me that it is often referred to as “The Jewish Nobel Prize” – that got my attention! I read that, in 2013, the Genesis Prize Foundation was registered in Israel as a non-profit public benefit company that’s managed by its employees, who are also the sole shareholders. Previous Genesis Prize winners included Michael Bloomberg (the first in 2013), Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Itzak Perlman, Michael Douglas, Robert Kraft, Natan Sharansky and last year’s winner, Steven Spielberg. Quite an impressive list and, reportedly, all previous winners have donated their cash prize to good works and charity.

No, I wasn’t going to receive the million-dollar prize. That would go to this year’s laureate, Dr. Albert Bourla, chairman and CEO of Pfizer. Rakitt wished to consult with me about a video on Jewish contributions to medicine they were producing to be shown during a gala ceremony in Jerusalem, on June 29 – think Oscars Night.

Rakitt explained that he’d read my book, and that he and his committee wished had many questions to discuss with me via a Zoom conference call. Naturally, I was flattered but also rather puzzled. After all, my book had reviewed two millennia of Jewish medical achievements and I wondered how all that could be reduced to a 12 minute documentary?

 DR. MICHAEL NEVINS and his daughter Andrea Sherman at the Genesis Prize ceremony (credit: ANDREA SHERMAN) DR. MICHAEL NEVINS and his daughter Andrea Sherman at the Genesis Prize ceremony (credit: ANDREA SHERMAN)

Two days after receiving Rakitt’s email, we held a virtual conference at which I expressed skepticism about how Jewish medical history could be covered in such a short time. He said, “You think we’re crazy, don’t you?” I wished to be tactful, but had to admit, “Yes.” Undeterred, Rakitt told me that a production team was already working on the film and they only wanted my advice about a few things. So, I gave a few suggestions and the meeting ended with a vague promise that they might consult with me again.

They didn’t, but in April I received an email from Stan Polovets, chairman and co-founder of The Genesis Prize Foundation, inviting me to attend the Award ceremony at the Jerusalem Theater, on June 29, when President of Israel Isaac Herzog would present this year’s Genesis Prize to Bourla.

The Genesis Prize Foundation was established by several Russian-Jewish oligarchs and, in addition to the prestigious award, the foundation supports NGOs in dozens of countries. It has become a financial mainstay of Jewish communal life and among recipients of their largesse have been Hillel International, Friends of the IDF, Birthright, the ADL and the Joint Distribution Committee.

Earlier this year, three Russian co-founders resigned from the Genesis Foundation’s Board of Directors after being sanctioned by the US, but Rakitt was quoted as saying,“Like so many around the world, we are heartbroken by the terrible events unfolding in Ukraine.... [but] the recent events have no impact on The Genesis Prize Foundation. Our priorities remain unchanged and we are moving forward with our work as planned.”

So, despite certain misgivings, including COVID-19 concerns, I accepted the invitation and, accompanied by my daughter Andrea Sherman, we decided to spend five days in Israel, just enough time to catch up with family and friends, and to learn more of what this was all about. Our brief visit was wonderful but exhausting and what follows here is limited to the Genesis Prize and this year’s laureate. Two unexpected events framed our evening at the Jerusalem Theater.

AS WE exited our taxi, Andrea and I were startled by blaring loudspeakers, banging drums, crowds of angry people yelling “Shame!” and holding up signs saying “Bourla is a Nazi!” We were shaken and hurried inside past security guards, who didn’t appear to be disturbed by the chaos.

First, there’d been talk about Russian oligarchs and now Nazis – were we making a mistake? Safely inside, we knew none of the elegantly dressed people at this cocktail party, which allowed time for me to Google what Dr. Bourla had to do with Nazis. I learned that, in 2020, a Greek newspaper, which had an anti-Semitic publisher, warned its readers that Pfizer’s Jewish CEO will “stick the needle” into them. They called the company’s prospective COVID-19 vaccine poison and accused Bourla of resembling Dr. Josef Mengele, who infamously experimented on prisoners.

Despite the vaccines eventual success, it appears that this calumny had persisted and the demonstration outside the Jerusalem Theater was by protesters venting about vaccines - not very different from what we experienced in our country, where, sadly, we have been getting used to character assassination.

So Andrea and I decided to relax and enjoy the evening. Despite my initial reservations, the gala proved to be well produced and even, at times, inspiring. The charming emcee was Sarah Rafferty, an American actress who stars in the TV show Suits. There was rousing singing, especially from a Greek-Israeli icon Yehuda Poliker, and laudatory remarks about the honoree from Herzog and former ambassador Ron Dermer. There were numerous references to tikkun olam (repairing the world) and “whoever saves one life saves the entire world” and, finally, there was Bourla’s gracious acceptance speech.

He included the narrative of his courageous parents, especially his mother, who was miraculously saved from a Nazi firing squad and whose constant reminder to her son was that nothing is impossible. Of course, for me, the highlight of the evening was the documentary film about Jews in medicine, much of which reflected what I’d written about so many years earlier.

It was well done and I was proud to see my name listed among the credits. Then, we rushed through the fractious crowd of anti-vaxxers, luckily found a taxi and the next morning, after hours standing in airport lines, we began the 12 hour flight home.

During much of that time, I read Bourla’s book, which was a fascinating description of how, under his leadership, Pfizer developed and then distributed their mRNA COVID-19 vaccine. What especially impressed me was how Bourla’s family background and personal philosophy significantly transformed the company’s corporate culture, which, in turn, led to their dedicating their maximum effort to developing the first safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine.

When Bourla became Pfizer’s CEO, he established as the company’s primary goal, “Breakthroughs that change people’s lives.” In the early days of the pandemic, he gathered his executive leadership team in a meeting room at corporate headquarters and asked each of them to hang photographs of patients on a wall, who had inspired them personally. The idea was to remind them of the importance of decisions they would make to the people who matter most, the patients.

Patients over profits would be their rallying cry and Bourla’s insistence on making a difference in people’s lives was especially intended for those who are the most disadvantaged. Words matter, but even more important are deeds and Pfizer’s leaders committed the company to work fast on the vaccine. The CEO remembered his mother’s message that “nothing is impossible” and repurposed a familiar corporate maxim “Time is money” to “Time is life.”

AS I read Albert Bourla’s book while on the long airplane ride, it reminded me of what I’d written about in my own book, back in 2006, when I distinguished between individual physicians who happened to be Jewish versus those who practiced a distinctive brand of Jewish medicine. In fact, this defied conventional thinking because, from the perspective of science, there never has been a discrete body of work that was uniquely Jewish. I understood that many would object to such specificity, but I’d become discouraged that the medical profession was becoming dehumanized and so I wished to revitalize the reason why many of us had chosen to pursue a career in medicine.

I wished to make Jewish physicians aware of their unique legacy and suggested that a worthy challenge for all physicians would be to integrate spiritual and social dimensions with scientific knowledge – as an old hassidic maxim observed, “Wisdom of the mind, without wisdom of the heart, is hopeless.”

Any physician, Jewish or other, is enriched when they feel connected to something greater than themselves. A physician cited in my book, Dr. Julius Preuss, was an esteemed German medical historian and Bible scholar. Before he died, in 2013, Preuss stipulated in his will that nothing should be inscribed on his tombstone, except for his name followed by three Hebrew words: rofeh, v’lo loh (physician, but not for himself). It was a succinct explanation of the Jewish physician’s creed.

Bourla seemed to exemplify this same philosophy. In my book, I describe the characteristics of what I called a “medical mensch.” You don’t have to be male and neither fame nor fortune is enough to qualify as a medical mensch. To be sure, many medical educators are striving to develop ways to incorporate humanism or professionalism into the curriculum, but such abstract terms mean different things to different people. True, they endorse virtuous behavior but because they don’t provide a useful prescription of how to do it, so as an alternative, I coined this easily understood term.

Being a mensch is very much in the eye of the beholder. When someone’s behavior is described as menshlicheit, it suggests that their actions speak louder than their words. In the vernacular, when we call someone a mensch, we mean a person of high character, admirable and human in the best sense of the word. All physicians and related scientists should aspire to be medical menschen and Bourla certainly qualifies.

It’s tempting to be cynical about The Genesis Prize Foundation, whose founding fathers were Russian oligarchs. What’s the point of giving a million dollars to Michael Bloomberg or Robert Kraft, or to give still more honors to Steven Spielberg or Itzhak Perlman?

However, implicit in the award is that recipients will use the money and acclaim for positive effect – indeed, Bourla is donating his award and more to building a Holocaust Museum in Thessaloniki, his Greek hometown, where only 4% of some 50,000 Jews survived the war. Hopefully, others will be inspired to do likewise, in an effort to repair the world: tikkun olam. To my mind, Bourla is a worthy recipient of this year’s Genesis Prize: he is inspired by traditional values and is a person who puts people first.

The author is a New York-based doctor who has written many articles in medical journals and a dozen books on subjects related to medical history. He has been a fellow of the American College of Physicians, the American College of Cardiology and the American Geriatrics Society.