Genesis Prize Brings Together Who's Who of Top World Jewry – Even Those Considered 'Illegitimate'

By honoring successful assimilated Jews like Michael Douglas, Genesis Prize legitimizes a diverse form Judaism- regardless of pedigree or conversion.

Reuters

Past the airport-level security at the second Genesis Prize ceremony at the Jerusalem Theatre, the cocktail hour is a sophisticated murmur of Russian, English and Hebrew, with soft jazz playing and dim lights. The cast of characters: Russian businessmen, American and European lay leaders; some Orthodox rabbis; Jewish non-profit CEOs and suited Israeli Knesset members and Jewish Agency officials. This week, the Russian elite have flown in from Moscow as much as from London, bejeweled young women on the arms of men twice their age. 

This year's $1 million prize - dubbed the Jewish Nobel Prize - honors actor Michael Douglas, a contested decision to say the least. The son of a Jewish Kirk Douglas and the non-Jewish Diana Dill, Douglas is now married to Catherine Zeta-Jones - an "illegitimate" Jew by Orthodox standards. Yet Douglas has emerged as an advocate for Israel, and last summer famously wrote in the LA Times about persecution his young son faced as a Jew.

 "We [at Genesis] try to be disruptive," said Jill Smith, Genesis Prize committee member. She said that every year the committee sought to address a different critical issue. "We are not picking the usual suspects. We want to create a conversation around the issue, choosing out of the box people. Now the Jewish world will know to expect our unique ways of exploring these issues."

Genesis was originally founded by a group of Russian Jewish businessmen to "develop and enhance a sense of Jewish identity among Russian-speaking Jews worldwide", with a $100 million endowment. Yet this past year the organization quietly split in two: the Genesis Prize Foundation, working to award the annual prize (without the Russian overtones) alongside The Jewish Agency and the Prime Minister's Office, and the Genesis Philanthropy Group, which focuses on grant allocations.

The show itself was a display of impressive pomp and flair, as only Russians could do it: Ballet sequences, Broadway medleys and special effects. Lights projected nice soft words onto the background: knowledge, tolerance, inclusiveness. The Russians sat back and enjoyed, nodding approvingly; the Americans and Israelis watched slightly confused.

Jay Leno before hosting the Genesis Prize award ceremony in Jerusalem June 18, 2015.Reuters

Jay Leno opened the evening: "President Obama invited the king of Saudi Arabia and he didn't come. And then Obama didn't invite Prime Minister Netanyahu, and the guy came anyways." Bibi, sitting next to his wife, laughed hard.

"Bibi is a man of his word," Leno continued. "Except for what he says the day before elections." Bibi did not laugh.

The prime minister received a royal welcome, following Leno's act. Netanyahu ignored the theme of inclusiveness entirely - wise, given his recent dismissal of the conversion bill - and instead gave a somberly standard address on Jewish history and Israel today. He reminded the audience that Israel is a place of miraculous rebirth, the center of innovation, yet is endlessly maligned by the nations. Israel welcomes Reform, Conservative and Orthodox alike, he said.

Alongside a montage of Jewish successes in Hollywood, the program lauded Jewish texts and narrative, images of ancient Hebrew script with dramatic music, in an impassioned claim for acknowledgment of patrilineal descent.

The production continued with Bar Rafaeli introducing Mikhail Friedman, the second wealthiest man in Russia and co-founder of the Genesis Philanthropy Group. Friedman gave a philosophical manifesto: a high-level explanation of what it means to be Jewish today. "Judaism is the philosophy of the minority," he said. It therefore challenges nationalism, he explained, which is the philosophy of the majority - a critique of Jewish attitudes against intermarriage, placing Gentiles who marry Jews as the new relative minority, the new Other whom Jews must embrace.

Actor Michael Douglas speaks on stage in front of a screen displaying his wife Catherine Zeta Jones and son Dylan at the Genesis Prize award ceremony in Jerusalem June 18, 2015.Reuters

Michael Douglas' acceptance speech was emotional: the story of a Hollywood celebrity yearning for his acceptance within the Jewish people. "I am home," he announced to applause, and reflected on his father's renewed interest in Judaism and his son's decision to have a bar mitzvah. Twice, Douglas mentioned the details of his Jewish background, explaining that it needn't hinder his membership to the Jewish tribe. Abraham's tent, he said, was open to all. "I will continue to live by the values given to me by my father and handed up to me by my son."

The evening belied a discomfort that is no longer subtle among intermarried Jews: a need to demand their place within the core Jewish community, despite their non-Jewish partners. Tonight, Genesis showed itself to be the Russian Jew's bid for acceptance. By honoring distant yet successful assimilated Jews, Genesis does not simply inspire its recipients to be active Jews. But in so doing, Genesis also legitimizes that uncomfortable distance demanding acceptance that a person's Judaism is irrelevant of pedigree - and is irrelevant of conversion too. 

And it was the word "conversion" which was blatantly absent. Neither did anyone offer any address in Russian - despite the overwhelming percentage of Russian lay leaders and guests in attendance.

The VIP after-party, held in a dark bar in the Mamilla Hotel, boasted the elite's elite, a human crush of expensive perfume and kosher Cabernet, a Spanish guitar playing as Israeli security guards talked into ear pieces.

"The second prize is going successfully. Many people have heard about it," Mikhail Friedman said. "We hope that in 10-20 years this will be an absolutely fundamental part in Jewish life."

While Ilya Salita, CEO of the Genesis Philanthropy Group, insisted on the international identity of the organization, Genesis Prize committee member Jill Smith conceded that Genesis' Russian Jewish presence had a major influence on the Genesis Prize decision. She could not comment on the decision to honor Douglas in particular, but said carefully that Genesis founders "come from backgrounds where not everyone has a Jewish mother or Jewish spouse".

"Listen," she said over the deafening room. "They identify strongly as Jews, and give great amounts of money to the Jewish world. This theme of inclusiveness really resonated with them on a personal level."

Here, looking around this room, it's clearly a sore subject. And tonight was the night to confront it.