Later this month, former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg will be awarded the first Genesis Prize in recognition of his commitment to enhancing Jewish life through philanthropy. The big news is that the prize, which will be presented to Mr. Bloomberg by the Prime Minister’s Office along with the Jewish Agency for Israel, will be handed to the former mayor by comedian Jay Leno, who will be making his first visit to Israel.
While this is no joking matter, the actual prize is an award of $1 million to a man who is reported to be worth over $30 billion. So while it is an important and prestigious award, the prize money is pocket change for Mr. Bloomberg.
The Genesis Fund website describes the event as follows: “The award is a symbol of a movement to honor and enhance Jewish identity around the world and recognize achievements of individuals who ‘embody the character of the Jewish people’ through a commitment to Israel, the Jewish community, and Jewish values. . . . The development and strengthening of Jewish identity in Israel and the Diaspora contributes to the welfare of humanity across the world.”
The odd thing to consider here is that Mr. Bloomberg’s ex-wife was not Jewish and the woman he has been dating for the last many years is not Jewish either. Mr. Bloomberg’s two daughters have no Jewish education and do not overtly identify themselves as Jews.
According to a recent story in the New York Times, the Bloomberg Foundation is twelfth on the list of grant-making foundations in the United States. Last year Bloomberg gave over $450 million to charitable causes.
It is a beautiful thing that the State of Israel recognizes Michael Bloomberg’s contribution to Jewish life, but over all these years he has impressed observers with a coolness and detachment about directing his ample resources to impacting in any significant way on Jewish life. So perhaps the Genesis Prize is meant to be an investment in the future and a way to influence Mr. Bloomberg’s future philanthropy.
Mr. Bloomberg says that his personal giving priorities are government innovation, environment, public health, education, and the arts. It is staggering to think what he could do in the area of yeshiva education in this country. But that does not appear to interest him. Some of the things that interest the mayor are fascinating but nowhere near impacting on the enhancement of Jewish life. According to the Times piece, this is what Mr. Bloomberg has done with his money of late:
He recently donated $30 million to the Young Men’s Initiative, which helps African-American boys reconnect with absent fathers and provides mentors and school support as well.
A competition called The Mayor’s Challenge in Europe awards a prize of $6.3 million to the winner of an educational competition.
Last year, a similar amount was awarded to Providence, R.I., a city that developed a method to increase the number of words that poor children hear in their early years of life. Studies show that children from more-affluent homes develop a better vocabulary earlier in life.
A fascinating Bloomberg-funded program in Tanzania has so far trained over 100 people to perform routine surgery. The country has a serious shortage of doctors and those it does have are often far away from the people who need them. The result was that people who need routine surgery like appendectomies and C-sections were dying because they could not get to a hospital in time. “It turns out that those are two relatively simple operations, so high-school graduates cannot do worse,” Bloomberg told the Times. “Now if something goes wrong, you’re dead, but if you don’t do anything, you’re for sure dead. So as long as you have a success rate better than zero, it’s a lot better.”
These are all wonderful and important undertakings that still leave one wondering about the prize Mr. Bloomberg will be receiving and what exactly is the nature of his philanthropic commitment to Jewish life here, in Israel, and around the world.
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The Be’er HaGolah Institute in Brooklyn is an unusual yeshiva for over 500 children from an assortment of backgrounds. Most are from immigrant homes–mainly from the former Soviet Union–whose parents would not normally send them to yeshiva, because of the prohibitive costs usually associated with this type of private education.
The school is a nuts-and-bolts, magical kind of place, which executive director Pearl Kaufman keeps together with a lot of grit and fortitude. Mrs. Kaufman says that her students, along with the 2,000 who have already graduated, would have gone to public school and probably would have lost all their Jewish identity had they not been schooled at Be’er HaGolah.
The struggle to keep the doors open is both constant and endless, and that is why the indomitable Pearl Kaufman keeps creating and churning out events that make it all possible. To that end, Be’er HaGolah is hosting its annual dinner on Tuesday night, June 10 at Terrace on the Park with guests of honor Lonnie and Michael Schick and Deborah and Shlomo Katz–both of whom reside in Lawrence.
Where does the magic mentioned above come into the picture? Well, Pearl Kaufman will tell you that of the $4.5 million annual budget, only $300,000 is derived from tuition. It’s pretty simple, Pearl says. “If we would assess families any additional fees, their kids would be in public school the next day.” She points out that today in Queens there are 10,000 youngsters from Russian and Bucharian families who attend public schools. Statistically and based on experience, she adds, those kids will be lost to Yiddishkeit.
“It was a very nice and even important thing that in the 1970s and 80s we protested, demonstrated, and davened for the release of Jews from the then-Soviet Union,” Kaufman says. “Okay, they are here, they are older, and their children are growing up. Now what?”
She cites the example of one of her current teachers who explained to her that when her family arrived in this country, two of her sisters said that they did not want to attend yeshiva. She said that they thought the language–Hebrew–would be too difficult for them. Our subject, the third sister, decided to give it a try and asked her parents to enroll her in Be’er HaGolah. Today, the teacher is raising a frum family with children in regular mainstream yeshivas while her two sisters married Christians and had their children baptized.
So as you can see, it is important to take a step back and look at the bigger picture as far as gaining an appreciation for what is at stake here.
As to the connection to the Schick and Katz families, Pearl Kaufman cannot say enough about their largesse and open hands and hearts. Kaufman explains that because a great deal of Be’er HaGolah’s young leadership hails from the Five Towns, she naturally turned to one of our community’s preeminent caterers to provide the food service for their annual event. Michael provided an unlimited amount of top-notch food for the event at no cost.
Lonnie Schick says that she often wondered why Michael had decided to do so much for so long for Be’er HaGolah. That was until this past year when she was placed as a social worker in the yeshiva and was instantly won over and arrived at the conclusion that whatever she and her husband can do for the school will in actuality never be enough.
And Pearl Kaufman says much the same about Deborah and Shlomo Katz, who are also in the catering business and are people who are obsessed, according to Pearl, about what they can do for others.
The dinner will also recognize the value of the contribution of Rabbi Mordechai German, who took over the educational guidance of the school after his father, Rabbi Avner German, passed away two years ago. The senior Rabbi German was unique and an inspiration to the students, Pearl says, and now his son is following in his footsteps.
And she cannot say enough about the inimitable Zev Wolfson, z’l, who provided the start-up money that enabled the school to open 35 years ago and to Joseph Gruss and the Gruss Foundation, which made their building in Brooklyn a reality.
More than anything else, Pearl Kaufman wants me to urge everyone reading this to participate in and attend the dinner on June 10 as they pay tribute to these unique individuals who dedicate their lives to turning that which is seemingly impossible into something possible. And that is the Be’er HaGolah story in a nutshell. For more information about the dinner, call Mrs. Kaufman at 718-642-6800, ext. 105. v
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