The Man Behind The ‘Jewish Nobel Prize’

In rare interview, Russian billionaire Mikhail Fridman explains goals of million-dollar annual honor he helped create.

Tue, 07/24/2012
Gary Rosenblatt
Gary Rosenblatt

In mid-May 2013, just before Shavuot, the first winner of the annual $1 million Genesis Prize, described as the “Jewish Nobel Prize,” is scheduled to be announced in Jerusalem amidst much media hoopla.

Created by the Genesis Philanthropy Group (GPG), a Moscow-based international organization formed five years ago seeking to develop and enhance a sense of Jewish identity among Russian-speaking Jews in the United States, Israel and the former Soviet Union, the prize will be given to someone who is widely known for outstanding achievements in his or her professional field, has positive feelings toward the Jewish people and the State of Israel, and can serve as a role model for young people.

Don’t be surprised if the individual most responsible for the creation of the prize, and funding for it — Russian billionaire businessman and philanthropist Mikhail Fridman — takes a low-key role at the Jerusalem ceremony.

Known far more for his business savvy and success than his public appearances, Fridman, who lives in Moscow, eschews the spotlight and rarely speaks to the press. But he sat through an hour-and-a half interview — his first with Jewish media — during a recent visit to New York, eager to explain the philosophy and goals of the Genesis Prize, and to raise awareness of it.

A heavyset man with a warm, open manner and good command of English, Fridman, 48, was animated in emphasizing his desire to help reawaken a sense of Jewish identity among people to whom he feels akin, many of whom were raised in Russia, where Jewish life “almost disappeared” and who were “punished for their beliefs,” he said.

A self-described secular Jew, he says the effort is focusing on Jewish culture, values, history and heritage rather than religion because he believes attempts to revive ritual observance among people who grew up without it would be a waste.

On the surface, the distinctions between Russian-speaking Jews and non-Jews may be “almost invisible,” Fridman said, given that Jews raised in the former Soviet Union have lost their ties to Yiddish, Hebrew and much of Jewish history. But he believes the Jewish DNA runs deep and it is “important, though difficult, to find the right way” to identify and strengthen ties among Jews — to explain why we are unique in terms of our connection and commitment to each other as a people, our concern for family life, quality education, and ability to live under pressure from the outside world, among other characteristics.

The Jewish people has given the world “geniuses” in so many fields of endeavor, according to Fridman, and part of the work of GPG is to instill pride among Russian-speaking Jews in their “great heritage.”

‘Sticking Together’

Fridman is keenly aware that he was raised with little awareness of that heritage.

Born in Lvov, Ukraine, a city that lost most of its large Jewish population during World War II, he said there was no synagogue left when he grew up and his only contact with Jewish tradition was a grandmother who baked matzah each year before Passover.

Having “Jewish” stamped on one’s passport meant bad news: restricted travel, fewer educational and employment opportunities, and being subjected to unofficial but real anti-Semitism.

But being Jewish also “gave us a feeling of sticking together,” Fridman recalled. “Our parents wanted us to feel proud” of the accomplishments of Jews who were academic and cultural leaders, from Einstein to artists and composers, and to be “prepared for the difficult circumstances in life.”

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Jews were freer in their personal lives, but lost much of the intangible but vital cohesiveness that had bound them, Fridman said, noting: “Jewish tradition almost didn’t survive.”

He was able to attend university, and after graduation started a career in trading and financial services before founding the Alfa Group Consortium in 1989. It is now one of Russia’s largest privately owned investment groups, specializing in oil, banking and telecommunications. According to Forbes magazine, Fridman is worth more than $13 billion.

He has a good relationship with Vladimir Putin, and accompanied the Russian president on his visit to Israel last month to dedicate a Netanya monument commemorating the Russian Army’s victory over the Nazis. Fridman was one of a number of wealthy Russian Jews who helped pay for the memorial.

He said Putin was “emotionally touched” by the dedication ceremony and described the Russian leader as friendly toward Israel.

As for the future of the Jewish community in Russia, Fridman believes it will develop along with the country itself.

He hopes to transmit a strong Jewish identity to his four children, and accompanied the older three to Auschwitz this week so they could better relate to a tragedy they might otherwise know only from history books.

Because so many Russian Jews in Israel have family members who are not halachically Jewish, Fridman would like to see the Chief Rabbinate’s stringent conversion requirements eased so that those who want to join the Jewish people can do so more readily. But he makes clear that this is his personal belief and that he has not been involved in the political battles in Israel over conversion.

Among his public Jewish involvements, he was a founder of the Russian Jewish Congress in 1996, and supports the European Jewish Fund, which promotes Jewish life in Europe. He formed GPG in 2007 with several Jewish business associates. The organization, which has kept a low profile, has provided hundreds of grants to a wide range of educational and cultural programs in the FSU, Israel and the U.S., with the specific focus of benefiting Russian-speaking Jews, mostly young people. GPG is the largest supporter of Birthright Israel outside of the U.S. and has given multi-million dollar grants to Yad Vashem, Brandeis University, and educational programs of the Israel Defense Forces and the Jewish Agency for Israel.

But GPG is not without critics who say the charity is overly cautious in primarily supporting programs within existing organizations rather than launching new ones, and who question its minimal investment in Jewish religious schools.

Choosing The Prize Winner

Perhaps the most ambitious of GPG’s plans is the Genesis Prize, whose funding comes from a special endowment from the GPG donors, above and beyond their current commitments to GPG, and is being set up in perpetuity to provide a $1 million award each year.

The idea of a “Jewish Nobel Prize,” three years in the planning, has animated the imagination of many since it was announced last month, which is one of its two goals. According to GPG press material, the creation of the prize “aims to capture the imagination of a generation of young Jews by exposing them to the depth and breath of the Jewish contribution to humanity. At the same time we wish to inspire Jews around the world to turn their talents and passions to the betterment of humanity.”

Many of the mechanics of how a winner will be chosen have been worked out, but some deeper questions remain.

The process will begin later this year and will include a call for nominations to leading academic institutions as well as major Jewish organizations and community leaders around the world. A selection committee of eight people, led by Natan Sharansky, who is chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel and close to the GPG founders, will winnow the long list of potential candidates down to five.

Then a second committee of five people — chaired by the speaker of the Knesset and including two retired members of the Israeli Supreme Court, one representative of the Israeli government and one representative of GPG — will select one of the five candidates to be the prize recipient.

But some issues about how a winner will be chosen are unlikely to be resolved until the process works itself out along the way.

For example, how will the committees choose between, say, a scientist and a musician, or a business leader and an educator? Does someone from the former Soviet Union have an advantage over a candidate from the West? Will the judges want to choose a candidate already widely honored, like an Elie Wiesel, Steven Spielberg or Amos Oz, or will that take away from the uniqueness of the prize?

GPG officials acknowledge that balancing the factors of name recognition and innovation will be tricky.

Further, given that the award has such a deep connection to Israel and its leaders, will it be unlikely that someone with views critical of current policies in Jerusalem has a chance at winning?

For now, though, the emphasis is on starting the process and working toward making the Genesis Prize a prestigious project that will attract worldwide recognition and acclaim while advancing the goal of strengthening a sense of Jewish identity in millions of Russian-speaking Jews.

Fridman believes that with assimilation on the rise and the Russian-speaking community particularly vulnerable, more needs to be done to prevent its heritage and talent from disappearing. “We must fight for it,” he says.

Gary@jewishweek.org

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