Like the lobby of a bat mitzvah reception, the Eden Gallery on Madison Avenue was filled Wednesday evening with the scent of Angel by Thierry Mugler. Either the perfume was being sprayed through the vents or, more likely, it was worn by the many well-dressed guests.
A group of nearly 100 Jewish young professionals had gathered to mingle, drink, and learn about the Genesis Prize, an award in its inaugural year which will give $1 million to an accomplished individual working in a variety of fields, whose work is deemed an inspiration to a younger generation of Jews.
It was an evening meant to inspire. After about an hour of cocktailing, Wayne Firestone, president of the Genesis Prize Foundation and former president and CEO of Hillel, gathered the crowd in a circle around him. He told the story of Ludwig Guttmann, a neurologist who saved the lives of 60 Jews during Kristallnacht by admitting them into his hospital, and who later created the Paralympic Games in London. It’s these types of inspirational stories, Firestone explained, that need to be celebrated. He invited several other guests with prepared remarks to share brief stories of those who inspired them—a grandfather, a camp supervisor, and Israeli President Shimon Peres were mentioned.
Up the glass staircase, in a room with colorful art on the walls and colorful macarons on the coffee table, Firestone told me that the foundation would be naming its first winner sometime this fall. Though it’s unknown who the winner will be, Firestone’s dream laureate will host master classes around the world, share knowledge and wisdom with others, and help “build a broader narrative about how their identity helped them” achieve their success.
When first announced, the prize was met with skepticism: why do we need an award for Jewish accomplishments? Firestone welcomes the criticism. “The Talmud and the Seder table have never been icons of consensus,” he said. But, he pointed out that the critics might not realize how important it is to highlight Jewish accomplishments globally. Many Jews worldwide are not aware of the accomplishments of their fellow people, Firestone explained, so this prize aims to celebrate “who the Jewish people are today.”
“It’s a piece of art. A canvas,” he said while sitting in the art gallery, to which “we can add different colors.”