Whose Jewish Values Get Honored?


close observer of Jewish life could be forgiven for feeling a little whiplash when it comes to the notion of Jewish values.

Last week, mega-philanthropist Charles Bronfman put out a call for nominations for his prestigious $100,000 Charles Bronfman Prize for 2018; the prize, which is for humanitarian work “informed by Jewish values,” is aimed at the under-50 crowd. This comes just a week or so after The Genesis Prize, with a $1 million price tag from its Russian patrons, tapped A-list actress Natalie Portman (the recipients, starting with Michael Bloomberg in 2014, have donated the money to a Jewish cause). That prize, which often goes to a high-wattage star, is given to those “who have attained excellence and international renown in their chosen professional fields, and who inspire others through their dedication to the Jewish community and Jewish values.”

The Genesis choice, in 2015, of actor Michael Douglas, who is intermarried but who has come to a deeper connection to Jewish life of late, caused quite a stir — what Jewish values were being honored, some in the Jewish community wondered? Douglas’ award is being used to fund a program for Jewish engagement for intermarried couples and their families. (Portman is married to choreographer and former City Ballet principal dancer Benjamin Millepied, who reportedly converted to Judaism.)

And then there’s Rabbi Shmuley Boteach’s World Values Network, whose bold mission is to “disseminate universal Jewish values in politics, culture, and media, making the Jewish people a light unto the nations.” His “Champions of Jewish Values” honorees this year included Trump administration Ambassador to Israel David Friedman (who called J Street supporters “worse than kapos” — he later apologized), former settler leader Dani Dayan, Israel’s consul general here, and Israel’s UN Ambassador Danny Danon, who as a Likud minister called for Israel to annex all West Bank settlements. Also tapped for an honor was Glenn Drew, who heads the American Hebrew Academy, a pluralistic Jewish boarding school in Greensboro, N.C.

The Charles Bronfman Prize is aimed at a different crowd. Past winners have a name recognition quotient of little to none (though Israeli novelist Etgar Keret, 2016’s pick, is a leading literary light). There’s nary an actor or politician on the list. Instead, the 15 past winners have founded nonprofits addressing such topics as Israeli-Palestinian relations, bone marrow transplants, the environment, education, political prisoners, veterans, disability rights and many, many awards for nonprofits supporting refugees.   

“What we’re looking for is people on the way up,” Bronfman told The Jewish Week. “People who don’t have huge names, but who do huge work and will continue to do that work.”

“What we’re looking for is people on the way up. People who don’t have huge names, but who do huge work and will continue to do that work.” – Bronfman

The contest, he said, focuses on grassroots efforts and “rewards the values of tikkun olam, but in the broader sense: values of family, values necessary in order to be a worthy human being.

“To be a worthy human being you must take some of your wealth and give it to others, and you must take some of your own time and effort and give that to the greater good. The most important thing to do is to reward the greater good, and those prize holders all do.”

For those who learn of the prize, Bronfman said he hopes they take away an understanding that “there are, in the Jewish world, people who are still [doing], and will continue to do things for the greater good. That we Jews are a pretty wonderful group of people who don’t just think of ourselves.”

Bronfman’s children, Ellen Bronfman Hauptman and Stephen Bronfman, and their spouses, Andrew Hauptman and Claudine Blondin Bronfman, established the prize in 2004 to honor their father.

Another aspect of the contest that sets it apart is the foundation’s continuing support of the prize winners after the contest is over. “Once they’re in the family of prize winners they stay in the family of prize winners,” Bronfman said.

To make a nomination, visit thecharlesbronfmanprize.com. Deadline is Jan. 12.