Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said Thursday he is honored to be the first recipient of the $1 million Genesis Prize and pledged the money would go to help make the world a better place.
Bloomberg was in Jerusalem on Thursday to accept the prize, dubbed the "Jewish Nobel," which is being awarded to him in recognition of years of public service and philanthropic efforts.
The billionaire businessman, who already donates hundreds of millions of dollars a year to charity, said he will hold a global competition to award the money for good causes.
In an interview ahead of Thursday's prize ceremony in Jerusalem, Bloomberg said he wants to "advance the idea of Tikkun Olam," using the Jewish term in Hebrew for making the world a better place.
For Bloomberg, the money is a small part of his philanthropic activities. Last year, he said his foundation gave away more than $400 million. Bloomberg Philanthropies supports dozens of projects worldwide meant to improve the environment, public health, education, the arts and government innovation.
But the former mayor said average people who give modestly are the real heroes of philanthropy.
"It's nice to be able to give away big money, but there are an awful lot of people who will give away a little bit of money ... They are making a bigger sacrifice than I am," he said.
The Genesis Prize was founded by the Office of the Prime Minister of Israel, the Genesis Philanthropy Group and the Jewish Agency for Israel. The Genesis group seeks to enhance a sense of Jewish identity among Russian-speaking Jews worldwide.
The foundation said Bloomberg's planned competition would accept proposals from all over the world for potential projects "guided by Jewish values" that address pressing issues in creative ways. Up to 10 winning teams will receive at least $100,000.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was headlining a list of more than 400 dignitaries attending the award ceremony, along with business leaders, Nobel laureates, philanthropists and entertainers. Late night comedy legend Jay Leno will host the event and Grammy-winning pianist Evgeny Kissin will also perform.
Stan Polovets, the prize's chair, said "the idea behind the prize is to recognize exceptional human beings who achieved extraordinary success in their professional career, have impacted humanity in a positive way, have a strong sense of Jewish values and ethics that have inspired them and are willing to serve as role models to the next generation of Jews."
Bloomberg, who served as New York City's mayor from 2002 to 2013, said he embraces that role and that his own Jewish values were fostered at home.
He recalled how, as a child, he once asked his father why he made a $50 donation to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, even though the family was Jewish, not black.
"He said 'because discrimination against anyone is discrimination against everyone, and if we want to have rights we have to make sure that others have it,'" Bloomberg said. "I think that is one of the most defining things of my whole life."
Bloomberg said he hopes he can inspire others — Jews and non-Jews alike.
"It would be wonderful if not just Jews got the message that we all want to be free and the only way to do that is to give other people their rights and work hard," he said. "That would be wonderful for Israel and Judaism but also for the civilized world."