Genesis Prize Taps Michael Douglas: Hollywood star cited for choosing Jewish life

09.01.2015

Last June, when Michael Douglas was in Jerusalem to celebrate the bar mitzvah of his son, Dylan, he was seen walking with a limp, the result of helping to lift the bar mitzvah boy on a chair during the spirited dancing. The famed Hollywood actor and producer will be taking on a different kind of heavy lifting in the coming year – that of a role model for Jewish identity, particularly among young people from mixed faith families. 

He was named this week as the recipient of the second annual Genesis Prize, often referred to as the Jewish Nobel Prize. The presentation will take place in Jerusalem on June 18, and comic Jay Leno will serve as emcee as he did last June, when former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg was the recipient of the inaugural prize. Stan Polovets, cofounder and chairman of the Genesis Prize Foundation, which partners with the office of the Prime Minister of Israel and the Jewish Agency for Israel in selecting an honoree for the $1 million award, told The Jewish Week in an exclusive interview Monday that their goal this year was to emphasize “inclusiveness of Jews of intermarriage” within Jewish life. In choosing an internationally well-known figure from the entertainment industry who is the product of an interfaith family and has chosen to identify with Judaism and support Israel, Polovets said the foundation is highlighting “a growing reality, which must be addressed.”

The foundation hopes to send an encouraging message that young people can take pride in their Jewish heritage and culture whether or not they are defined as Jewish by halachic standards. This message is particularly relevant to Russian-speaking Jews throughout the diaspora, the majority of whose families are interfaith. Genesis was founded by and is largely supported by wealthy Russian-speaking Jews committed to sustaining and deepening Jewish identity among young people. Douglas, 70, is the son of Jewish actor Kirk Douglas (born Issur Danielovitch) and Diana Dill, who is Anglican. His wife, the actress Catherine Zeta-Jones, is not Jewish. But his son, Dylan, influenced in part by his grandfather as well as a school friend at whose home he observed Shabbat, requested a bar mitzvah, according to New York businessman and philanthropist George Blumenthal, a longtime friend of Douglas who attended the ceremony in Israel. That event was “the tipping point for Michael” in terms of his renewed interest in Judaism, said Blumenthal. “He was always respectful of his heritage and now he has sought it out for himself.”

Anticipating pushback from traditionalists who may question honoring Douglas with an award perceived by some as recognizing a lifetime of accomplishment in Jewish affairs, Genesis Prize officials explained that their intention is to “support the vision of an inclusive global Jewish community,” cognizant of the demographics indicating increasing assimilation. In effect, their focus was less on Jewish achievement this year than on Jewish potential. “The Genesis Prize Foundation is proud to honor Michael Douglas, both for his professional achievements and for his passion for his Jewish heritage and the Jewish state,” said Polovets. “The Douglas family’s experience of connecting with its heritage and embracing it on their own terms embodies an inclusive approach for Jews of diverse backgrounds.” “This is particularly important today,” he noted, “when the question of what it means to be Jewish has become more pressing than ever.” Douglas was also cited for his “longstanding interest in his Jewish heritage,” his decision to raise his two young children as Jews (he also has an older son from his first marriage), his commitment to social justice and his “global recognition” as an actor who has won two Oscars.

On receiving the honor, Douglas said, “I share this award with my family, who encouraged me in my exploration of the Jewish faith. I hope these teachings and values will be part of the legacy in the world that I leave for my children and those who follow.” Like Bloomberg, Douglas will donate the $1 million prize to charity, in this case to causes that promote inclusion and diversity in Jewish life. Blumenthal, who first met Douglas in Israel in 1976, recalls conversations going back many years during which the actor noted, “People tell me I’m not Jewish.” The fact that in spite of this he has chosen to link himself to Judaism is all the more impressive, according to several Jewish leaders interviewed about the choice of Douglas for the Genesis Prize. (Since the announcement was embargoed this week, only those who had been informed by the foundation were interviewed here.) Eric Fingerhut, president and CEO of Hillel International, called the choice of Douglas “inspired,” and especially meaningful to his constituents of college students, many of whom are raised in multi-faith families. Honoring Douglas, who has chosen a Jewish identity, reinforces Hillel’s message of welcoming all those who wish to “explore and nurture their Jewish identity.”

Jerry Silverman, CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America, applauded the “wisdom” of the prize committee, which included Jewish Agency chair Natan Sharansky, Nobel Peace Laureate Elie Wiesel, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein and former British Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. “It’s important for people to realize that the prize specifically recognizes exceptional people whose values and achievements will inspire the next generation of Jews,” said Silverman, asserting that Douglas, who belongs to a congregation in Westchester, is “someone who can inspire others.”

Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, the founder of CLAL, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, and a consultant to Genesis, said decisions about dealing with the offspring of interfaith families “will make or break us in the future,” and that as a Jew who follows halacha, “I welcome them on their terms,” though those terms are not his own. Rabbi Greenberg said he supports the prize for Douglas because the actor’s “free choice, which is not based on separation, exclusion or rejection, but rather on embracing the blessings — past, present and future — of Jewish identity, is a very important role model for a Jewish people that fully participates in society and contributes to the welfare of all humanity.” He added that the award “constitutes an implicit call on halachic authorities to get together with representatives of patrilineal Jews” to resolve the halachic issues and make clear “that the community wants [interfaith children] to be part of the Jewish future.”

Genesis Foundation officials expressed deep satisfaction with their choice of Bloomberg last year, noting that he visited Israel for four days at the time of the award ceremony, seemed increasingly comfortable in discussing his Jewish values, and made a point of flying to Israel on an El Al plane during the Gaza War last July as a sign of solidarity with Israel and in defiance of a Federal Aviation Administration flight ban on Ben-Gurion Airport. “Would he have done it” had he not been a Genesis Prize laureate, a foundation official asked rhetorically. “I don’t know, but I believe his connection to Israel and Jewish life was heightened from the experience with us.”