The government’s decision to walk back on the Western Wall deal seemed to widen the already growing distance between the American Jewish Diaspora and Israel – an event that, some say, marked a nadir in that crucial connection. The new president of the Genesis Prize Foundation, Steve Rakitt, however, remains optimistic that the two communities can find their way back to each other.
“Jewish life in the Diaspora is robust, innovative and creative in engaging a wide variety of people,” he says in a conversation with The Jerusalem Post.
“Israel can and must be part of that engagement. The Genesis Prize offers a unique platform to showcase the accomplishments of laureates, their Jewish values and connection to Israel.”
Speaking from the Genesis Prize Foundation offices in New York City, Rakitt draws from four decades of experience as a Jewish communal professional. He said that his role at GPF, which is the brainchild of businessman and philanthropist Michael Fridman, is to work with a team of talented professionals, the founders, Advisory Board, Selection and Prize committees to consider how the $1 million prize awarded to each laureate can be a force for positive change in the Jewish world.
After serving as CEO of the Jewish Federations of Rhode Island, Atlanta and Washington DC, Rakitt is eager to embark on this new phase in his career.
“I am passionate about the power of philanthropy, building stronger communities and inspiring others to make positive change. The Genesis Prize does exactly that,” he explains.
Specifically, he was attracted to the uniqueness of the Genesis Prize’s tradition of laureates directing their prize money to causes they are passionate about.
He was also impressed by GPF’s desire to collaborate with other philanthropists and organizations. From Hillel International to the Jewish Funders Network to businessman Roman Abramovich’s matching donations and Morris Kahn’s generous gift to ease the plight of Syrian refugees, the organization’s partnerships enable the impact of the prize to be felt exponentially across a variety of fields.
“In just four years, with the generous help of our partners, GPF has funded over 50 projects in 10 different countries, totaling more than $10 million in grants. That’s the power of leverage,” he marvels.
“I’ve learned that the most effective Jewish foundations cultivate and grow relationships. Going it alone is simply not as effective as working with others. Partnerships are key to GPF’s success,” he says, “and we will work to attract even more philanthropists and foundations to partner with us to address important issues.”
In addition, GPF’s partner approach involves engaging philanthropists and foundations across Israel and the Diaspora around each laureate theme, and working with them to fund projects across the world. This format promotes collaboration and recognizes the unique opportunity for impact when communities in the Diaspora and Israel work together to advance the most pressing issues in the Jewish world.
However, he added, “No Jewish organization today can be truly effective without engaging young people – the future of Jewish community and philanthropy.” During his time at the Federations, Rakitt led numerous initiatives to attract young Jewish adults and provide them with leadership roles. While GPF is already doing this, Rakitt is hoping to expand this type of programming.
“Young adult engagement is critical to the Jewish community’s future,” he says. “We should not call them the ‘next generation,’ they are the current generation. It is important to attract them – on their own terms – to help strengthen Jewish communal life.”
He points to Genesis Prize Laureate Michael Douglas and Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky’s visits to college campuses across North America last year (which were funded by Taube Philanthropies, Sobrato Philanthropies and the BASE Family Fund, in partnership with GPF and Hillel) as an example of doing just that. GPF also funded Hillel’s student ambassadors program, in which participants focused on engaging students from interfaith families.
“These young leaders connected with 7,000 students in just one year,” he said. “We will continue to think strategically about how to use the prize, the laureates and the award funds to expand in this important area.”
At its core, the Genesis Prize is effective because of its unwavering dedication to tikkun olam – the Jewish value of repairing the world.
Rakitt recalls seeing a video summarizing the impact of the Genesis Prize worldwide. One particular project – eNable 3D Printed Prosthetic – particularly resonated with Rakitt. eNable was a Genesis Generation Challenge project funded by Laureate Michael Bloomberg’s prize money, which trains prosthetists to create artificial limbs for people in need. Rakitt was moved by the organization’s work in Haiti after the devastating earthquake and saw it as a testament to how the Jewish world can help
rebuild communities after tragedy.
For now, Rakitt, who assumed his position on August 1, acknowledges that he still has a lot to learn about GPF. “When I enter any new role, I listen carefully before speaking,” he chuckles. “I’m learning a great deal from my very talented colleagues in America and in Israel.”
In turn, GPF leadership is eager to start working with Rakitt as the Genesis Prize enters its fifth year. “We are thrilled to have Steve on board at GPF. The entire team looks forward to collaborating with him to further advance key issues in our community,” GPF co-founder and chairman Stan Polovets said.
Rakitt said, “There are several themes that have been consistent throughout my work in the Jewish community: a passion for building community, helping people achieve their philanthropic dreams, and engaging young Jews in building and strengthening the bond between Jews and between the Diaspora and Israel.”
“The Genesis Prize is focusing on all of these themes.” And he added, “I feel right at home.”
This article was written in cooperation with the Genesis Prize Foundation.