Interfaith engagement organizations reap rewards of Douglas’ Genesis Prize
Twenty-eight organizations committed to engaging interfaith families in Jewish life are benefiting from $3.3 million in grant funds, thanks to Academy Award-winning actor Michael Douglas.
Last summer, Douglas was awarded the 2015 Genesis Prize — a $1 million prize awarded annually by the prime minister of Israel — which recognizes individuals who have attained excellence in their professional fields and “who inspire others through their engagement and dedication to the Jewish community and/or the State of Israel,” according to the website for the prize.
Douglas, the son of Jewish actor Kirk Douglas and non-Jewish actress Diana Douglas Webster, declined to accept the prize money and instead redirected it to fund projects that promote inclusion in Jewish life. A $200,000 gift was earmarked for the Jewish student organization, Hillel International, with the remainder of the funds — as well as additional donations and matching grants — dispersed by the Jewish Funders Network (JFN) among 28 distinct organizations throughout the world.
“As someone who is not always welcomed in the Jewish community because my mother was not Jewish, I want to make sure that all those who desire to connect with Jewish culture and heritage have that opportunity,” said Douglas in a prepared statement. “This fund will allow many organizations to continue, or to initiate, important work to engage intermarried couples and their children.”
The JFN received 81 applications from organizations based in 14 different countries for grants to facilitate projects for intermarried families. Among the 28 chosen grant recipients were: the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University to support a research study that will examine how intermarried couples make decisions regarding religion and family life; the Jewish Community Center of Warsaw to aid the JCC in its role as an entrance point to Jewish life in Warsaw for families, the majority of whom are intermarried; and the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism to help congregations include interfaith couples and families in Jewish life and community.
Philanthropic startup, Honeymoon Israel, which provides heavily subsidized trips to the Jewish state to couples in which at least one partner is Jewish, received grant funds to assist with post-trip programming.
Honeymoon Israel founder and co-CEO Michael Wise launched his nonprofit in response to the findings of the 2013 Pew survey on American Jewish life, which showed the intermarriage rate of non-Orthodox Jews at 71 percent.
The reality of the high rate of intermarriage called for a paradigm shift in the Jewish community’s response, according to Wise.
“We need to stop defining intermarriage as the enemy and stop focusing on preventing it,” he said in an interview. “Intermarriage is a reality. We need to think about how can we help welcome young couples to be part of the Jewish community in a way that is meaningful to them. And we want to inspire them to build a Jewish community that works for them.”
Since Honeymoon Israel launched about 18 months ago, the startup has taken 14 groups totaling 560 people to Israel, and Wise projects that by the end of 2017 it will take another 1,500.
Each Honeymoon Israel trip is comprised of couples living in the same city; the nonprofit is currently leading trips from eight locations, including Washington, D.C.
“All of our trips are locally based,” Wise said. “That’s critical in building community.”
Honeymoon Israel is hoping to expand to additional cities in the coming months, including Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Baltimore, Wise said.
Couples who are in the first five years of a committed relationship pay only $1,800 per couple for a trip to the Jewish state, which includes flights, five-star hotels, planned activities, and nearly all meals. The actual value of the trip is $10,000, according to Wise, who added that the trips are subsidized by national philanthropies.
Sixty-five percent of the couples who have taken Honeymoon Israel trips are interfaith; 15 to 20 percent include a partner who is Jewish by choice; and 15 to 20 percent are couples in which both partners were born Jewish, but who are unengaged in Jewish life.
The couples should be open to the idea of raising a Jewish family in order to qualify for the trip, Wise said.
Once the couples return from Israel, Honeymoon Israel helps fund programming to maintain the community established on the trip, including Shabbatons and learning groups.
“I’ve been a JCC and Federation professional for my entire career,” Wise said. “It just hit me that the most impactful way to build a community and help these couples is taking them to Israel and letting the magic of the group happen.”
Honeymoon Israel is just one of the myriad of programs and projects available to help include and engage intermarried couples in Jewish life, according to Andrés Spokoiny, president and CEO of the JFN.
“The response to this matching grant from the field was tremendous,” Spokoiny said in an email. “The number and quality of projects who applied made the selection process very competitive, and it shows that Michael’s [Douglas] vision activated a lot of potential energy that was already present in the community.”
“There’s a lot of passion out there for making Jewish life more inclusive, and that passion can be a real opportunity for the Jewish world,” he continued. “The gifts being matched, as well as the whole range of amazing projects that were submitted, represent new donors and newly increased levels of giving that this area has never seen before.”
The Genesis Prize, which was established through a partnership among the Office of the Prime Minister of the State of Israel, the Genesis Prize Foundation and the Office of the Chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, is endowed by the Genesis Prize Foundation.
The Genesis Prize was launched in 2014 with New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg as its first recipient. Bloomberg also used his award money for philanthropic purposes, investing it in a global competition called the Genesis Generation Challenge. Douglas is the second recipient of the award. Violinist Itzhak Perlman will be the recipient of the 2016 Genesis Prize in June.
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.