This year’s Genesis Prize, sometimes called the “Jewish Nobel,” was awarded to Albert Bourla, the chairman and CEO of Pfizer. The award, which comes with a cash prize of $1 million, was awarded to Bourla for successfully leading the development of Pfizer’s now widely distributed COVID-19 vaccine.
Bourla, who is the son of Holocaust survivors from the Jewish community of Salonika in Greece, plans to donate the prize money to causes that perpetuate the memory of Holocaust survivors, particularly in his birthplace. His parents, uncle and sister were among only 2,000 Jews — out of a population of some 50,000 — to survive the Nazi occupation.
“I was brought up in a family who believed that each of us is only as strong as the bonds of our community,” Bourla said in accepting the award, “and that we are all called upon by God to repair the world. I look forward to being in Jerusalem to accept this honor in person, which symbolizes the triumph of science and a great hope for our future.”
Earlier, Bourla had recounted how his father had showed him an American visa that might have allowed him to immigrate to America. But his father stayed in Salonika, met and married Bourla’s mother, Sara, and raised the family there.
If Bourla’s father had come to America, there is a good chance that he might have ended up in Atlanta. Before the Holocaust, many members of the Greek Jewish community immigrated to Atlanta and founded Congregation Or VeShalom, which continues today off North Druid Hills Road, near I-85.
Rabbi Josh Hearshen, the congregation’s spiritual leader, greeted news of Bourla’s selection enthusiastically.
“The Genesis Prize is the greatest honor in the Jewish world. We are thrilled to see a visible Sephardic Jew be the honorary. In popular culture we associate cities like Warsaw, Kiev, Odessa, New York City and Jerusalem with Jewish culture and history. But Salonika, where Dr. Bourla grew up and was educated, was one of the greatest Jewish communities in every way. Its academia was unrivaled. Its commitments to Judaism and the Jewish people were tremendous.”
Hearshen also welcomed the announcement that Bourla would be donating his prize money to help perpetuate the memory of Greek Jews, a community, as Hearshen pointed out, that is often forgotten when we recall those that were decimated by the Nazis.
“I think that Dr. Bourla using his prize money to preserve the memories of the victims of the Holocaust and focusing on the Greek community will help in teaching the world about the sometimes-forgotten victims of the Shoah. It is notable that Dr. Bourla is being recognized for his commitment to the future in his overseeing the lifesaving COVID-19 vaccines and is using his winnings to show his commitment to the past.”
Among those recognized alongside Bourla in the Genesis Foundation announcement was Dr. Rochelle Walensky, who heads the CDC in Atlanta, as well as Jewish scientists who played key roles in the development of the COVID vaccine programs at Moderna, Johnson & Johnson and the Russian microbiology center where the Sputnik COVID-19 vaccine was created.
Pfizer, which developed its vaccine with the help of the German firm BioNTech and the financial assistance of the German government, declined to accept aid from the American government. The company developed the vaccine in about eight months, a process that ordinarily would have taken years. In announcing its latest financial results, Pfizer said that it has produced 3 billion doses of the vaccine in 2021 and anticipates that production will top 4 billion shots this year.
Stan Polovets, the co-founder and chairman of The Genesis Prize Foundation, founded the award in 2013 with $100 million in contributions from wealthy Russian Jews. He called this year’s award a proud moment for the world’s Jewish community.
“A people so small in number are having such an outsized impact on the global effort to save lives,” Polovets said. “Dr. Bourla is a bright star in the constellation of outstanding Jewish scientists and doctors in the forefront of fighting the pandemic.”
To select the winner of its annual prize, the Foundation solicits nominations from ordinary citizens around the world. In recent years over 200,000 people, over half of them from the U.S., have sent in their recommendations from various fields, including science, the arts, business and diplomacy.
- Dr. Rochelle Walensky
- Albert Bourla
- Genesis Prize
- Bob Bahr
- Pfizer COVID vaccine
- Greek Jews
- Greek Holocaust
- Congregation Or VeShalom
- Rabbi Josh Hearshen
- Jewish COVID scientists
- Stan Polovets
- Jewish Nobel
- Jewish Noble
- Johnson & Johnson
- Russian microbiology center
- Center for Disease Control and Prevention