Despite the fund-raising appeals of his own World Jewish Congress, Edgar Bronfman believes that the Jewish community is spending too much money fighting anti-Semitism and not enough educating Jews about Judaism.
And in the process of delivering that message last week to Chicago-area college students, WJC President Bronfman condemned a fund-raising letter the congress sent out over his own signature.
On a whirlwind tour to promote his vision of Jewish renewal on college campuses, Bronfman met with students and faculty at several universities here May 8-9.
“There is only one real community agenda,” he said. “To create a renaissance of Jewish life, to get awareness of Jewish religion out to Jews.”
He talked about setting priorities in Jewish life and took a swipe at Jewish organizations that continue “business as usual” while the number of Jews shrinks.
“Jews are not here only to fight anti-Semitism,” he said. “I am not Jewish because of the Holocaust. I won’t forget what happened, but I don’t spend my time mourning the loss of 6 million. If Judaism survives, it will be on a positive, not a negative basis.”
Bronfman’s comments, however, came as the WJC was distributing a four-page letter that said, “Our latest worldwide report on anti-Semitic violence shows that attacks against Jews doubled last years.”
In the letter, the WJC appealed for contributions because “these virulent anti- Semitic terrorists respect no boundaries.”
“This is wrong,” Bronfman said when asked during a break between student meetings here about the mailing. “Sure there is some anti-Semitism, but that’s wrong.
“I’m going to have to do something about it. I don’t like what they (professional fund-raisers) are doing.”
Bronfman, who is the chairman of Seagram Company Ltd., also is chairman of the international board of governors of Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, and his contributed some $22 million to the organization. It was in that capacity that he and Richard Joel, president and international director of Hillel, were in Chicago.
The two took turns talking to students and answering questions. There was nothing formal about the meeting. Bronfman and Joel sat on a table in front of the room to answer questions, some of which focused on Bronfman’s business acumen.
Bronfman, 67, revealed that he has written a book about “my life as a Jew.” The book will be published by Putnam, a subsidiary of MCA Inc., a Bronfman-owned company.
Although Hillel sponsored the event, Joel made it clear that their visit was to promote Jewish pride, not organizational affiliation.
“People really want to invest in something that pays dividends. The business venture that is worth investing in is not Hillel, but the Jewish people,” Joel said.
Long thought of as the address for religious Jews, Hillel’s additional challenge, in Joel’s words, is to promote Judaism in general.
The new concept of Hillel as a combination campus address for observant Jews and outreach program to the unaffiliated is “a work in progress and process,” Joel said.
The greatest threat to Judaism is “that life is so good. We have to choose to be Jewish. There is no hindrance to intermarriage,” Bronfman said.
Bronfman urged students to study – not management text, but Jewish texts, as he is now doing on a regular basis.
In an interview after the meeting, Bronfman said he reads the Bible every day and recently began studying the Ethics of the Fathers.
“Jewish study has made me happier with myself. It has given me grafter pride in my Judaism,” he said. It has not, however, made him more religiously observant. “I still don’t go to synagogue,” he said.
Bronfman grew up in what he called “a typical Montreal household.” He went to Sunday school “intermittently.”
“My parents were not religious,” he said.
His father taught him to read Hebrew, but when he discovered his father could not understand the prayers he was teaching, “I was out of there,” he said.
As part of their discussions with students, Bronfman and Joel asked students to respond to a series of questions, including how many were registered to vote, how many attended Jewish day schools or camps, how many participated in Jewish youth groups and how many had been to Israel.
Among graduate students, slightly more than half were registered to vote or planned to vote; very few had gone to Jewish day schools or camps; and less than one-third had visited Israel.
“You are a representative sample of American Jewry,” Joel said. Hillel “must create paths of entry for those people who don’t define themselves organizationally” as Jews.