Reading through Edgar Bronfman’s new book, “Hope, Not Fear: A Path to Jewish Renaissance,” my mind kept flashing to a pair of his fellow Jewish gazillionaires: George Soros and Sheldon Adelson.
It’s not that Bronfman (with the help of co-author, Beth Zasloff) doesn’t have anything to say. Their message — that Jewish institutions need to stop relying on appeals to Holocaust remembrance and fears about anti-Semitism, and start doing more to embrace intermarried families — certainly will rankle plenty of traditionalists. And for those who already share Bronfman and Zasloff’s perspective, the book is a useful guide to like-minded organizations and initiatives translating the message into action.
Ultimately, however, their argument is not new — Bronfman says the title comes from a comment he made more than a decade ago — and many of the programs they cite have been in existence for years. So what stands out about the book?
That’s where Soros and Adelson come in. Thanks to their respective critics on the right and left, they have come to represent conflicting caricatures of the typical Jewish bigwig. Soros is demonized by conservatives as a self-loathing universalist who won’t support Jewish causes, and Adelson is bemoaned by liberals as a warmongering particularist best known for his right-wing agenda.
Invective aside, the critics have a point. Soros, the international financier who has spent hundreds of million of dollars boosting democratic instiutions in Europe and fighting Republicans in the United States, generally steers clear of Jewish causes. Adelson, the casino mogul and big-time GOP backer, is not shy about mixing his right-wing politics and philanthropic efforts.
To be sure, neither man is alone. Studies show that many of the wealthiest Jewish philanthropists give relatively small sums, if at all, to overtly Jewish causes, and more than one informed observer has said that those who do give big sums to Jewish organizations and institutions tend to be more conservative than most Jews.
Not that there’s anything wrong with either trend. But taken together, they make Bronfman an increasingly rare breed within the world of Jewish mega-donors: an unabashedly outspoken political and religious liberal with a nearly unparalleled track record of sticking up for the Jews.
Sure, you can find plenty of wealthy liberals ready to make the case for electing a Democratic president, dismantling settlements or embracing intermarried families, but how many of them also can boast of playing a lead role in exposing Kurt Waldheim’s Nazi past, fighting for the freedom of Soviet Jews, pushing for the repeal of the U.N. resolution equating Zionism with racism, and battling the Swiss banks on behalf of Holocaust victims and their heirs?
What’s interesting about Bronfman’s book, in other words, is that the guy telling everyone to start hoping was for several decades a key cog in the Jewish community’s worrying machine.
“All my grandparents came form Russia,” Bronfman, a native of Canada, told JTA during a recent interview in the Manhattan offices of his Samuel Bronfman Foundation. “I was born in ’29; that means in ’39 I was aware of what was going on. That was pretty frightening stuff. I remember when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, I ran into my brother’s room and said, ‘Hey [the Jews are] going to be saved, we’re going to win. I wasn’t sure of that before America entered the war.”
Bronfman’s father, for whom his foundation is named, was a macher by all measures: president of the Canadian Jewish Congress, vice president of the World Jewish Congress. So Edgar Bronfmanâ€™s own decades-long stint as head of the WJC, the perch from which he waged all of those high-profile battles, can be seen as a simple matter of continuing with the family business, not so different than assuming the reigns at Seagram.
“In terms of defending Jews, I’m a Jew,” Bronfman said. “And I was in a position to do so, so I did so.”
Less predictable has been Bronfman’s growing interest in religion and the process of shifting his focus from “defense” issues to Jewish identity-building.
“As I was growing up, my knowledge of Judaism was limited to lessons for my bar mitzvah and attendance at a junior congregation that I found dull and pointless, especially since I knew my father did not attend synagogue on Saturdays — he went to the office instead,” Bronfman writes in his book.
Not surprisingly, he adds, “As an adult, I spurned religious practice and raised my own children in a home where Judaism was almost completely absent. At the same time, in my public life I immersed myself in Jewish causes, responding to the cataclysmic changes of the twentieth century, which saw the Holocaust, the founding of Israel, and the fall of Communism. I felt a responsibility to fight for Jews worldwide but little connection to the content of religion and culture. Slowly, my involvement in Jewish life led me to appreciate that something more than the fight against anti-Semitism had kept our religion alive while so many others faded away. I witnessed thousands of Jews gathered outside Moscow’s Choral Synagogue for the holiday Simchat Torah, and marveled over the fact that despite years of suppressing religion in the Soviet Union these Jews still celebrated this joyful holiday.”
This realization eventually led to a religious awakening of sorts.
“Starting in my sixties, I began to make changes in my life,” Bronfman writes. “I lit Shabbat candles with my wife every Friday night. I stopped eating pork and shellfish to assert my Jewish identity. I became a proud Jew, in my home and my heart.”
In 1994, Bronfman became chairman of Hillel, the Jewish student campus organization, where he formed a famously productive partnership with then-Hillel president Richard Joel, now president of Yeshiva University. Bronfman began supporting a host of other Jewish cultural and religious initiatives and became a regular student of Jewish texts.
Along the way, Bronfman writes in his book, he realized that “the fight against anti-Semitism, which occupied Jewish organized life for a century, is no longer the most urgent matter.”
“What North American Jews need now is hope, not fear,” he argues. “We have to build, not fight. We need Jewish education, and not just about the Holocaust, or the history of Jewish oppression. We need to celebrate the joy in Judaism, even as we recognize our responsibility to alleviate suffering and to help heal a broken world. We need to understand Judaism as a multifaceted culture as well as a religion, and explore Jewish literature, music, and art. We need to understand our tradition of debate and questioning, and invite all to enter a conversation about our central texts, rituals, and laws. We need to open our book anew, and re-create a vital Judaism for our time.”
This new fight, he insists, requires the “same sense of urgency that has made North American Jews such effective advocates for Jews in danger worldwide.”
Just as Bronfman once fought for Soviet Jews who were denied their freedom and Holocaust survivors cheated out of their money, he couches his current campaign as a battle to help everyday Jews reclaim their heritage — especially those who have intermarried and found themselves feeling shut out from many corners of the Jewish community.
But even as Bronfman prods institutions and organizations to adapt, merge and recognize the realities of intermarriage, he has a message for the regular folks.
“There are many wonderful efforts to cultivate Jewish renaissance and to reach as many Jews as possible,” he writes. “But all the work of well-publicized initiatives will mean nothing if Jews do not bring Judaism into the home.”
Some measure of kashrut would be nice, but at a minimum, he insists, families should make a point on Friday night of marking Shabbat with the blessings over the candles, wine and bread, the blessing over the children and a discussion of the weekly Torah portion.
Perhaps it’s not as dramatic as battling Waldheim, but Bronfman’s hoping his latest crusade will prove to be his most important legacy. So keep your eye on him. He’s the one standing over there, somewhere between George Soros and Sheldon Adelson.