Bronfman, Brandeis seeking big ideas


NEW YORK (JTA) – Charles Bronfman wants to know if you have the next great Jewish idea – and he’s willing to pay you for it.

The Andrea and Charles Bronfman Foundation will award a two-year visiting professorship at Brandeis University to the person who comes up with an idea that can transform how the Jewish community thinks about itself.

Along with the Charles R. Bronfman Visiting Chair in Jewish Communal Innovation, the winner of the open competition will receive a six-figure salary.

The winner, to be determined in late winter, will have two years at Brandeis to publish a significant English-language work based on his or her idea.

The goal is to find an idea akin to birthright israel, said Jonathan Sarna, chair of the Hornstein Jewish professional leadership program at Brandeis, which will administer the new chair.

“We only have to look at the high-tech industry to see that all ideas don’t all pan out, but all you need is one Google or Mapquest to justify a whole lot of ideas that don’t go anywhere,” Sarna said. “We are looking within the Jewish community for great ideas like that. Charles Bronfman feels there may be lots of people who have those ideas and haven’t had a chance to put them on the table and work them out.”

Sarna said the idea is based on the contest held by Sears Roebuck and Co. chairman Julius Rosenwald in 1929, in which Rosenwald offered $10,000 to the person who could answer the question: “How can Judaism best adjust itself to and influence modern life?”

Sixty-two contestants answered the question over two years, until Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, submitted his work “Judaism as a Civilization” and won. The book became one of his seminal works and remains influential.

The Brandeis contest will be decided over a much shorter period. Applicants are asked to submit proposals to Brandeis of no longer than five pages about their idea, its audience and its relevance to communal issues. Finalists will be asked to publicly discuss the ideas at a symposium.

The winner will receive a salary estimated at $110,000 as well as benefits. He or she will be expected to teach a course per semester and present visiting lectures about the idea starting next fall. Brandeis University Press will publish the winner’s book.

Sarna hopes the symposium will help even those who are not chosen to air their ideas.

Bronfman has allocated $1.5 million to the project with the idea of sponsoring a second contest and visiting chair in two years.

“People like Charles Bronfman understand the value of the new idea and that sometimes that new idea is out of the box,” Sarna said.

Brandeis, he said, provides the perfect forum for such a contest because the Jewish Catalogue, a do-it-yourself, progressive and accessible guide to Judaism, was developed there in the 1960s.

“One of the Jewish community’s greatest strengths in North America has been its ability to innovate generation to generation,” Bronfman said in a news release. “It is our hope that this chair will reinforce this process at this time.”

Details on the contest are available at

Proposals, including a resume, teaching ideas and two recommendations, should be sent to Sarna either by e-mail at, or c/o Hornstein Jewish Professional Leadership Program, MS307, Brandeis University, Waltham, MA 02454-9110.

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