Edgar M. Bronfman’s final book is both a testament to his legacy and a challenge for the future.
By Steve Linde
Illustrating the strong sense of family bonds among Jews around the world that can seem remarkable to non-Jews, Edgar M. Bronfman recounts a short anecdote that speaks volumes.
During his tenure as president of the World Jewish Congress, he recalls, he was at the end of a trip to Bucharest for a series of meetings when he was asked to call on the Romanian foreign minister.
“It seemed that a Jewish man was about to be executed in Iran,” he writes.
“The Romanian diplomat I was to contact had a good relationship with the Iranian government, so the plan was for me to enlist his help in the hope of reversing the order.
“When I reached him, the Romanian official seemed perplexed. ‘Do you know this guy?’ he asked. ‘Is he a relative?’ “‘I don’t know him,’ I answered, ‘but he’s a Jew and all Jews care for each other.’ The answer seemed to both fascinate and confuse him, but he made the call, and a stay of execution resulted.”
It is classic Bronfman. In his quiet, humble way, he had saved the Iranian Jew’s life.
The idea of Jewish peoplehood and kinship is central to Edgar Bronfman’s life, and his last book, Why Be Jewish?, is a well-crafted legacy of a modern-day Moses who surveys the critical challenges facing the Jewish people throughout its history, and issues “a clarion call to a generation of secular, disaffected and unaffiliated Jews.”
“As a Jewish leader, I am well aware that unless we win over our disinterested Jews, a nearly 4,000-yearold civilization of tremendous beauty and worth could end up in the dustbin of history,” he warns.
Bronfman views the Jewish people as “one of the many vibrant patches on the richly diverse quilt of humanity.”
“To identify with the Jewish people does not mean to care only for the fates of other Jews,” he says.
“In fact, the opposite is true. The Jewish tradition, from ancient to modern times, has always placed tremendous emphasis on protecting and caring for those who are different.”
Having said this, Bronfman is a strong proponent of Jews helping Jews. It was the notion of Jewish peoplehood, he says, that motivated him to become president of the World Jewish Congress, an organization dedicated to the interests and security of the Jewish people.
“My deep sense of peoplehood gave me the fortitude to fight the difficult battles to secure the freedom of Soviet Jews and to help recover Jewish assets stolen by the Nazis. It inspired me to relentlessly advocate with President George H.W. Bush in order to persuade him to help undo the 1972 UN resolution equating Zionism with racism.
“And it was peoplehood that fueled my quest to convince the Spanish and German governments to recognize or live up to their responsibilities to Israel.
All of these were very big battles, but as a Jew I felt duty-bound to wage them.”
The book was completed just weeks before Bronfman died on December 21, 2013 at the age of 84, and has been published posthumously by Hachette.
Why Be Jewish? is the key question answered by Bronfman, a secular but enlightened Jew, by telling his own story woven into the history of the Jewish people, its leaders and traditions.
Although not a rabbi, scholar or educator, he says that in his roles as a Jewish activist and philanthropist, “I developed a deep and absorbing love for our traditions and people. It is this passion that I seek to pass along.”
Bronfman accomplishes this task with great success by retelling the Jewish narrative through his own eyes and experience, with wit and wisdom.
Born in Montreal to the famous family that owned the Seagram Company, Bronfman served as its longtime CEO and as the powerful president of the World Jewish Congress (from 1981 to 2007), playing a key role in the exodus of Soviet Jewry. A successful businessman and generous philanthropist who moved from Canada to the US, he was founding chairman of Hillel’s board of governors, funded the website MyJewishLearning.com, and nurtured initiatives such as the Bronfman Fellowships in Israel through the Samuel Bronfman Foundation (named after his late father). Among the many awards he received was the US Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1999. Bronfman was survived by his wife, Jan Aronson, seven children, 23 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
Conceding at the outset of the book that he had spurned religious practice throughout most of his adult life, Bronfman says the turning point for him came at around age 60, when “he began a journey through the deep, rich, and fascinating world of Judaism.”
This grand journey, as he calls it, was set in motion by several incidents, starting with a visit to Moscow during the holiday of Simhat Torah in the 1970s when he was lobbying for Soviet Jewry.
“Though Judaism had been officially banned in the Soviet Union for the previous 75 years, these Jews were celebrating nonetheless. As I looked on, I marveled over the fact that despite years of religious suppression in the Soviet Union, they still celebrated this joyful holiday. My curiosity was piqued: What is it about Judaism that has kept it alive when so many other civilizations have disappeared?” One of the answers was provided to him by a young student at New York University named Colin Marshall, who was raised as a Christian but decided to convert to Judaism because “It was the only religion that could accommodate questions.”
“In fact, I think questioning is the most profoundly Jewish act in which we can engage. We are a faith that requires questions – a seeming contradiction that gives us a wonderful opportunity to learn and act, not simply believe,” Bronfman writes.
“As a Jewish leader I have aspired to follow in the footsteps of Judaism’s rebellious heroes by speaking out about the aspects of our Jewish community that seem dull, dysfunctional, or flawed.”
Questioning, he quickly adds, is only one step in the process of making change. Moving from an imperfect world to a more perfect one requires “a fierce commitment of body and spirit.”
“Happily, many young Jews have taken up that challenge, committing themselves to making change in Jewish life and seeking to build a better world.”
Bronfman says he derived personal pleasure from the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel, a program that brings together young Jews from diverse backgrounds.
“As I have gotten to know year after year of Bronfman Fellows, I have been inspired by the emphasis on tikkun olam among them,” he writes.
“Conversations with these young leaders, the oldest of whom are now in their 40s, reveal the ways Jewish learning and community have inspired and informed their commitment to addressing injustice, both in the Jewish community and in the world at large.”
It is no coincidence that Bronfman devotes the latter half of the book to his favorite Jewish holiday, Passover, and to its hero, Moses. The leadership lessons he gleans from them make for riveting reading.
“My fascination with the Exodus narrative, and with Moses in particular, springs from my interest in leadership, especially the kind of leadership needed to fulfill a moral purpose or vision,” Bronfman writes.
He sees an essential message of Jewish unity and hope in the Exodus story and creates a list of a dozen principles that have guided his own secular Jewish practice, based on the 12 gems on the hoshen, or breastplate, worn by the high priests of ancient Israel. According to the account in Exodus, Bronfman says, each of the 12 precious stones was engraved with one of the names of the tribes of Israel.
“In today’s fractured and fractious Jewish world, this symbol of unity held great appeal for me, with many tribes sharing one space. We are all one people, and my great hope is that a more civil discourse will replace the wars going on between Jewish denominations and communities.”
The dozen principles Bronfman outlines, he says, specify with the Jewish emphasis on deed over creed, that these are things to do, not things to believe:
- Revere godliness: the true, the good and the beautiful.
- Ask questions.
- Commit to repairing the outer and inner world.
- Perform acts of loving-kindness.
- Assist society’s weakest members.
- Champion social justice and environmental causes.
- Welcome the stranger.
- Engage with Jewish traditions, texts, philosophy, history and art.
- Study and strive for excellence in the humanities and other secular fields.
- Promote family and community.
- Embrace key Jewish holidays and life-cycle events.
- Conduct business ethically.
“Just as Moses brought the tablets of law from the mountaintop, Judaism, through its emphasis on ethics, morality, and human relationships, brings the divine to earth,” Bronfman writes.
“That is the heart of Jewish spirituality.
And it beautifully complements the view of those who, like me, don’t believe in traditional notions of God.”
In the end, he argues, each of us must find our own truth.
“One of the best ways of ferreting out that truth, or set of truths, is to ask questions.
If you don’t get the answer you seek, ask again. Don’t be afraid to challenge the powers that be. This asking of questions and the willingness to responsibly stand up to the status quo is a very Jewish thing to do.”
Throughout Jewish history, from Abraham on, “our greatest leaders have been those who challenged received wisdom about the practices of traditional Judaism in their quest to break new intellectual and spiritual ground.”
Three of his heroes, he reveals, were Moses Maimonides, Baruch Spinoza and Moses Mendelssohn.
But it is the biblical Moses who most inspires Bronfman.
“But Moses is human; he is not a god,” Bronfman writes.
“Not surprisingly, the last word of the Torah is ‘Israel.’ It seems to me that we are being told that the commitment to Israel – the people – must be the focus, not Moses.”
Beyond demonstrating how the Exodus story can yield both practical and philosophical wisdom, Bronfman views it as a call to action.
“I am hoping that after reading this book you may be inspired to develop your own programs, projects, or institutions that address the central aims to Judaism – to advance the cause of justice and to repair our battered world.”
Noting that the story of Moses has informed many American institutions, Bronfman says that the leader and the Exodus from Egypt have also been embraced as touchstones for groups rebelling against oppressive powers. He gives as an example Dr. Martin Luther King’s famous use of Exodus imagery in his final speech, “I’ve been to the mountaintop,” 24 hours before a bullet took his life in 1968.
Just as King never saw his dream realized, so Moses only saw the Promised Land from Mount Nebo. Bronfman believes that after his initial disappointment, Moses is at peace with the verdict of non-entry.
“God is showing Moses the future that is really what most leaders want: They want to know that their dreams and vision will live on,” he writes.
It is during his explanation of the festival of Succot in which we sit in our fragile succa, Bronfman says, we remind ourselves that power, fame and riches fade away. In one of the most moving passages in the book, he adds: “These are great things that have their place, and I’ve been extremely privileged to have had them all. But the love we share with our family and fellow travelers during our very brief sojourn on earth far surpasses anything we can own.
“As I write this at the age of eighty-four and a half, I know it to be profoundly true. We should remind ourselves of the importance of spending time with those we love, because as I can attest, the years pass very quickly, and unless we make the time, we will never find it.”
Closing the circle toward the end of the book, Bronfman says that like Einstein, “I thank my stars that I was born into a people who, despite being one of the most hounded in history, have retained their incurable sense of humor; a people who never stopped believing that life is so infinitely precious that, as the Talmudic saying goes, ‘whoever saves a single life, saves an entire universe.’” Edgar Bronfman saved more than the life of a Jew about to be executed in Iran.
Among other things, he played a key role in rescuing more than a million Jews from the former Soviet Union and other countries in distress. His legacy lives on in the Bronfman Foundation and the Bronfman Fellows, in his family and friends, and in this wonderful book that he penned before his death.
It is a great Jewish book written by a great Jewish leader.
This article originally appeared in The Jerusalem Post; reprinted with permission.