The Sanctity of Learning as an Escape from the Mundane

by Adam R. Bronfman

I am Adonai, and I shall take you out from under the burdens of Egypt; I shall rescue you from their service; I shall redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgements. I shall take you to me for a people; and I shall be a God to you; and you shall know that I am Adonai your God., Exodus 6:6-7

The covenantal relationship declared above is deceptively simple. It promises a deep sense of belonging; both to a community and to an eternal relationship. But the truth is that being part of the Jewish people requires as much questioning and doubt as it requires belief and connection. The declaration, “you shall know,” can seem hollow or foreign. Making space for questioning, the quest to find what we actually do know, is vital for a meaningful relationship with Judaism.

For the past four years The Samuel Bronfman Foundation has hosted an intimate conference called Why Be Jewish. The attendees are a small group of Jewish thinkers from across the spectrum, who are as likely to disagree as to agree, but building consensus is not our mission. While over time it has transformed its configuration, the gathering has maintained its objective of creating a space where diverse thinkers and professionals spend time learning about relevant topics for our community, and asking as many questions as we answer.

The gathering is meaningful for so many reasons, but particularly because it serves as a spiritual and intellectual pause from our everyday lives. As we embark together, leaving behind the business of day-to-day life and focusing on text and Jewish questions, we not only seek to replenish ourselves and our community, but return to the core of our Jewish narrative and strengthen our relationships to one another.

Our foundation’s mission states: Jewish renaissance is grounded in Jewish learning – for us, the foundation of a good foundation is grounded in knowledge. That is why at our foundation, we endeavor to focus on Jewish text and the Jewish narrative at the core of all our tasks.

Jewish philanthropy, like all philanthropy, must concern itself with the ordinary aspects of running foundations and guiding projects. We must help raise money, and provide support through financial grants and growth opportunities for individuals. The routine of philanthropy is not unlike the routine of life: it is easy to lose sight of the bigger picture by focusing on the details of day-to-day tasks. Emails, meetings, fundraisers and all the rest drain our spiritual reserves and take us away from the focus of what we set out to do at the outset.

That is why we regularly provide opportunities for learning and collaboration. Every week we join together, with our staff and extended family in the philanthropic community, and engage in a variety of learning lead by diverse leaders in the Jewish world to guide us through the stories of our people.

Through learning, and particularly the traditional exploratory process of chevruta-style learning, in which learning is done collaboratively with a partner, we help each other traverse difficult concepts. Our goal is not specifically defined; we simply increase our Jewish knowledge, spend time with gifted educators, and nourish our intellectual and spiritual needs. It may sound luxurious, but I have come to see it as essential – to take the time to consider our actions and inform our decisions through the rich heritage of Jewish thought allows us to move forward in a focused manner. The issues we study and the stories we learn about through Jewish texts often mirror the complexities we face in our contemporary decisions.

Through these learning sessions, we transform ourselves into something more valuable: we build a community of colleagues who are invested in one another’s professional and personal successes. We take on the responsibility of being in relationship to each other in a specifically Jewish way through collaborative study.

As we explore the nuances of Jewish text, we invariably find ourselves addressing some key challenges facing our Jewish community. How do we treat the outsider? How do we balance the needs of our own people with a larger commitment to human rights? How do we balance individualism and the Jewish collective? Our convening power lies not only in the ability to bring people into a room with one another, but to facilitate partnerships that yield the kind of high level thinking that benefits the whole of the Jewish community. Jewish study is a life affirming and community building exercise.

The Why Be Jewish gathering is a convening of those weekly sessions, condensed and concentrated so that those who teach us have a chance to learn themselves. We like to say that we “walk our talk,” and so we strive to continually increase our Jewish knowledge. Through studying the Jewish narrative together, we continue to allow it to grow and invest in its future. Will we ever find an answer to our questions? Maybe, or maybe not, but it is in the process of learning together and in asking those questions that we become more affirmed in ourselves and in the Jewish people.

Adam R. Bronfman is the Managing Director of The Samuel Bronfman Foundation.