A legend in many realms, Edgar M. Bronfman lived a rich and varied life, embodying many facets in his work and personality.
Yet while Jews the world over marked the loss of a leader to whom they owe much, for our community, the Bronfman Youth Fellowships, it is a personal loss. We “Bronfmanim”—as we call ourselves– have lost our founder and our inspiration, but truly, we have lost the person who invited us to live Talmudically in the modern world.
A devout non-believer, Edgar said his favorite book was the Babylonian Talmud, whose hero is not God but the argumentative and cunning human scholar. The paradigm of the Talmudic scholar requires a rigorous knowledge of foundational texts and a sharp wit, mixed with a healthy dose of competitiveness, a thirst for justice, an appreciation of one’s own fallibility… and a great sense of humor. All those characteristics could be found in Edgar Bronfman as much as in the best Talmud folios.
To be fair, when Edgar turned his formidable business mind to the service of the Jewish people – becoming president of the World Jewish Congress in 1981 – he did not know the value of learning. Like so many Jews, he found Jewish practice to be an empty vessel, full of double standards and weak nostalgic traditionalism. He assumed the same of Jewish texts.
Edgar served the Jewish people because of his loyalty towards family, and the desire to see Jews truly respected in a world that too often flaunted their rights.
Yet on the airplane back from a meeting behind the Iron Curtain, Edgar noticed his companion studying the daily page of Talmud, and became curious. He quickly engaged in a discussion about the tort law of a violent cow and fell in love with the intellectual joy of Talmudic study. Edgar found the Talmud to be seeking justice through messy dilemmas and imperfect decisions, a reality this global business leader knew well.
Back in the boardrooms of the Jewish organizations he led, he encountered dysfunctional discourse. The leaders he met lacked the Talmudic ability to harbor a range of contrasting perspectives. The battles he witnessed placed an emphasis on denominational answers and ideology, lacking the Talmud’s appreciation of doubt and compromise. Meanwhile, the intellectual bar of existing Jewish programs kept getter lower and lower, even as the American Jewish community was growing more and more educated. Jews were abandoning the Talmudic tradition of erudition and excellence.
Edgar decided to invest in young people and in Jewish learning, in service of a “Jewish Renaissance.” Among the endeavors he was proudest of was the founding of the Bronfman Youth Fellowships, an identity incubator beginning with outstanding 17-year-olds from North America and Israel.
On “Bronfman” (as the program came to be called) they experienced Jewish learning of the highest quality, challenged by friends and teachers who did not share their point of view but gave them the benefit of the doubt. It was an experiment in pluralism: Edgar knew that if we dictate shared practice – be it expectations around halachic ritual, Israel politics or whom one marries – there will be little to keep us together. But if we share a commitment to Jewish learning, we become an interpretive community, allowing for an inclusivity sorely needed in the Jewish world. The fellowships are effectively a new kind of yeshiva, a modern house of study, an intentional community that continues to inspire the over 1,000 “Bronfmanim” who are having a deep impact on Israeli and North American life. Edgar continued to give the gift of rigorous Torah learning by founding and supporting some of the best Jewish learning happening in the liberal Jewish world, often led or inspired by his “Bronfmanim”.
This week, Edgar’s loss is felt throughout our community: Who will invite us to his weekly Talmud study? Who will challenge us with his sharp questions and opinions? But his passing allows us to redouble our commitment to his values, and we plan on continuing to make Jewish learning an ongoing part of our lives. Needless to say, we’re already arguing about which book to study in his honor.
Rabbi Mishael Zion and Rebecca Voorwinde are the co-directors of the Bronfman Fellowships, a community of more than 1,000 young Jews from Israel and North America that includes some of today’s most inspiring Jewish writers, thinkers and leaders. www.bronfman.org.