I first met Edgar Bronfman a few months after becoming editor of MyJewishLearning.com, a website Edgar had nourished and sustained since he founded it five years earlier. By the time of our inaugural meeting, Edgar had already put countless dollars and hours into the project. But at this meeting we didn’t discuss budgets, fundraising, or his ROI. We didn’t discuss metrics, impact, or board development. And we certainly didn’t discuss continuity, intermarriage, or declining synagogue attendance.
Instead, we discussed Torah.
It was a few weeks before Shavuot, and I had been invited to teach a class to Edgar, his foundation staff, and friends. I brought a range of texts—biblical, rabbinic, modern—about revelation and interpretation, and for an hour and a half, a conference room at the famed Seagram Building turned into, what seemed to me, the most unlikely beit midrash (study hall)
But, in fact, there was nothing unlikely about this scene. It was actually quite commonplace. Every week, Edgar invited a different teacher to lead a Talmud class for him and his staff.
Many people will remember Edgar for his career at Seagram, his work with the World Jewish Congress, and his keen investments in the next generation through Hillel and the Bronfman Youth Fellowship. But I will always, first and foremost, remember him for his weekly classes. For me, they highlighted a number of extraordinary things about the man.
Most importantly, Edgar cared deeply about the substance and content of Jewish life. While much of the Jewish community was analyzing every jot and tittle of the most recent population study, parsing intermarriage and affiliation rates, Edgar was gathering people to analyze Torah, Talmud, philosophy. To Edgar it was blatantly obvious that our sacred texts—and the study partners we explore them with—have much more to teach us than any Pew study could.
Edgar’s weekly classes modeled Talmudic pluralism. Strong opinions were offered and welcome, but multiple opinions were essential. People of all stripes and backgrounds studied at these classes, and he invited people who spanned denominational and ideological positions to lead the studies. For Edgar, the Jewish community’s diversity was, perhaps, its most exciting attribute. He believed that learning could only happen when you encounter difference. This commitment extended well beyond Edgar’s weekly study sessions. It is evident in his philanthropic legacy, in organizations like Hillel, BYFI, and MyJewishLearning.