Edgar M. Bronfman is among the Jewish community’s leading philanthropists, and his commitment to this website in particular has been crucial and unmatched.
But Bronfman has always been more than just a “donor.” I’ve had the privilege of attending some of the weekly Talmud classes Bronfman has at his office, and it’s clear that his study of Judaism and the Jewish community is motivated by both his personal desire to be a more knowledgeable Jew and his interest in being a more effective Jewish leader.
Today marks the publication of Bronfman’s new book Hope, Not Fear: A Path to Jewish Renaissance, which he wrote with Beth Zasloff. In anticipation of the book’s release, I asked Beth a few questions about the book and what it was like working on a project with Edgar Bronfman.
Can you start by summarizing the primary message of the book?
Judaism is a joyful culture and religion that offers many paths to improving the life of the individual and the world. To reinvigorate Judaism in North America, we need to foster a community that is united not by fear for survival but by knowledge and celebration of the Jewish tradition.
Historian Jonathan Sarna has said that Hope, Not Fear is, at times, “controversial.” What are the potentially controversial ideas expressed in the book?
Iâ€™m sure that some will object to the assertion that fighting anti-Semitism should get off the top of the communal agenda. Itâ€™s particularly striking coming from a leader who has spent his life fighting anti-Semitism (getting out Soviet Jews, battling the Swiss banks for Holocaust restitution). The point is not that anti-Semitism isnâ€™t a global threat or that Jews should stop fighting it. Itâ€™s that thereâ€™s very little of it in North America, and that we need to move beyond an embattled posture and use our strength to rebuild Judaism and do some good in the world.
Thereâ€™s also the idea that the high rate of intermarriage is not necessarily a disaster, and the hopeful attitude that if Judaism is taught in a positive way it can even be an opportunity to enrich and expand Jewish life. Many synagogues and Jewish institutions have become more welcoming to intermarried couples, but the subject still ignites tensions.
Do you know if there was any particular event or occurrence that inspired Mr. Bronfman to want to write this book? How did the idea for the book develop?
When I asked Mr. Bronfman the same question he described his reaction to the National Jewish Population Survey of 1990, which reported that more than half of Jews were marrying non-Jews and that less than a third of the children of intermarriages would be raised as Jews. Suddenly, he and many others were confronted with data that predicted a vastly diminished Jewish population within a couple of generations. Thatâ€™s when he decided to get involved with Hillel and work to foster Jewish renaissance on a large scale, and the book is part of this effort.
The ideas in the book developed over the course of interviews with Jewish leaders, work with new initiatives through The Samuel Bronfman Foundation, and weekly study sessions of Jewish texts. Deciding on the title really brought the book together, with the message that fear canâ€™t be the force that holds Jewish life together; that we need to cultivate a hopeful, open, diverse Jewish life. This is a message that really spoke to me, and that I think will speak to others of my generation or younger who are tired of being pressured to be Jewish in a certain way in the name of Jewish survival.
Did the process of working on this book have any impact on your personal approach to Judaism?
My two daughters (now four and a year-and-a-half) were both born while I was working on the book. So writing about Jewish ethics and the Jewish home made me take a hard look at what I was doing myself. I havenâ€™t started going to synagogue more but Iâ€™ve tried to celebrate Shabbat and holidays and to gather with other families (most, incidentally, who are intermarried) to make Judaism joyous and connected.
What did you learn about Mr. Bronfman by working on this book that the rest of us might not know?
He calls himself a feminist, because he says women always have to work harder than men to get to the same place. He seems most in his element talking to students and listening to what they have to say. He takes piano lessons.
Who were you writing the book for? Who is the imagined reader?
Part of the message of the book is to cultivate diversity in Jewish life, and the book is really directed to a diverse readership.
While writing, I often imagined the reactions of specific people among my relatives and friends. I thought about my aunts and in-laws and their discussions of intermarriage among their children, about my secular Jewish friends who are skeptical about organized religion, about my gay and lesbian friends, about the Orthodox rabbis, teachers and friends I have met through this work and through the Bronfman Youth Fellowships. It wasnâ€™t about finding a way to get everyone to agree on everything, but finding areas of common ground.
You did a lot of interviews for this book. Who was the most interesting person you spoke with?
I found Rabbi Arthur Green to be really inspiring. He is a scholar and expert on Jewish mysticism who has also done a tremendous amount to create Jewish communities that are rigorous in their study and engaged with the world. My first contact with him was when I called to set up the interview. He made a comment about the origin of my last name in this incredibly deep and resonant voice. Just over the phone I felt like I was suddenly connected to something much larger than myself.
He speaks and writes about matters of the spirit in a way that is tremendously humane, that made me want to learn more and that helped convince me that Judaism has something to say to pain and catastrophe in the world.