What’s right for the Jews? Edgar Bronfman takes a guess

Just about everything in Edgar M. Bronfman’s new book, “Hope, Not Fear: A Path to Jewish Renaissance,” is fascinating more for who is saying it than for what it says.

Bronfman, the Seagram liquor scion, is as “North American Jewish establishment” as one can get (the family is Canadian). His generation (people now in their 70s) has shaped the Jewish community through its leadership and philanthropy for decades.

Bronfman himself has served as president of the World Jewish Congress and as chairman of Hillel?s International Board of Governors, and he and his brother, Charles, are among a handful of mega-philanthropists in the Jewish world.

Bronfman is the author of several books, including his 1996 memoir “The Making of a Jew,” and in this one, he finds a great deal wrong and in need of repair. He also admits that his own generation has been ill- equipped to fully meet the challenges of contemporary Judaism, especially to arrest the precipitous decline in numbers of the Jewish population.

He attributes this to the need for a new vision of Jewish life and culture, one that is a renewal – or a “Jewish renaissance,” as he calls it – of the great lessons of our traditions. These traditions, Bronfman avers, need to be more commonly studied and discussed.

He begins by analyzing the vision and organizing ethos that animated the Jewish community through most of the 20th century, an ethos often based on fear of anti-Semitism.

But now, Bronfman argues, we should “build, not fight.” The fear of anti-Semitism “is no longer a motivating force for North American Jews. … We need to find positive, hopeful ways to affirm our own Judaism.”

Bronfman came by his commitment to building fairly late in life. He writes: “As an adult, I spurned religious practice and raised my own children in a home where Judaism was almost completely absent.” Then, starting in his 60s, “I became a proud Jew, in my home and in my heart.”

It would be interesting to know the thought processes of a billionaire, the choices considered by someone sufficiently wealthy to put his money where his mouth is. Indeed, an unstated theme of the book is the pervasive extent of private philanthropy that has nurtured and changed the Jewish community. Almost every major initiative – in synagogues, educational institutions, federations, social service agencies, Israel organizations, and other causes – can be attributed to the catalyst of private sponsorship.

Nevertheless, despite the generosity of the “machers” and the talent and dedication of Jewish communal professionals, Bronfman declares that we are in trouble. Not only are our numbers declining, but we aren’t even doing a good job of meeting the needs of Jews who remain affiliated and/or are self-identifying.

In fact, Jews are opting out for many reasons, some of which are not peculiar to Judaism, as other faith traditions also wrestle with diminishing congregational membership. Bronfman suggests that the great unmet need of the Jewish community is to adopt a more open and welcoming spirit, especially to those who are non-Jewish partners of Jews who are intermarried.

While arguments continue to rage about who is a Jew, many have left the Jewish community because the non-Jewish partner felt shut out and excluded.

Bronfman says that we cannot afford to alienate, that we must recognize that everyone has a right to affiliate and identify as they please, regardless of halachic prescriptions. This reluctant but realistic acceptance is followed by another blockbuster requirement: basically, that every person may bring his own version of Judaism to the table. We ought to support and even facilitate the development of individual choice and the diversity it spawns.

There are obvious challenges to this way of thinking about Judaism, but focusing on cultural diversity rather than theology can soften objections. As long as Bronfman is not counseling the deconstruction of centuries of talmudic wisdom, he is on safe ground. In fact, those ancient texts constitute a core resource for Jewish education, which Bronfman strongly endorses and wants a lot more of.

Arguing that a place should be available for everyone who wants to be under the tent is not a new idea, but Bronfman presents this point with vigor and candor, admitting in effect that in this society Jews may find themselves as likely to be getting married in a church as in a synagogue.

He reminds that people will fall in love despite their elders’ possible disapproval, and it is not sensible or ethical to exclude from full membership those who happen to not be born of a Jewish mother. Bronfman advances patrilineal descent as the best compromise of that issue.

The second part of the book outlines a variety of initiatives, funded by Bronfman and other philanthropists, to nurture and establish a new vision of welcoming and diversity, acceptance rather than tolerance. Bronfman advises respect for all the individual ways in which people choose to be Jewish and practice their faith.

This is a singular perspective for a man who once epitomized the “establishment” and traditional view, represented by denominational interests. Now, post-denominationalism has become pervasive, especially among the young who have no interest in the denominational differences which so often provided the fulcrum of conflict in the Jewish world.

At the end of the book, some 32 ?Jewish Renaissance Initiatives’ are briefly described, including Birthright Israel, the Wexner Heritage Program, Hillel, Star (Synagogues: Transformation and Renewal), and the Foundation for Jewish Camping. Bronfman cites these and others as today’s most progressive efforts to essentially reform and create a Jewish renaissance.

If there is a significant omission in the book, it is the New York-centrism and lack of mention of programs sponsored by philanthropists elsewhere, such as Northern California (Koret, Osher, Taube, Goldman and Haas). Edgar Bronfman no doubt is aware that the Bay Area is a major spawning ground for Jewish renewal.

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