“Call me Edgar”
It was with those words and an extended hand that I first met Edgar M. Bronfman, of blessed memory, about a decade ago. I had recently been hired as Executive Director of STAR (Synagogues: Transformation and Renewal), one of the initiatives that he was funding. And over the course of that decade, I was incredibly fortunate to spend time with Edgar M. Bronfman, a contemporary hero of the Jewish people. (I use those words genuinely—my professional relationship with The Samuel Bronfman Foundation ended when STAR disbanded in 2010.) Anyone of a certain age involved in Jewish communal life knew the name, Edgar M. Bronfman, and for good reason. As a small tribute to Edgar, I’d like to frame several personal reflections in a way that he would appreciate: with brevity and with Torah.
This week’s parasha, Vaera, opens on a depressing note. We left off last week with Pharaoh further demoralizing the Jewish people. What is his response to Moshe’s demand to liberate them? He responds by obligating the Jewish people to gather the raw materials for brick baking, something that he had provided them with, and still produce the same quota of bricks. Moshe’s chutzpah in confronting Pharaoh is repaid with more back-breaking work, not more freedom! And how do the Jewish people respond when Moshe tries to encourage the people to believe in a better, achievable, not-to-distant future? “And the people did not believe him because their spirits were crushed and the labor was hard” (Exodus 6:9). After all those years of oppression and humiliation, can you blame them for giving up easily after their initial hopes were shattered?
In the spirit of Moshe, Edgar played a pivotal role in lifting Jews out of oppression and in restoring dignity to the Jewish people globally. Edgar honored the past, respected the present and invested in the future. With an undeterred and fierce sense of justice, he lobbied for basic human rights for Soviet Jews. He accomplished what others had already abandoned hope for: gaining economic restitution for the theft of Jewish-owned property under the Nazi regime and exposing Kurt Waldheim as a Nazi, ignominiously ending his term as Secretary General of the United Nations.
MyJewishLearning.com is a website that expresses another one of Edgar’s passions: Jewish learning. It’s smart, pluralistic, relevant and respects the learner at whatever place he or she may be. Edgar believed that the breadth of Jewish learning, presented in a democratically accessible, multi-faceted approach gave Jews a way to acquire self-respect by exploring their intellectual legacy.
And of course, he always had his eye toward the future. Just look at his determination in re-infusing Hillel with life for Jewish college students and creating a program like the Bronfman Youth Fellowships.
I don’t know how frequently Edgar was advised to let go of his audacious ideas and stop raising expectations that could never be met. And I don’t fault all of those who did, especially survivors of the Shoah. But Edgar could not be anything but a seeker of justice, a learned, self-respecting Jew and a purveyor of hope and inspiration for the Jewish people. He grasped that to be a Jewish leader meant to use your influence to inspire your people with confidence in their ability to surpass their imagination for a thriving future. Transcending all of the discrete, magnificent initiatives that Edgar was midwife to, Edgar’s spirit stands as an inspiration for those who are fearless enough to say and do what they believe. It’s a rarity in a world of leadership, especially in these times.
Thank you, God, for giving us a great human who was both down to earth and a sublime dreamer. His legacy will gain even greater strength if just a few more of us try to pick up a part of his mantle.
Rabbi Hayim Herring, Ph.D., C.E.O., Hayimherring.com