Last month, Edgar Bronfman’s final book, Why Be Jewish? was published (Twelve Books). Completed shortly before his death, it constitutes the last words and thoughts of one of American Jewry’s twentieth-century giants, whose work as a businessman, philanthropist, thinker and leader echoed around the world.
Edgar’s message is informed by his own personal journey through Judaism, acknowledging that being Jewish in our time is an ongoing active choice, whose rewards may not always be readily visible. Edgar sets out to articulate the reason to be Jewish and the fundamental ways to do so as secular beings. He introduces 12 big ideas — such as peoplehood, tikkun olam and tikkun midot, tzedakkah and hesed, the quest for knowledge and the questioning of authority — which, in his experience, make Judaism compelling to every person, whether considering to join the tribe or simply to continue to belong.
I was introduced to Edgar Bronfman 12 years ago, as a young 30-something. I expected to be interviewed about my work or be talked at, as often happens in these situations. But Edgar, who routinely spent time with the world’s political and business leaders at the “epicenter of power,” was also genuinely interested in big ideas coming from the “edges of the system.” We struck up a conversation about the condition and direction of the Jewish People, which continued for nearly a decade until his death. Thus, over the years, I have known Edgar to have a singular interest in exploring new ideas and staying current by surrounding himself with a team of young, emerging leaders, often 50 years younger than he, and by engaging young emerging entrepreneurs, thinkers and activists who kept him up-to-date on new technologies and trends.
Edgar was not a theist. In his book, he openly and unapologetically declares himself to be a secular Jew, and so he is uniquely able to address the concerns of many Jews who were brought up to believe that Judaism could only be explored through its religiosity. His key notion is that being Jewish is about acting from a Jewish consciousness, about living with a sense of belonging to a family and a tribe with a shared legacy and a shared destiny, and about serving a vision of a better and more humane community, society and world. In this sense, Edgar takes on two of the most powerful Jewish dogmas of recent centuries: that of the religious establishment that holds being Jewish to require faith and belonging to a religious community, and that of Zionism, which holds that Jewish identity must be anchored in Israel.
The book also includes a nutshell of Edgar’s remarkable leadership philosophy, inspired by his biblical hero, Moses. Edgar’s insights in this regard are particularly significant, since his life as a Jewish leader was marked by the courage to repeatedly offer compelling visions, marshal the resources to realize them and defy tremendous powers through intellect, capital, action and persistence in the name and service of our people. As President of the World Jewish Congress, Edgar challenged the Soviet Union over its treatment of its Jews, and echoing his hero in demanding, “Let my people go.” Edgar also led the charge against Swiss banks, which shamelessly profited from deposits of Holocaust victims made during the Shoah. And, in the name of every Jew, he took on the state of Austria when it appointed a Nazi, Kurt Waldheim, to its highest office.
Within the Jewish community, Edgar was among the first to understand that twentieth-century prosperity and security in developed nations represented a tremendous challenge to the traditional Jewish community in its efforts to remain compelling to its young. He was able to articulate a narrative and vision, which he captured in another book, entitled Hope Not Fear. Moreover, he led and underwrote tremendous institutions focused on the Jewish future as he envisioned it. The keystone of his work was his generation-long investment in the Bronfman Fellowships program. Bronfman Fellows, now numbering thousands, are Edgar’s gift-that-keeps-on-giving to the Jewish People, offering leadership across our community as lay leaders, professionals, and entrepreneurs.
Edgar ends the book, with a full recognition that his remarkable work as a leader remains unfinished. He writes: “I have given much of my life to the Jewish world … everything has its natural end, and so now, as my time on earth draws to a close, I would thank my stars even more if you would choose to stand at Sinai; if you would choose, as I did so many years ago, to join this remarkable people who generation after generation held fast to the dream that …we would transform the troubled world.” This is his final charge and testament to us. May Edgar’s memory be for a blessing.
Why Be Jewish? A Testament, by By Edgar M. Bronfman. Twelve Books.