Rabbi David Ellenson remembers the legendary philanthropist whose eye was trained on the future.
Many will surely speak of Edgar Bronfman and his legacy — and deservedly so. I will leave it to others to describe his extraordinarily privileged background, his many achievements in the realm of business and commerce, and his manifold philanthropic works. Each area of his exceptional life is worthy of a full-scale treatise, and I have no doubt that a complete academic biography of the man will soon emerge — the temptation for an academic or graduate student to describe the history of Jewish life in our day through an exploration of this one man’s life is surely irresistible.
However, now is not the moment for such reflection. Instead, I would offer some personal thoughts on the man I knew.
I first met Edgar Bronfman in 2001. I had just been appointed president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, and Edgar wrote and invited me to meet with him. He knew that I was very close to his friend Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg. Rabbi Hertzberg had been my teacher during my graduate student days at Columbia, and I considered him my teacher throughout his lifetime. At that first meeting with Edgar, we spent a great deal of time talking about a number of topics. Edgar knew that I was a Reform rabbi whose academic writings were centered on the development of Orthodox Judaism in 19th-century Germany. Edgar wanted to know why, and this was one of the main points of our discussion.
However, our conversation soon turned to our mutual friend — Rabbi Hertzberg. Both of us found Arthur to be a brilliant and provocative scholar and activist. We spoke of his knowledge, his love of Israel, and his keen moral sense, even as Edgar lovingly pointed out his all too human foibles. That I would embrace my teacher was hardly a surprise. That Edgar did so impressed me greatly. The qualities of candor, humor and curiosity that characterized this prominent and privileged man, who had already done so much for the Jewish people as president of the World Jewish Congress, were ones that I would come to appreciate and admire even more as the years went on.
Over the next decade, I saw Edgar many times. Highlights for me were the meals and occasions the two of us shared with Rabbi Hertzberg. I would love the intellectual sparring that took place between them, and I enjoyed their frankness alongside their mutual respect for one another. On a number of other occasions I would see Edgar with his wife Jan and witness the pride he took in her artistic achievements. He was particularly proud of the Haggadah they wrote together. Other times I would share lunch with Edgar, Dana Raucher, the executive director of the Samuel Bronfman Foundation, and my daughter Ruthie, who spent the last three years working with Edgar on editorial projects. I remember that these conversations took place not only at the Four Seasons, but in Utah at conferences on Jewish life organized by his son Adam.
I was grateful for all these personal connections and meetings, and I genuinely loved how much Edgar valued Jewish study. Study sessions held at the foundation were a great source of engagement. Edgar had a great tolerance for the expression of diverse opinions. Indeed, he seemed to revel in such expression, and censorship of thought was completely alien to his nature. For a man who had so much wealth, I was particularly impressed that the things he appeared to value most were things that could not be bought — ideas and intellectual discourse.
I was also impressed by the two major philanthropic areas upon which Edgar chose to focus during the final years of his life: Hillel and the Bronfman Youth Fellowship in Israel for both North American and Israeli teenagers. My own son Rafi was a recipient of a Bronfman Youth Fellowship that took him to Israel in 2011. Both these projects involved young people and reflected Edgar’s concern for the ongoing life of the Jewish people. Edgar clearly felt that the future of the Jewish people in both Israel and the diaspora depended upon the creation of programs that would establish a vibrant and celebratory Judaism that was open to the broadest possible range of ideas and viewpoints. Nothing else could contribute more greatly to Jewish continuity and solidarity.
At the end of Chapter 5 in Shekalim in the Jerusalem Talmud, a story is told that once Rabbi Hama bar Ḥanina and Rabbi Hoshaya, his teacher, were strolling before a magnificent synagogue in Lod when Rabbi Ḥama bar Ḥanina stated proudly to Rabbi Hoshaya: “How much money my ancestors invested here!” Rabbi Hoshaya then said to him: “In how many souls did your ancestors invest here?”
The enduring legacy of Edgar Bronfman — as his deeds testify — is that he invested in souls. To paraphrase the words of Rabbi Hoshaya, if we were to ask: “In how many souls did Edgar invest?,” the response would be: “Thousands and thousands.”
As I think of him during this week of his death, I would return to the words of Shekalim 5:2: “One does not erect monuments for the righteous. Their words and their deeds constitute their memorial.” Y’hi zichro baruch — his words and deeds constitute his memorial and provide us with blessing.
Rabbi David Ellenson is chancellor of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.
The Jewish Week feels comments create a valuable conversation and wants to feature your thoughts on our website. To make everyone feel welcome, we won't publish comments that are profane, irrelevant, promotional or make personal attacks.