Interview with Edgar M. Bronfman and Beth Zasloff
Beth: Can you talk about the title of the book?
Edgar: “Hope, not fear” was a phrase I used when I first met Richard Joel, the former President of Hillel and current President of Yeshiva University, after I committed to join him at Hillel. Richard told me he didn’t fully understand what I meant until his wife explained to him later at home: we need to stop obsessing about anti-Semitism. We need to focus on the hope that we can have more Jews and more engaged Jews and create a Jewish renaissance.
Beth: Hope, Not Fear describes your encounters with some of the most visionary leaders and thinkers of contemporary Jewish life. Why did you decide to approach the book this way? How did you select the people you would interview?
Edgar: When I decided to write about efforts to inspire Jewish renaissance, it seemed best to let the people who toil in those vineyards discuss what they do and why they do it. Many I had come to know in my years of work in the Jewish community. Others came to me through the recommendation of others or simply came onto my radar screen as I progressed in my own Jewish education. They were people I met on campuses, the authors whose books I had read or the leaders of cutting edge initiatives. Some of the most inspiring conversations were with young people who were passionate about Judaism - Hillel students or Birthright Israel alumni or alumni from the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel.
Beth: I know from experience that the weekly Thursday study sessions described in the book’s opening are really remarkable gatherings of diverse Jews. For me, they have brought back the rigor of study and debate that I experienced on the Bronfman Youth Fellowships. Why did you start these sessions? Why are they so important to you?
Edgar: Engaging in Jewish study served as a catalyst for the writing of this book. We are the people of the book, and I am convinced that if we do a better job of learning what’s in our texts, ancient and modern, we have a better chance of keeping Judaism alive and relevant.
In Judaism, study isn’t something that you do by yourself. In the Thursday study sessions we get a real range of ages and of Jewish backgrounds. The differences keep the debate lively. Even texts that seem arcane can have remarkable relevance for today. Text study shouldn’t be something that takes us away from the world – it should help us to be better citizens of it. It’s so important that people make time to reflect on important ethical questions and to discuss them with others.
Beth: You have taken a position on intermarriage that is strikingly different than the conventional approach of some Jewish communal leaders. Could you talk about your views? Is it accurate to say that you are not bothered by the high intermarriage rate in America?
Edgar: At one time in my life, I thought that the high intermarriage rate was just awful. Then of course you start to think further, and, slowly, if you meet enough people who are thinking differently, like those I write about in my book, you begin to learn that this could be an opportunity; not the end of the world but maybe the beginning of a new path. We need to change the attitude and education of Jews. Instead of trying to force them to fall out of love with someone, let us try to help them fall in love with Judaism.
Beth. Why has putting joy back into Judaism been so important to you?
Edgar: I grew up in the 1930’s and 40’s when our people were being exterminated all over Europe. The Judaism I grew up with was joyless. It wasn’t until my adult years that I discovered how much joy is a part of Judaism. There is a lot of joy in the High Holidays. It’s a wonderful concept that over those ten days you really do a tremendous amount of introspection, and figure out how to make yourself a better person. Passover is a wonderful joyous time. We’re celebrating freedom. Sure, we put a little salt in the water to remember that there was pain involved too. But the basic thing should be joy.
Beth: You have written and speak often of ‘responsibility.’ What do you feel is the responsibility of a Jew?
Edgar: I once asked the late Arthur Hertzberg, was it important that we keep the Jewish faith going? He said, the Jewish people have contributed so much to this world and we’ve still got so much more to give. When we say ‘Never Again,’ we don’t just mean not to us; we mean for everyone. I think that the Jews have to be leaders in solving the problems of the world; we have a certain responsibility to know the difference between right and wrong. Life is really a growing and learning process, and it is up to each and every Jew to learn, grow and bring what they have learned back into the world.
Beth: In both your Jewish work and your business work, you have often given a lot of responsibility to young people. What motivates you to make those decisions to empower younger people, when you may be able to find someone with more experience?
Edgar: I was a young person too, and I was not given responsibility I thought I deserved. I never want to make that same mistake. Experience is great, but eagerness and desire are the key to doing a good job. You have to trust young people. They are idealistic, and that should be encouraged and fostered.
I am also a feminist. Why? Women work harder than men to get to the same spot, because they have to.
Beth: In your time as Chairman of Hillel’s Board of Governors, you have visited over 100 campuses in North America and around the world. What about students you have met makes you feel hopeful for the next generation?
Edger: I have held many open discussions with students during those visits. I am hopeful because they are anxious to learn and they are taking their knowledge and are doing great things with it. They have taken their experiences on Birthright Israel, and brought them back to their campuses and to their communities. Innovative projects, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, are sprouting up because of their eagerness to learn.
Beth: What do you see as one of the Jewish community’s biggest problems to contend with at this moment in history?
Edgar: All of us who are concerned with the vanishing Jew in North America face the same problem: that none, or almost none, of the American Jewish population thinks we have a crisis. But we are in crisis, if one considers the disappearance of Judaism in this country as critical. When our ancestors came to North America, it was not to become better Jews; it was to have a better life for them and their children, and to mingle in with the “others.” We have succeeded beyond their fondest dreams, but the penalty we pay is to lose Jews through assimilation, through ignorance of their Jewish heritage and through apathy. We have a great heritage that has survived all sorts of attempts to snuff it out. We have a religion that encourages one to ask questions and to be skeptical.
If we become more welcoming, we could convince more Jews that it is important to be Jewish; that it is important to be part of the Jewish community; and, most importantly, that being part of this community enriches your life,. That is the only way we can sell it. We can’t sell it by your grandmother turning over in her grave. We have to sell it on a personal basis; because of Judaism, you are a better person who leads a better life.
Beth: What continues to drive your philanthropic work? Can you point to any great influences that motivate and inspire the work that you do?
Edgar: My father always taught us to leave the world a better place than we found it. In my small way, this is what I am trying to do.