Blog Post : Edgar Bronfman, Some Personal Reflections from Rabbi Yehuda Sarna

Edgar Bronfman, Some Personal Reflections from Rabbi Yehuda Sarna | Anonymous (not verified) | Dec 22, 2013

During the heat of Hillel's wildfire expansion in the early nineties, Richard Joel, then President, suggested to Edgar Bronfman, then Chairman, that they meet at one of the student centers in New York City. 

"Let's meet at the Hillel at NYU," Edgar posited.

"I would like to," Richard responded, "But there is no Hillel at NYU." 

"There is now," declared Edgar.

There is now. These words birthed the Edgar M. Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life at NYU, lending it the excitement,  relevancy and entrepreneurial spirit with which it continues to thrive today. As much as I now play a leadership role in the Center, I am in many ways a product of it.

I came to the Bronfman Center in 2002, six years after its doors opened. My position had been created in response to the dramatic increase in Orthodox students attending NYU. Rabbi Andy Bachman, the Executive Director, had served as a spiritual mentor and guide to these students, though himself a Reform rabbi. Nevertheless, he felt that is was important for these students to have a rabbi who mirrored more closely their religious profile.

This situation marked my first deep encounter with a Reform rabbi, someone who understood the particular needs of Orthodox students and, together with Edgar, was going to prioritize their being met. And so having spent the first 24 years of my life in Orthodox-only environments, my relationship with Andy became my first course in pluralism. Admittedly, I couldn't really understand it. Assuming that Jewish denominations were pitted against each other, why wouldn't a Reform rabbi exhibit a "grab-and-hold" approach to the Bronfman Center, keeping the "enemy" out?

But the pluralism of the Bronfman Center was not a theoretical worldview, but a real world. The challenges of living as a family under one roof were translated into a student community: how do we share space, money, love, attention, food and ideas? Who gets to set the terms of a conversation when everyone disagrees? Who gets the last word when no one is ready to end the conversation? It is complicated world, but the more I opened myself to it, the more I learned to appreciate its simplicity. The Jewish People are just like a family; it is stronger together and if you want to make it work, everyone needs to look out for each other.

In 2004, the Samuel Bronfman Foundation invited me to lead a Talmud study for Edgar and the Foundation's staff and friends. I was told that Edgar holds text study in high esteem, and invites guest scholars every Tuesday. In my first substantive discussion with Edgar, I realized that what he is doing every week is assembling a group of smart people, most of whom disagree with each other. More importantly, rather than what emerges being a cacaphony, the bottom line is not lost: we all cherish Jewish learning and prize open debate. None of the scholars or educators in Edgar's circle felt that they needed to gain his agreement in order to earn his approval.  

As my visits to the Talmud study multiplied, I tended to bring with me not conclusions which were foregone, but conflicts with which I struggled: Jewish vibrancy and intermarriage, Jewish pride and interfaith relations, and more. Besides for his perspectives on the texts we studied, Edgar also brought the lessons from freeing Soviet Jewry, stiff negotiations with the Swiss banks, and the renaissance of Jewish youth. There are few greater gifts for a young educator than the opportunity to marry one's own innovative ideas to the experience of a great leader.

Edgar's presence mattered tremendously. His regular attendance at High Holiday services at NYU inspired the rabbis, students and community members. We knew that because he was coming, we needed to have a text study component and we needed to experiment with alternative style services. He was always remarkably in step with what worked and what needed to change.

On a personal level, his presence mattered particularly to me on one evening. In 2012, the Temple of Understanding, one of the premier interfaith organizations working at the United Nations, had decided to honor Chelsea Clinton, Imam Khalid Latif and I for our work together at NYU. Edgar came to the dinner. He really didn't have to come, but he came. I think, I hope, he came because he genuinely felt proud of the work that the Bronfman Center had accomplished.

Edgar's bold leadership and visionary philanthropy changed the Jewish world, but he always reserved a special place in his heart for brownstone which bears his name at 7 East 10th Street. It is a place where lives are transformed and leaders are made. It is a place where pluralism lives and Torah is studied. It is a place which is a hub for innovation and a portal to the world. In the early nineties, there was a need for places like this. 

There was then. 

There is now.

And there will always be.