Edgar Bronfman, philanthropist and Jewish communal leader, dies at 84
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Edgar Bronfman, philanthropist and Jewish communal leader, dies at 84

Local memories of Edgar Bronfman

Edgar Bronfman, who died on Saturday at 84, was a very rich man, insulated from most of us by the huge fortune he inherited, shepherded, and increased.

Susan Hertzberg of Haworth remembers him not just as an icon, but also as a person.

Ms. Hertzberg is the younger daughter of the late Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg. She grew up in Englewood, where for decades her father was rabbi of Temple Emanu-el there. (It since has moved to Closter.) The two men, Mr. Bronfman physically imposing, elegant, and powerful, and Rabbi Hertzberg much smaller but a towering intellect, both supremely self-confident that their way of looking at the world was the only correct way to see it, worked together for many years. Ms. Hertzberg saw much of that work first-hand.

“Dad and Edgar got to know each other through their work in major Jewish organizations in the 1970s,” she said. “Dad was involved in the American Jewish Congress, and later in the World Jewish Congress, and Edgar became its chair.”

The two men were drawn together because each had reached the pinnacle of his own world, and they recognized each other from neighboring mountaintops. “They found that they had a lot of interests in common,” she continued. “Edgar hadn’t really had much of a Jewish education, and he grew to rely on my father for his classical Jewish knowledge.

“They spent a lot of time together, discussing the issues of the day; as a pragmatic businessman, Edgar had a lot of interesting and novel ideals about how to approach some longstanding problems in American Jewish society, particularly the disaffection of younger people with organized synagogue-based religion as a source of Jewish identity.”

Given Mr. Bronfman’s continuing focus on how to engage young people, Ms. Hertzberg said, it made sense that he chose to create the Bronfman Youth Fellowship in Israel, and later to become involved actively in Hillel. “That grew out of Edgar’s desire to enlarge the Jewish perspective of young people in America, who were born Jewish but didn’t feel Jewish.

“Edgar observed a disengagement in Judaism on the part of kids who had gone to Hebrew school in the 1960s and 70s, until bar mitzvah, and then drifted away,” she continued.

“So he looked for tools to bring these young people back. One of his great thoughts was to give young people the experience of going to Israel as a way of stimulating their interest in the Jewish religion, Jewish culture, and support of Israel.”

The two men collaborated in forming a minyan where both would celebrate the High Holy Days. “After my father retired as a pulpit rabbi, he wanted a shul in which he would feel comfortable praying,” Ms. Hertzberg said. “Edgar too wanted to be able to feel comfortable. So the two hatched a small, invitation-only minyan for their family and some friends.”

The minyan met three times a year; Mr. Bronfman always managed to find a public space that was appropriately sized and furnished to fit the minyan comfortably and stylishly. “It was a combination of services and learning,” Ms. Hertzberg said. “There always also was a Talmud lesson, discussion of different prayers, and relating the liturgy to things going on in the world.

“The joke was that it was the favorite synagogue that either of them ever had been affiliated with, because there was no board of directors.”

The minyan lasted for more than 10 years; eventually Rabbi Hertzberg’s failing health made it impossible for him to continue it.

Edgar Bronfman and her father did not always get along easily, Ms. Hertzberg said. “They would often disagree, but they sparked each other’s thinking. They were both very strong egos.” Sparks flew because the ferocity of their intellectual engagement with each other was flint on flint.

Her father also was close to Mr. Bronfman’s widow, Jan, “who is a an accomplished painter in her own right,” Ms. Hertzberg said.

Her overwhelming feeling about Edgar Bronfman is that “he was insightful and decisive,” she said. “He was truly interested in people.”

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