Prince of the Jews

Prince of the Jews

Within moments of the news alert announcing that Edgar Bronfman had passed away, I received several text messages from college friends asking me whether I’d heard the news.

Edgar M. Bronfman was not simply the name of the benefactor of our Hillel. To us, the word “Bronfman” was synonymous with “home.”

The structure that is in place at the Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life at NYU is a direct result of Edgar Bronfman’s dream. He wanted it to be not only a place where students could grow as Jews, which indeed it is, but he also imagined it as an environment where student leaders would master the fundamental skills necessary to make their dreams for the Jewish community come true.

During the two years that I served on the student board of NYU’s Hillel, I learned several essential skills, all while on the job: how to propose an idea, gain access to funding and use that funding, manage a budget, and work with other people, whose ideas and interests both complemented and conflicted with my own. Most importantly, I learned to execute the ideas that my peers and I developed and to ensure the realization of my goals.

Learning these essential skills was a vital component of my college education, and I owe that aspect of my growth to Edgar Bronfman.

At the conclusion of my year as president of NYU’s Hillel, Mr. Bronfman graciously took me and two other students out to lunch. We had met before, at the annual Bronfman Center Advisory Board meeting and at the Samuel Bronfman Foundation for one of his frequent Torah study sessions. To say that Mr. Bronfman was candid, sincere, and warm doesn’t begin to describe him. He asked us questions about our accomplishments and our aspirations. He told us jokes and stories. With a grin, he playfully challenged some of my Orthodox beliefs, and, despite having thoroughly considered the issues at hand, was deeply interested and genuinely engaged in thinking about the responses that I provided. I felt that I had so much to learn from this great man – and yet, here he was, actively listening to the ideas presented by me, a 22-year old college student!

His decidedly assured confidence in his beliefs and his never-ending engagement with texts and ideas was one of his hallmark characteristics. His focus on young adults was emblematic of his constant demand to grapple with the newest iterations of Jewish thought.

At one point during the meal, he offered us the opportunity to ask him questions. A passage from his autobiography, “The Making of a Jew,” came to mind.

In 1981, Mr. Bronfman went on a mission whose goal was to meet with Romania’s president, Nicolae Ceausescu. It was an attempt to protect the rights of Romanian Jews. Mr. Bronfman writes:

“On the Saturday morning I was to see the President, [Romanian Chief] Rabbi Rosen told me that all traffic would be stopped, not only automobile but pedestrian…. We walked because it was Shabbat. I am not usually a keeper of the Sabbath, but I am when I represent the Jewish people.

I asked Mr. Bronfman why he chose to walk that day. His response was simple and to the point: “A Jew does not drive on Shabbat.”

I was stunned by his answer. Edgar Bronfman was certainly a Jew – the prince of the Jews, as JTA’s Ami Eden has so movingly written – and he certainly drove on Shabbat. How could he make such a blanket statement?

Perhaps sensing my surprise, he continued: “My Shabbat is my Shabbat. No one can tell me how to rest on my Shabbat and what to do with my Shabbat. But I knew that this was the right thing to do. And,” he concluded after a pause, “Ceausescu respected me for it.”

Over the years, I’ve thought about that statement. It’s illustrative of Edgar Bronfman’s Jewishness; it highlights a deeply personal, and thus unique, engagement with tradition, and a broad commitment to the Jewish people at large.

Mr. Bronfman’s statement was indicative of his personal dedication to Shabbat. In his day-to-day life, he expressed that dedication in his own intellectually honest way. But he also understood that other Jews, with whom he felt an inherent kinship and toward whom he exhibited a profound responsibility, observed it differently.

He did not need to show that respect by walking through the streets of Romania. He could have let his words to world leaders convey his respect. But he knew, in Romania and elsewhere, that his actions would speak louder than his words. He walked where his brethren walked, felt and alleviated their pain, all the while treading a path guided by a personal yet traditional moral compass, a compass he consistently reconfigured through the great Jewish tradition of endless discussion, debate, and learning.

May his memory continue to be a blessing for us all.