Investor, businessman, entrepreneur, and philanthropist Charles Bronfman discusses Jewish life in North America and Israel-Diaspora relations.
Charles Bronfman - an investor, businessman, entrepreneur, and philanthropist - is Chairman of The Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, a family of charitable foundations operating in Israel, the USA and Canada, whose mission is to develop, implement and support initiatives that help to strengthen the unity of the Jewish People.
His biography is much too rich in detail to try and sum it up in a couple of sentences (you can check out his Wikipedia bio here). He is co-chairman of birthright Israel. He received honorary degrees from Hebrew University, McGill University, Brandeis, Concordia, Waterloo and Toronto universities. In June, 1992, he was made a Companion of the Order of Canada and the same year became a Member of the Queen's Privy Council for Canada. Mr. Bronfman's life-long commitment to Jewish affairs led him to serve, from 1999 to 2001, as the first Chairman of United Jewish Communities, the merged North American entity comprised of United Jewish Appeal, the Council of Jewish Federations and United Israel Appeal. He is also Honorary President, United Israel Appeal of Canada; and Honorary Chairman of CLAL - The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.
We will discuss issues related to Jewish life in North America and Israel-Diaspora relations. Readers can send questions too firstname.lastname@example.org.
As a former Montrealer (Chomedey) living in Israel since 1984, I'm concerned at the rise in anti-Semitism (fire-bombs in Jewish schools) and anti-Israel feeling in Quebec. Polls sent to me by my cousins show levels much higher than in the rest of Canada. The answer is partly that this is nothing new among the Quebecois and partly due to the rise in the Arab and specifically Lebanese population, drawn to Montreal by the French language.
The question is what can be done? I have always said proudly that I made aliyah due to the pull of Zionism and not the push of anti-Semitism. Can that still be true?
Also and completely off-subject, how do you feel about the demise of the Expos? I remember an article in Yediot where you said that bringing baseball to Montreal was one of your proudest achievements. Could nothing have been done to save them?
Unfortunately, the rise of anti-Semitism is not confined to Quebec. Indeed, it has been more prevalent and more violent in Europe. Which is not to excuse Quebeckers. I find the whole subject of anti-Semitism so very disgusting!
One would think that, after the Holocaust, and after papal encyclicals that countermand the former "common wisdom" that the Jews were responsible for Jesus's death, a new world of compassion towards us would have arisen. Alas, such is far from the case.
What to do? Be happy that we're Jewish. Learn about what being Jewish means, whether that entails religious ritual, philanthropic acts, or simply having a Jewish neshamah. We may never live in a compassionate world, but we CAN be compassionate people!
Re the Expos. Yes, it was one of my proudest achievements. But I knew, at the end of the '80's that the Expos could not survive in Montreal UNLESS the Olympic Stadium were to be replaced for Baseball by a much smaller downtown stadium, easily accessible to Montrealers. Plus the ludicrous situation, at that time, of our revenues being largely in Canadian Dollars and our expenses largely in US Dollars. Impossible!!
My great regret is that Baseball, as an institution, treated the whole Expos situation with a shocking degree of callousness. It was obvious that the team had to be moved. And yet they let it stay there under one mismanagement, then took the Club over, and sold it to Washington for a huge profit. All this over a multi-year period!!
Dear Mr. Bronfman.
You say that Generation Y people "have multiple identities that form their whole person, rather than the single identity," but in a dialog I had with Prof. Sylvia Barak-Fishman a while ago, she said that in order to deal successfully with intermarriage we need "to advocate for the creation of exclusively Jewish homes."
So it's "multiple identities" vs. "exclusively Jewish." How do we solve this contradiction?
I think we're talking apples and oranges. When I mentioned "multiple identities" that does not mitigate against a Jewish home. It DOES mean that Generation Y people may think of themselves as Jewish, but they also think of themselves in terms of who their friends are, what sports they play, how they relate to the Internet, what tunes they like to hear, what programs on TV catch their fancy, and more.
Returning to who their friends are for a minute, Generation Y people have a multiplicity of friends. In earlier times, Jews stuck with Jews. Today, hardly any of that age group have exclusively Jewish friends, which my help to explain why intermarriage has boomed.
Professor Barak-Fishman has a good point. However, I would like to know her definition of "an exclusively Jewish home." If it means that all who pass through the door into that home must be Jewish, then I would suggest that she and I would have a problem. If, on the other hand, she means having a home that celebrates Jewish tradition, whether those invited into the home are Jewish or not, then we're on the same page.
To me "an exclusively Jewish home" - fine. A home that is exclusive to Jews - not fine at all!!
Dear Mr. Bronfman,
You mentioned "Generations X and Y" in your last answer and I'd like to build on that as to ask my next question. You're involved with many projects aimed at this age group of young Jews - and each of them is probably good at doing something. But I'll ask you to try and explain the strategy - the concept - one should use as he tries to approach these youngsters. How can they be persuaded to maintain their Jewish heritage and involvement?
Our Foundation has initiated a number of research projects dealing with Generations X and Y. Not simply the Jews in these age groups but folks from the various main religions. The studies point to a major conclusion. Particularly as regards Generation Y, we are dealing with a totally different person than the ones that we all knew and understood. The "Y" group lives in a "made to order" world. They spend a great deal of time on the Internet, do much of their socializing through various web sites, and gather in coffee shops and bars. They have multiple identities that form their whole person, rather than the single identity (Jewish, Episcopalian, Roman Catholic) in days of yore. They don't relate to Organizations and, in many cases, have no knowledge of the organizations that in days gone by were part of our vocabulary.
Which, in effect, tells us how to reach them! Go to them!! Find out what turns them on and help them do their own thing. These young women and men really ARE human beings - and very good ones at that! They are very spiritual, in their own way. They want to be philanthropic - again, in their own way. So, if the name of the game is WIN, then yesterday's tactics have to go out the window in favor of today's realities.
You may be interested in a challenge I have enunciated several times. I have suggested to Federation leaders that they do a pilot project with any one of their agencies. Replace ALL the volunteers AND ALL the professionals in said agency and turn it over to people under thirty! I'm convinced that the agency in question would thrive! After all, if people in their twenties can manage good-sized corporations, a philanthropic agency should be an exciting and happy challenge for them.
Yours, Charles Bronfman.
Dear Mr. Bronfman
Talking about Birthright, Jason Gitlin, a graduate of NYU's Center forNear Eastern Studies and the Muehlstein Institute for Jewish Professional Leadership wrote this in Haaretz last week: "the controversial nature of Israel's response to Hezbollah's aggression suggests that despite any high profile shows of solidarity, this conflict will likely contribute to a growing disconnect between Israel-Diaspora sentiment, particularly among younger Jews.
Notwithstanding any of birthright Israel's successes, the war inLebanon provides further evidence that while Israel should no doubt be an integral component of Jewish life, it should no longer be seen as an easy deterrent to deeper questions about Jewish faith and identity, or the primary tool for rallying American Jews. Moreover, the war and the responses to it highlight the need to explore new and more creative ways for establishing connections to Israel."
In your opinion, is this true - and how should we deal with it, both in Israel and in the U.S.?
I would agree with Jason Gitlin about "the need to explore new and creative ways for establishing connections to Israel". Not necessarily because of the Lebanon war, though. But because there was intrinsically an unhealthy relationship between the North American and Israeli Jewish societies. It was a "give and take" relationship. The North Americans were seen as the givers, and Israelis as the takers. Which is no way to build a lasting relationship. But that too is changing as Israeli philanthropists have commenced to come into their own.
The other position posited by Gitlin confuses me. For some time now, particularly with Generations X and Y Israel has NOT been seen "as an easy deterrent to deeper questions about Jewish faith and identity, or the primary tool for rallying American Jews". That may have been true years ago, but certainly holds no water today. I'm not even sure that Israel is considered by these younger generations ax "an integral component of Jewish life"! Israel was David, until 1982. She then became Goliath. Which was a turn off to many young Jews in the Diaspora. The news media very powerfully influenced many liberal Jews in our society that Israel indeed was an occupier, and a bully.
Again, enter birthright Israel. And simply read the research. Our target market has been those who have been turned off. But once in Israel, with Israelis, they become emotionally involved. Their Jewish neshomot come alive!! And they become the defenders of Israel on college campuses, in AIPAC, and in almost every Israeli related organization in this country.
What then is needed? More entrepreneurial efforts like birthright Israel! As I am committed to this magical program, I must perforce focus on it. I would hope that there are enough Jews both in Israel and in North America who can invent projects that are just as compelling. So long as there is a coterie of Jews who really care, on both sides of the ocean, I am convinced that new and creative ways will be found to connect these two great societies.
Dear Mr. Bronfman
More than half a year ago, in a meeting we had in Denver at the Jewish Funders Network conference, you said that a Jewish renaissance in America is not a possibility, but rather a probability.
Assuming that you haven't change your mind since then - my first question to you will be: Is this Jewish renaissance good or bad for Diaspora-Israel relations? Or, in other words, how do you make sure that the cultural, religious, renaissance here in America does not accelerate the trend that Cohen and Wertheimer described in their article "Whatever Happened to the Jewish People" - in which they described the declining ties between American Jewry and World Jewry?
There is no doubt that there has been a steady decline in the relationship between Israeli and Diaspora Jews. Which is probably a natural evolution. We really have known freedom for a very short period of time. And how to optimize that freedom poses a conundrum. The birth of the State of Israel marked a "new beginning" for the Jewish People. Since that hallowed day in 1948, the Jewish Condition throughout the world has not simply improved. We have become strong! Yes, today, in Europe particularly, anti-Semitism is alive and kicking. How long that condition will prevail is unknown. Whether it lasts for a shorter or longer period of time, however, the Jewish People will continue to thrive! Because of the existence of Israel!
Where does that leave the relationship between Israelis and those of us who live elsewhere? A look back is necessary. In the first thirty years after the rebirth of Israel, those who left the country were considered to be akin to traitors! Today we all understand that we need each other. Which, of course, is one of the magical components of birthright israel. The mifgash, or encounter, for at least half the ten day trip between Israeli and Diaspora peers leaves a telling mark on both. Lasting friendships come about and, of equal importance, each side arrives at a new understanding of the other, dispelling the myths that so many had. Our research proves that this togetherness has become the highlight of the birthright israel experience - for both sides!
In the six years since the program started, some 112,000 Diaspora and 20,000 Israeli young adults have experienced the life altering experience of this incredible program. We calculate that the marketplace can easily grow from the current 22,000 Diaspora participants to 35,000. That would include, then 10,000 Israelis as the ratio is normally 3 or 4 to 1 on the mifgashim. If that will be the case, and I earnestly hope it will be, the we will indeed witness a renaissance in North America and, along with it, a new and warm relationship between Israeli and North American young adults.
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