Edgar Bronfman: You're Not Born a Jew Just to Fight anti-Semitism

Our friendship thrived despite its explosive start: A 1985 press conference when I implied that Edgar Bronfman was selling out Soviet Jews for money.

Rabbi Avi Weiss.
Rabbi Avi Weiss
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Rabbi Avi Weiss.
Rabbi Avi Weiss

Edgar Bronfman, one of the greats of our generation, has left this world. I was blessed to know him in an unusual way.

Our relationship started contentiously. In November of 1985, during the first Reagan – Gorbachev summit, I traveled to Geneva to raise a voice of moral conscience for Soviet Jewry. Edgar, representing the World Jewish Congress, was also there.

At that time, rumors were afloat that Edgar was prepared to recommend that the United States step back from the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, which linked Soviet-U.S. trade to freedom of emigration. The Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry (SSSJ), which I represented, took great exception. We believed that only with increased economic pressure would the gates of the Soviet Union fully open.

I infiltrated a WJC press conference and in front of the world media, asked Edgar how much his company, Seagram, was invested in the Soviet Union. He was incensed. Glaring at me and visibly upset, he said, “I don’t make enough money in the Soviet Union to pay for my gas from this hotel to the Moscow airport.”

Fifteen years later, after starting Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, I was in desperate need of funding. I turned to my good friend, Richard Joel, who was then the head of Hillel International, and asked whether he could facilitate a meeting between me and Edgar.

As we waited for Edgar to enter the reception room, I whispered into Richard’s ear, “He’s not going to remember the question I asked him in Geneva.”

The door swung open and Edgar walked in. I jumped to my feet and moved to embrace him. Edgar stepped back, and sternly said: “You f*&ing f*&. You accused me of doing away with Jackson-Vanik for personal gain. How dare you!”

As he said these harsh words, an amused but respectful smile crossed his face. I found the strength to respond, “Mr. Bronfman, it’s already fifteen years, and you still remember? It must have been an impactful question.”

We sat and spoke for almost an hour. Edgar graciously agreed to have lunch with our first class of students enrolled at YCT.

Eventually things got better and we put that Geneva moment behind us. I remember Edgar for that generosity of spirit, for his ability to forgive and allow bygones be bygones.

There were other memories. In the late 1980s and early 90s, I traveled with the noted French Nazi-hunter Beate Klarsfeld in pursuit of Kurt Waldheim, and in July of 1989, protested the convent built at Auschwitz. What few people know is that all of these trips were paid for by the WJC which was primarily funded by Edgar.

Years later I asked Edgar whether he was aware that I worked with the WJC on these issues. He responded that he was proud to have paid for those trips.

In 1993, having been recognized for some of my work by the New York Board of Rabbis, Edgar dropped me a congratulatory note: “Congratulations, Avi. We’ve come a long way since you accused me of betraying Soviet Jewry in Geneva.”

For me, however, Edgar was not only a Jew of tremendous pride, who was prepared to go to the ends of the earth for the defense of Am Yisrael, but also a man of deep spiritual consciousness. He often reminded me of a meeting that he had with Rabbi Soloveitchik soon after he became head of the World Jewish Congress. “Soloveitchik told me,” Edgar said, “Remember, you were not born a Jew just to fight anti-Semitism.” In other words, Judaism should proactively mean something to you.

Edgar underscored this point by often telling me that while he was prepared to leave the WJC, he would never step back from his commitment to Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life – as its mission was to spread Jewish identity to college students around the world.

Edgar was a friend who understood that friends should be there, especially when you need them most. And I needed Edgar when four years ago I was brutally criticized for ordaining Sara Hurwitz as a rabba.

It was a lonely time. He reached out. “I’m not an Orthodox Jew,” he said, “but you’re not alone. Continue to have the courage to persevere.”

I last saw Edgar a few weeks ago, when I gave a session at the Foundation. As I left, I sensed that Edgar was not well.

As I stepped out of the room, I turned around to approach him once more. My last words to him were, “I love you Edgar.” He nodded and smiled.

I will miss this good friend – a friend of mine and a friend of all of Am Yisrael, who gave generously to protect our people and strengthen Jewish identity and commitment throughout the world.

Rabbi Avi Weiss is founder of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and Yeshivat Maharat. He is the senior rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale – the Bayit in New York. His memoirs of the Soviet Jewry movement, Open Up the Iron Door, is scheduled to be published by Toby Press in the summer of 2014.

Former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon listens to Edgar Bronfman, then president of the World Jewish congress, during a meeting in Jerusalem on October 2, 2002.Credit: Reuters

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