By Oren Rosenstein, New York
After IKEA and Bank Discount, the Jewish billionaire Edgar Bronfman and his sons now want to sell Jewish identity to students in Israel. They are trying to reproduce Hillel clubs for students in Israel. Hillel presents a relevant, easy-to-digest Judaism: Ehud Banay with a traditional poet, reading the Megila in chevruta and even a sculpting class inspired by biblical text. "Becoming newly-observant? Not in our club."
A three-seat sofa from IKEA, a checking account in Bank Discount, bread, milk and eggs from the Blue Square supermarket – and a Jewish identity -- all these (and not necessarily in that order) the Bronfman billionaire family is trying to sell us -- to Israelis living in Zion.
Much has been written about the wealth of the Bronfman family (the father, Edgar, is rated 224 on the list of the world's wealthiest people, with a personal wealth of $3.6 billion) and their business transactions. Much less is written about the efforts they apply to make Israelis more Jewish, even though the Bronfmans invest many millions of dollars in this mission.
Edgar Bronfman (77) born in Canada, for decades living in New York, has a brother (Charles, also a billionaire) and seven children. Until recent years, Edgar and his sons had one investment in Israel – the Challenge Fund (investing in start-ups). Edgar Sr. has been the chairman and main investor for a decade. Recently the family decided to invest more in Israel, also in businesses and donations. In a conversation at the Bronfman Foundation office in New York, father Edgar and sons Matthew (46) and Adam (42) explain the change:
"My father was always an enthusiastic supporter of Israel but he always told me to invest in it as a philanthropist and not as a businessman, says Edgar, Sr. Today I think that Israel has matured in the last few years businesswise, and it is a good place to create business. Also, my children developed a strong love for Israel that passed on to their tactical business considerations."
"I fell in love with Israel on my first visit in 1984," continues Matthew, the fourth of Edgar's seven children, and the one who initiated the process of focusing on Israel. "Since then I hoped that one day I would be able to invest in it. After we sold Seagram (the entertainment and beverage giant) and had liquid tangible assets, we could proceed. The considerations were mostly business, but of course I have a soft spot when it comes to Israel. I feel at home there. It is my country and I have no conflict regarding my identity as an American when I say it. I feel like I belong to both worlds."
Adam: "You must separate between the business areas to the social. On the business side, we discovered that Israel has many business opportunities. I wouldn't say that we insisted on a particular country, but we only looked for worthwhile deals and found those in Israel. On the personal level, it has a great plus to us that we found our opportunities there."
Sherry Arison invested a lot in Israel and also donated money, but her attempt to improve the Bank HaPoalim ended with a temporary abandonment of Israel and harsh complaints of the ingratitude of Israelis.
Adam: "Our family, at least in the last decade, has grown a thicker skin when it comes to everything written about us in the press. The bottom line is that if you do business somewhere and your business is good, it will provide employment for many people and everyone will benefit. Both IKEA and Bank Discount do a lot for the community and we are proud of it."
The Bronfmans are among the largest Jewish philanthropists in the world. When they are asked why they donate and are involved in philanthropic activities instead of sitting on a lounge chair in the Caribbean while sipping strawberry daiquiris, they launch into an enthusiastic ideological speech.
"I see the Jewish people as a family," says Matthew, "and helping others is a basic Jewish value. Beyond that, it is a result if the education we received. I hope it will be a model for my children."
Adam: "I believe that my role as a Jew is to live a life with meaning and value. When I work with my family to help people, the community, it gives me satisfaction that I cannot get anywhere else."
Shlomo Artzi and the poets
The Bronfmans donate more than $10 million a year to different causes in the U.S. as well as the rest of the world. Most of the money is donated through The Samuel Bronfman Foundation, which is directed by a young and energetic Israeli lawyer named Dana Raucher, and the rest is donated personally by the different family members. The most well-known philanthropic project the in which the Bronfmans are involved (together with other philanthropists and the State of Israel) is "Taglit-birthright israel." In this project, the Bronfmans offer a plane ticket and full board to any young Jew from the Diaspora who wants to visit Israel. The goal is to bring them closer to their roots and instill within them love of the country.
In the last few years, the Bronfmans are also active in the international organization -Hillel, clubs for groups of Jewish students in universities in the U.S. and other places around the world. Clubs have opened in the former Soviet Union, Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Chile, and the last addition the Bronfman family added to the chain, is a chain of Hillel clubs in Israeli universities.
While in the U.S. Hillel clubs are a place for Jewish students to find kosher food and attend activities connected to Judaism and Israel (such as a performance by Shlomo Artzi, an Israeli film and a lecture on the Israeli landscape), the necessity of such a club in Israel requires deeper investigation.
At Hillel, they discuss pluralistic Judaism and expression of Jewish identity in different ways: community service, art, social events, informal learning of Judaism, Jewish ceremonies and more. In fact, there are dozens of monthly activities in various different fields.
Why should an Israeli student who already speaks Hebrew as a mother tongue, lives in the Holy Land and experiences Judaism every holiday and occasion, need a body that will further connect him to his roots?
Matthew: "Hillel is actually a bridge in a very polar society. The goal is to take a secular person and show him that he can experience his heritage without a black hat. The religious, on the other hand, learn to be more patient with those less pious."
Bronfman associates in this enterprise, all Israelis, insist that this is a great project, and the proof is that universities are now vying for the next Hillel club to open by them. Today Hillel clubs are active in universities in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Beer Sheva and at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya. This June another club will open in Haifa that will serve all the higher education institution in the city.
The chief Israeli partner in this initiative is the businessman Yossi Ciechanover. He is convinced that there is place for Hillel's activities in Israel. Ciechanover, formerly executive manager of El-Al and Bank Discount, and today director of the venture capital fund the Challenge Fund, was exposed to Hillel's activities when he studied in universities abroad (he has a PhD in philosophy and a master's in law). "This generation of Israelis has a longing to get closer to Judaism," he says, "not necessarily to become religious, but to be familiar with Judaism. They want to do it in a way that is free from all the institutional restrictions. We try to satisfy this need in a different way than the Rabbinate, in a pluralistic way."
Don't the secular Jews recoil when you mention the word Judaism during activities?
Ciechanover: "The facts speak for themselves. All our activities are packed with Israeli and foreign students."
Former Minister of Education Amnon Rubinstein is one of Ciechanover's partners, and also is head of the Interdisciplinary Center where a flourishing Hillel club exists. "In Israel there is a thirst for Judaism which is not necessarily Orthodox. Therefore in an ironic way, I think that there is a greater need for Hillel in Israel than in the U.S.," he says. "On our campus, there is a very positive reaction to the subject. During the last Purim, they presented a reading of the megilla and masses attended. Hillel is not a religious body – they offer Jewish education, Jewish culture and pluralistic tradition.
"The youth in Israel see Judaism through political glasses," Rubinstein continues. "It disagrees with the religious parties and religious coercion, and so learns to disagree with Judaism. I see in Hillel's activities the release of Judaism from the restrictions created due to political party manipulations. This activity narrows the gap between Orthodox Judaism and total secularism, and helps keep in contact with the Diaspora Jewry."
According to Yossie Goldman, director of the Hillels in Israel: "In the past, the clubs tried to avoid dealing with Judaism so they don't put off secular Jews. Later they found out that the students are actually interested in putting more emphasis on the Jewish side. Once this stage turned more central, the numbers grew greatly, and now every week 2,000 students attend our activities in Jerusalem only," he describes with pride.
"In the Hebrew University alone in one month, there are combined performances by poets and singers, Middle Eastern dancing, a program on biblical stories in the cinema, teaching Judaism in chevruta with students of the Yeshivat Hakotel, a creative writing workshop, a meeting with women writers on the border, sculpting inspired by biblical texts and more and more," Ciechanover says with pride. "Besides that, there is also the social side and activities for the community. That is real Judaism."
No rules or restrictions
The Israeli students, it seems, are partners in this enthusiasm. Tamar Schori, a secular student and chairwoman of the Student Union of Beer Sheva University, reports on the great success. "At the beginning, when I used to stand at the Hillel booth at the university they would ask me if I am returning people to observant Judaism," she remembers. "But slowly people found that Judaism has more to offer and Hillel allows students to express Judaism their own way. Beyond that there are shows with contemporary artists that are "connected" to Judaism, such as Ehud Banay, Nikmat Hatractor or Evyatar Banay, and also poets that display religious songs and psalms. It is an amazing combination, and secular students that come to these activities get excited."
"In the last few years, there is a Jewish renaissance among the secular Jews", explains Alex Roitman, a secular student from the Hebrew University. "It happens because Israeli society is in disintegration and people feel drained. They feel that they gave up something very important in their identity, and now they are trying to collect it back. Hillel is a part of it. They ask what you are looking for, present questions such as what are our culture values, what is our language value, what is our meaning, and they don't try to push you toward one right answer. My life has become much more interesting since I came to know them."
Also the religious students feel comfortable in Hillel clubs. According to Mirav Livne, a religious student from the Hebrew University, her sector has no other place to experience Israeli Jewishness with secular Jews and volunteer work. "Everyone is sure that if people are religious, their Jewish world is already full, which is not true," she says. "We keep checking ourselves and our identity all the time in different frameworks, more and less religious - especially since the encounter in Hillel is with more secular Jews dealing with the issue is fascinating."
Adam Bronfman: "What is great about Hillel is that there are no rules and restrictions. The students themselves create the activities and they decide out of complete freedom what their 'Jewish identity' is and how to express it. There are a lot of students that are interested in studying Talmud, but don't want women to sit behind a partition. In Hillel, it's legitimate. Many secular Jews come to these activities not because the want to become newly religious, but because they want to be part of the dialogue. Others decide to express their Jewish identity through volunteering, through tikkun olam. To us, everyone is free to choose."
What is the role of God in all this new Judaism? What does it have to offer someone who doesn't believe?
Adam Bronfman sees in the Torah an ethical and behavioral code that is relevant, to the same degree, to a believer and non-believer: "The question is not if there is or there isn't a God. I believe in God, but if the answer is either yes or no, Judaism and the Torah are in any case our common story as a people. We have to study this story to fill our definition as a people with meaning."
His father, Edgar, smiles. "In Judaism, there is also a place for those who doubt," he says. "What is important is the dialogue. I once told an intelligent rabbi that I find it hard to believe in God. He suggested I substitute the word "God" with the word "Godliness" and try to live up to that value, because in it is everyone's God. The person who puts a shekel in the hand of a beggar creates tikkun olam, and that makes him a good Jew. You don't have to go to synagogue."
"I have seven children and I was in the delivery room at each of the seven births," Matthew sums up. "Every time I saw them born, I understood there is a God. I read Parashat Hashavua regularly and there is always something relevant to my life. I learn something that helps me be a better person, a better businessman and a better family man. It means more to me than the question whether there is a God."
Published in the Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot, April 18th, 2006.