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JTA: One of the Best Dinner Speeches

by Hillel News |Jun 07, 2010|Comments

(Reprinted with permission from JTA's Fundermentalist newsletter.)

Adam Bronfman, Avraham Infeld, Ellen Infeld.
Adam Bronfman (from left), Avraham Infeld and wife Ellen Infeld.
Hillel -- The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life honored its former president and quintessential professional Jew, Avraham Infeld, at the organization's annual gala.

Infeld's resume shows a guy who has had his hands in the growth of the Jewish peoplehood movement: He founded Melitz, a non-profit aimed at fostering pluralistic Jewish identity, chaired the leadership program Arevim, was the director of Birthright Israel's planning process, founded and chaired the San Francisco Federation's revolutionary Amutot in Israel program, chaired the Jewish Agency's Israel Experience, and is now the scholar in residence for Russian oligarch Leonid Nevzlin's Nadav Fund, which is focused on Jewish peoplehood.

The June 2 gala, held at Columbia University' Lerner Hall, honored Infeld for his body of work, and for his tenure as the top lay leader of Hillel from 2003-2006, when he bridged the gap between Richard Joel and its current president Wayne Firestone.

Even though he was at Hillel for only a short while, Infeld played an important role. He elevated the role of Israel within Hillel, pushed social justice as a vehicle for Hillel to engage students and helped advance the Hillel movement abroad, especially in the former Soviet Union. And he was the president of the organization when it started its strategic planning process that has guided it through the past five years.

Donors seemed to agree with the decision. While fund raising is still off from previous years when the organization raised up to $2 million at the event, donors stepped up with more than $1 million in honor of Infeld. To put it in perspective, Hillel only raised $800,000 last year, when it eschewed a gala in favor of a more cost-effective virtual gala in which Hillel supporters held small gatherings at their homes that were connected via online teleconference.

Fundermentalist's take: These days we get so caught up in worrying about cultivating the next generation of leadership that its sometimes easy to forget those who carried the torch in the past.

I only caught Infeld toward the end of his career. And in truth my first interaction with him happened via telephone as he boarded a plane the day after Bernard Madoff admitted his scandal -- and the day it was learned that the Chais Family Foundation, which Infeld ran at the time, had lost everything. I have spoken with him here and there since, but I certainly can't claim to know him well.
But those who I spoke with at the event -- from Adam Bronfman, who said that Infeld played a key role in his reconciliation with his father, Edgar Bronfman, to various professionals who described a magic in the air at the gala -- said that everyone who knew him as Hillel's head had a special relationship with Infeld.

Infeld also gave one of the better talks that I have heard at a gala (not to mention a heck of a fund-raising pitch for Hillel).

Infeld, who is South African, said that his heritage is what drives him to work on Jewish identity projects.
"It was a racist country, where Jews are a minority within a minority. They are incapable of expressing our commitment because of apartheid," he said. "We were deeply intermingled with each other, but did not see each other as belonging to a distinct familythat has a unique conversation with God almighty, but it was deep in that we knew that if we did not care for each other, no one else would care for us."

Being Jewish, he said, "is not normal," he said, but "How boring it is to be normal."

From there, Infeld's talk took a biblical turn, as he sermonized about what to make of the fact that Mount Sinai -- where tradition says Jews received the law from God -- is considered less holy than the land of Israel. Infeld's theory: Israel is where the Jews were meant to take the law and put it into action -- it is not the law itself that is holy, or the people, but "when man partners with God in making this world a better place."

In the entire Old Testament, he said, the words milk and honey are used 21 times as a description. Twenty of those are in reference to Israel -- and each time the word "milk" is used as the first half of the phrase "milk and honey." Drinking milk is about toughness and becoming strong, he said. When building a country, you build strength so ultimately you can get to the sweetness of honey. The one use of the phrase "honey and milk" comes in Song of Songs, and it describes a relationship between a king and his lover.

In relationships between people, Infeld said, the key is showing the sweetness first, then you build a strong bond with the milk. Hillel, he added, is the place where the Jewish community has what in many cases is its only real shot to reach 95 percent of young Jews, so it needs to be the place where "we show them the honey."

(All right, maybe it's sappy. But it was sweet.)

Additional coverage:

Main Infeld article.

Wayne L. Firestone remarks.

Maxim Yudin remarks.

Randall Kaplan remarks.

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