Edgar M. Bronfman, a distinguished Jewish leader and philanthropist, argues for openness and joy to reinvigorate Judaism in America, in his new book Hope Not Fear: A Path to Jewish Renaissance (St. Martin's Press). After a lifetime of fighting the persecution of the Jews, Bronfman has concluded that what North American Jews need now is hope, not fear. Bronfman urges North American Jewry "to build, not fight. We need to celebrate the joy in Judaism, even as we recognize our responsibility to alleviate suffering and to help heal a broken world. We need to understand Judaism as a multifaceted culture as well as a religion, and explore Jewish literature, music, and art. We need to understand our tradition of debate and questioning, and invite all to enter a conversation about our central texts, rituals, and laws. We need to open our book anew, and re-create a vital Judaism for our time."
Through a reexamination of important texts and via interviews with some of the leading figures in Judaism today, Bronfman outlines a new agenda for the Jewish community in North America, one that will ensure that Judaism grows and thrives in an open society, and calls for a welcoming approach that celebrates Jewish diversity, innovation, and young leadership.
In his book, Bronfman notes that Rabbi David Ellenson "is an extraordinary man and a Jew of the future. In the North American Jewish community, we need to cultivate both respect for Jewish tradition and openness to the needs of our diverse Jewish population, and Ellenson is a leader who richly possesses both. As a person and as a Jewish leader, he is the epitome of welcoming, a man who is wide open to the Biblical rule of loving the stranger."
Bronfman quotes Rabbi Ellenson on the issue of intermarriage, often blamed for the decline in Judaism and in the Jewish population in North America: "Given the reality of intermarriage, how does the Jewish community make Judaism an ongoing, viable alternative for people who have made this choice in their life?" Bronfman cites Rabbi Ellenson's quoting Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan's 1934 statement that suggested the intermarriage offered the real test of the strength of Jewish civilization, by making us ask if the Jewish community and Jewish tradition can be attractive enough that the couple, conversion aside, would ultimately choose to casts its lot with the Jewish people and concludes that "the real concern is not how we deal with intermarriage but how we create a Jewish community that is compelling enough and welcoming enough to make people to commit to it."
Bronfman quotes Rabbi Ellenson's perspective on patrilineal descent: "Why would you not allow other historical factors to alter the way you would view this tradition? Persons who are raised Jewishly, should be considered Jewish. Citing Rabbi Ellenson's quoting of David Ben-Gurion, who once defined a Jews as anyone who calls himself a Jew and isn't anything else, Bronfman cites Ellenson's reply: "What would be the most that we'd be guilty of" if we embraced people who might not technically be Jewish according to halachah, or Jewish law? "That we loved to much? We need a community where more and more of our leaders love Jews as much as they love Judaism. I think of the countless numbers of non-Jewish parents, non-Jewish spouses, who bring their children to religious school, to Hebrew school, who see to it that they have bar- and bat-mitzvah lessons, who put the money forth for their children to go to day schools, etc. These are people who should be embraced by our community. Some of them, maybe, will ultimately also convert."
In his exploration of "A New Judaism for a New Generation," Bronfman quotes Rabbi Ellenson on the prospect of 'reaching in to reach out.' "We have two trends in American Judaism: the core of people who are commited Jewishly is probably stronger than ever. So that in part, we can boast of the renaissance in Jewish life.. Where Judaism is healthy, its unbelievably healthy. Simultaneously, we have more people who are unaffiliated than ever before, because the factors that led people of my generation and my parents' generation to affiliate Jewishly are no longer there."
Bronfman describes Rabbi Ellenson's strong belief that Judaism offers something much needed in today's world, where the array of choices leaves many feeling disconnected, and his saying that if Judaism is welcoming, it can help people to feel a sense of meaning in their lives, leading more Jews to become active in Jewish life and more intermarried families to raise their children as Jews. He quotes Rabbi Ellenson's suggestion for more classes "for born Jews and born non-Jews alike who come within our ambit or orbit, to introduce them to the customs and traditions of our people," saying that this kind of education "must be done in a loving way that ultimately demonstrates that Jewish religious tradition will one day be relevant for how they construct their own lives."
Hope, Not Fear is an impassioned plea for all who care about the future of Judaism to cultivate a Jewish practice that is receptive to the new as it delves into the old, that welcomes many voices, and that reached out to make the world a better place.