Bronfman Corrals Big Names for Cushy Confab in Utah

By Jessica Ravitz

Published August 03, 2007, issue of August 03, 2007.
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Park City, Utah - A strange thing happened in Utah this week: Some 40 leading Jewish academics, writers, rabbis and professionals descended on the mountains of Park City, where, among other things, they built teepees.

Although the media wasn’t invited to watch the experiment, which was couched as a “team building” exercise by the outdoor company running it, plenty of kvetching could be heard afterward.

“God didn’t put me on earth to build teepees,” one attendee said. “Apart from schlepping these logs, I didn’t have much to do,” another said. And when facilitators voiced disappointment at how long it took participants to complete their task, a third promised to take it up in therapy.

The kvetchers in question, many of whom had traveled from far and wide, were participants in “Why Be Jewish?” a three-day event sponsored by The Samuel Bronfman Foundation. The event is the latest in a growing list of gatherings at which Jewish leaders grapple with notions of “identity” and “continuity,” but it was also a sort of coming-out party for Adam Bronfman, managing director of the foundation and son of mega-philanthropist Edgar Bronfman. Guests were there on the Bronfman dime, all expenses paid, and the marquee was filled with boldface names — including literary critic Leon Wieseltier, philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy, best-selling author Anita Diamant, high-profile rabbis David Wolpe, Avi Weiss and David Ellenson, and more. But, though the Big Names came out to discuss the Big Questions, finding the answers proved — like teepee-building, perhaps — a bit more complicated.

Both Adam Bronfman and his father, who also attended, turned down requests for interviews. Word was that Edgar didn’t want to upstage his son, and Adam, who owns a home in Park City, wanted the conference to speak for itself. Addressing their guests in a dining room of the posh Stein Eriksen Lodge at the Deer Valley Resort, the two spoke of their own paths in Jewish life. Egdar Bronfman explained that he found his place amid those who question and doubt, while his son said that the birth of his children sparked his interest to learn more. Now, Adam said, he promotes “big-tent Judaism,” where everyone is welcome.

Looking out at the crowd, Edgar bemoaned the “deep sexism” in the Orthodox communities and said he couldn’t “possibly believe God wrote the Bible.” These comments, as well as his uncontroversial plug for tikkun olam, were greeted with hearty applause by everyone, the most religious included.

But off the record, participants grumbled about the conference’s disorganization, lack of focus, academic arrogance and moments of sexism. But no one wanted to step on another’s toes, and certainly nobody wanted to step on the Bronfman purse strings.

Rabbi Eliyahu Stern, conference coordinator and director of special projects at The Samuel Bronfman Foundation, clung to his beer late Monday and summed up the conference challenges and tensions this way: “Whenever you have two Jews in a room, you have three opinions. So imagine having 40 in the room. Just do the math.”

The starting-off point Sunday was Talmud study, with the group breaking out into chevrutim, or study groups, to pore over passages. For some, the exercise was familiar and Hebrew rolled off their tongues freely. Others were treading into less comfortable waters.

Conversations that followed highlighted the differences in perspective. While some view Jewish life as an intellectual exercise, for others it’s a spiritual or cultural journey and, for a third contingent, it’s a product to sell. But for all of them, being Jewish was not considered a choice. It was a given, rooted in their cores.

Debby Hirshman, the former executive director of the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan, noted the divergence between the conference participants and the mass of unaffiliated Jews they are hoping to reach. Speaking about the “sense of inadequacy” and insecurity felt by most Jews, she noted, “What concerns me in this room is that we’re 90 steps ahead of people who we really want to be here.”

Monday night, to the surprise of many conference participants, hundreds of Jews from Park City and Salt Lake City poured out to attend the gathering’s one public event. It was a discussion about religion in the age of fundamentalism, featuring Lévy, Wieseltier and Tova Hartman, an Israeli spiritual leader and feminist. But what could have been a golden opportunity to connect with the hungry masses quickly turned into philosophical and theological grandstanding.

“I was sorry and sad for many people who came in good faith and were left to feel foolish and illiterate,” said Maeera Shreiber, who teaches English and Jewish studies at the University of Utah and will serve next spring as a visiting chair at Los Angeles’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. “I was sitting next to someone who said, ‘Do you think there’s going to be a test at the end of this?’”

Others, like Rabbi Jennifer Krause — a self-professed “rabbi without borders” — said they saw such conflicts in a broader context. Much like the talmudic rabbis who for hundreds of years debated the virtues of Judaism in the aftermath of the Second Temple’s destruction, Krause said she thinks today’s conversations are similarly pivotal: the start, albeit difficult, of creating something new.

“Change, in an eternal project, doesn’t happen overnight,” she said.

Last Tuesday, The Samuel Bronfman Foundation announced the launching of the Bronfman Vision Forum, a new push to keep this effort going.


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