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Mira Sucharov


By Mira Sucharov, November 1, 2009

Hope, Not Fear: A Path to Jewish Renaissance

Edgar M. Bronfman and Beth Zasloff (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2008).

Reviewed by Mira Sucharov (Associate Professor of Political Science at Carleton University)

If a 78-year old, top-100-Forbes-list billionaire from one of Jewish Canada’s most celebrated families, and who has headed some of America’s most significant Jewish institutions were to email me and say, “Mira, I know you’re a member of the board of directors at the Soloway JCC and co-chair of the task force on outreach. You’re 36, and a political scientist specializing in Israel and Diaspora affairs. What would you like to see in a book calling for a revitalization of Judaism?” I would tell him, give or take a policy focus or two, to write exactly what appears in the 209 pages of Hope, Not Fear: A Path to Jewish Renaissance.

Such is the reaction I had while reading Edgar M. Bronfman’s new manifesto on contemporary Jewish life. (It is coauthored with Beth Zasloff, though presented in the first person; therefore I use “he” in this review.) The book calls on North American Jewry to create a “big-tent Judaism” that includes rather than excludes. He argues that the emphasis on Jewish “continuity” is misguided: young Jews need to believe there is something worth continuing -- hence the term “Jewish renaissance.”

He opens his book with a deeply moving argument for including intermarried families within the Jewish fold. He offers the sobering (and very interesting) conclusion that if half of Jews are currently intermarrying, two-thirds of Jewish families are intermarried ones. (Here’s the math: “If two out of four Jews marry each other and two marry non-Jews, the result is that two out of the three couples are intermarried.”) He states that “the problem is not that Jews are falling in love with non-Jews but that they aren’t falling in love with Judaism.”

His big-tent vision of Judaism would also see a more equal role for women, and more inclusive role for gays and lesbians, and a celebration of Jewish ethnic diversity. He terms his approach one of “respect, not tolerance.”

His theme of inclusiveness also extends outwardly. “I would like North American Jews to be proudly Jewish in a way that helps to improve the world, rather than one that devotes its energy to keeping the world out.” On the topic of kashrut, he states that “today, it is too much to ask the large majority of Jews to follow the laws of kashrut to the letter. Most young Jews will no elect to live a ghettoized life….They want to meet and eat with others….We cannot be a light unto the nations if we don’t interact with them.”

His solution for getting the next generation excited about their Judaism is informal education initiatives such Hillel (whose board of governors he chairs), Birthright Israel (to which he, along with his brother Charles, has been a major donor), and Jewish summer camps. He contrasts these types of immersive Jewish educational experiences with Jewish day schools, which, he argues (quoting from a former Hillel Rabbi) can be “coercive.”

He also lauds the many off-the-grid type programs springing up across North America (he lists them in an appendix) which involve more social-action, non-traditional approaches to Jewish living. “We should not be concerned with keeping Jewish institutions alive but with keeping Judaism alive,” he argues.

On the subject of loyalty to Israel, Bronfman says the unexpected, perhaps. He argues that the idea of “my Israel, right or wrong” is “flawed,” and that “too often those who offer criticism of any kind are called anti-Semites, self-hating Jews, or worse.” Drawing on the principles of Jewish ethics and the related idea of justice, he calls for Jewish leaders to encourage the Israeli government to help bring about an economically viable Palestinian state, since “the treatment of the Palestinians fails to be ethical or just.”

Drawing from his title which is meant to imply that fear-based Judaism cannot survive, he concludes by boldly suggesting that less focus should be placed on Jewish “defense organizations” since “anti-Semitism in this country is, for all practical purposes, dead.” Accordingly, he calls for a resource-freeing merger of the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Congress and the American Jewish Committee.

Bronfman offers many challenges worth thinking about in the boardrooms of Jewish institutions and in living rooms across the continent. I would note, however, that there is some confusion over the concept of “nation” (the Jews are a nation; Israel is a state). Moreover, while he takes pains to talk about the importance of cross-denominational perspectives, the book adopts an anti-Orthodox position in places. I would be interested to see an Orthodox response to the challenges – particularly about “inclusiveness” and “relevance” that Bronfman poses.

Finally, with his not entirely enthusiastic approach to formal Jewish education, I would have liked to see suggestions for revitalizing those important avenues for Jewish identity rather than neglecting them in favour of the other Jewish experiences he champions. Despite these minor quibbles, I would urge anyone who cares about the future of North American Jewry to read – and discuss – this book.

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