Rabbi Avi Weinstein

The Samuel Bronfman Foundation’s annual "Why Be Jewish" Gathering

In Bronfman, Jewish, Leadership on May 15, 2009 at 10:17 am

After a few days in New York at the annual “Why Be Jewish” gathering sponsored by The Samuel Bronfman Foundation, I’m back home. This year’s specific topic was “Renaissance in a time of Ration”, the purpose of which was to see the opportunities that austerity can create.

One recurrent theme of the conference was that diminished resources by necessity should make institutions reflect on priorities. In the words of Sharon Cohen Anisfeld leadership during these times–and for that matter during all times–requires one to ask three essential questions:

  • Who am I? In other words, what are my abilities and what are my limitations.
  • To Whom am I responsible? Or as she poetically put it, “Who is your ‘we’?
  • What do I have to give that they need?

Beyond these existential questions are the operational ones, those that deal with efficiency, economy, and accountability. It goes without saying that sound implementation strategies are central to success, but it is equally clear that the minutiae of details deadens the passion that fuels the enterprise.

The gathering reflected the values of The Samuel Bronfman Foundation. The themes were contemporary, but the wisdom came from the ancients. The seamless synergy between classic Jewish texts and current issues testifies to the fact that the Samuel Bronfman Foundation practices what it supports. The Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel, Myjewishlearning.com, and The Education Initiative, all seek to promote Jewish content in pluralistic settings.

Women and men, scholars and professionals, learned and taught for a day and a half without rushing to computers, without furtively checking their blackberrys, and without needing to be in some bucolic setting away from it all. It was an island of the mind in the middle of Manhattan.

Adam Bronfman ended the session with heartfelt personal comments. He didn’t understand why this gathering was so moving for him, but was grateful that it was. I think I know why he felt that way. It truly was a gathering. There was no posturing. People either became reacquainted, or made new friends, and although this happens effortlessly for teenagers, it is always more difficult for adults. He was moved because a professional community from different quarters came together as family, and managed to “feel the love” in the most urban of settings.

It occurred to me that when people say someone was thinking out of the box, they usually mean that they had somehow circumvented the “box” with unconventional or innovative ideas. Is it not also true that one cannot see his box unless he sometimes stands outside it? Innovation that builds on resources and conventional experience suggests that one should step outside a framework with the purpose of jumping back in thereby giving new life to venerable traditions. This is what the Foundation and its benefactors practice, and it was good to be outside the box so that I’m now excited to jump back in.

Thanks to all for the opportunity to learn and teach, to teach and learn. I am not a person who thrives in these settings, and I am not one who looks forward to attending professional conferences, but this is one gathering where I do hope they will invite me back.

I think I need it. In fact, we all do.

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