Only God can turn a mess into a message, a test into a testimony.
- Joyce Meyer
Jewish philanthropist Edgar Bronfman died last weekend at the age of 84. An heir to the vast Seagram’s fortune, he could have enjoyed the playboy lifestyle that so many of today’s rich and infamous seem to fall into, but instead, he used his position to help a great many others.
He brought persecuted Soviet Jews to the United States, campaigned for the return of stolen funds to Holocaust survivors and was among the first benefactors for Birthright Israel, which sends thousands of Jewish American youth on educational trips to Israel for free every year. I had the chance to sit down with him a few years ago and learn a little bit about his life and faith.
He was a mischievous child.
“My father used to give these huge lectures on moderation. I finally said to him–’cause I couldn’t stand it any longer–going home from schul, I said, ‘You know, to be consistent, you have to also be moderate in your moderation.’ Then I ran because I knew I was going to get a kick...”
Why philanthropy was so important to him.
“My father told me it’s the responsibility of rich people to take care of poor people. At one point he told me, ‘I made sure that all my siblings are well taken care of. A man shouldn’t live in a castle and have his brothers and sisters living in hovels.’ ”
His most powerful spiritual memory.
“The last time I saw my grandfather was at his farm in Winnipeg, in my early 20s. I knew I’d never see him again and he also knew the same thing. And I asked him if he would give me his blessing. We went into his bedroom, he took out a couple of candles, talis, two kippot, one for me, and he raised his hand and he blessed me. I was so moved. It’s probably the most important spiritual moment in my life. It made me feel related to all my ancestors. It felt so extraordinary that a dying man would give me his blessing and do it with such grace and such charm.”
On finding joy, even during hard times.
“When I went to schul as a kid, there was a war going on and Jews were being killed. I knew that, we all knew that. There wasn’t much joy in being Jewish. If you really look at Judaism, however, it’s a very joyful religion. I found out from one of my rabbi friends that the reason Jewish services are so long is that even during the horrors of shtetl, they were still hoping to find one more way to praise God.”
On staying young.
“I love to learn. I think one of the ways to avoid old age is to keep learning. If you want to have a lively life, you have to keep your mind busy.”
I’ll be thinking of Edgar’s words and example as we turn the calendar to a new year. How can I help change the world in the months to come? How will you?
Has an encounter with your hero changed your life? Was there a moment when he or she sent you in a new direction? Tell us your story!