Forward Thinking

How Edgar Bronfman Transformed an Alienated Russian Jew

By Ella Shteingart

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Edgar Bronfman, did not know me, and I had limited interactions with him. Yet I feel a deep sense of loss at his passing.

In 1988, as a Russian emigre living in Brooklyn, I was completely unaffiliated, and turned off by the Jewish community. Yet my alienation did not disqualify me from being selected to be part of the second class of the Bronfman Youth Fellowship in Israel program. Through it, for the first time in my 17 years, I was introduced to the breadth of the American Jewish community: to the notion of pluralism and to Conservative and Reform Judaism; to commitment to Jewish life and thought; to the beauty and brilliance of text, and to Israel.

At the time, I did not know that just one year earlier, Edgar had flown to Russia, as head of the World Jewish Congress, to campaign on behalf of Soviet Jewry. His efforts on behalf of Soviet Jews over the years, of course, contributed greatly to their freedom to emigrate.

Over the years, the BYFI program has continued to purposefully include Russian-speaking young change-makers, even when the rest of the Jewish community did little to invest in, include, or actively engage this population. Today, three of the four chairs of the BYFI Alumni Advisory Board are Russian Jews – engaged and impacting others in the Jewish community.

On a more personal level, BYFI changed my life and paved the way for my deep commitment to the Jewish community as a lay leader, Jewish professional, and Jewish parent. At one point four of my children attended Jewish day schools of different denominations — a tribute to the impact of Edgar’s commitment to pluralism, via BYFI, on my own outlook.

Ella Shteingart, a 1988 BYFI fellow, is a consultant for the Wexner Heritage Russian-Speaking Jews Cohort, cosponsored by the Wexner Foundation and UJA-Federation of New York.


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