Forward Thinking

A Man Who Took Jewish Faith as a Challenge

By Naamah Paley

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Last summer in Israel, one of the teenage Bronfman Fellows asked me why the group wasn’t required to pray together every morning. He found it to be offensive, and a real loss that a pluralistic group of Jews weren’t learning to pray as a means to transcend their differences of opinion and practice.

I took his question into consideration and replied: “Edgar doesn’t care about God. He doesn’t even believe in God. He wants us to learn together — participating in rigorous debate and respecting each other’s opinions. That’s the vision of this program.”

My ability to offer this response was a product my years of work in carrying out Edgar’s vision through the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel program and our alumni community. It has been my honor. The more I got to know Edgar through our weekly staff Talmud sessions, the greater I grew able to confidently answer questions from our fellows about what the “agendas” of our program were. And with each of these answers, my respect and admiration for Edgar’s vision grew.

Edgar was a deep thinker and was always the smartest person in the room. He never hesitated to challenge the theories and insights posed by the rabbi in the room. And he made it clear he expected the same from others.

From my first Talmud session several years ago, it was clear that I was expected to participate in full, to challenge and argue as much as anyone.

Edgar surrounded himself with interesting people from whom he truly wished to learn. He inspired all of us to do the same. Two years ago, he brought in several Orthodox feminist speakers and challenged them, repeatedly, on how they considered their feminism consistent with their Orthodoxy. How could they possibly sit behind a mechitza yet consider themselves full participants in their faith?

I could see that Edgar really wanted to know. He was struggling to understand. He gave each speaker a platform to try and explain. That approach has been a rich model for me and a tenet of my own work: To follow Edgar’s lead means surrounding ourselves with interesting people and focusing especially on those whose practices we, at our core, don’t understand. But it means also listening to those we have invited and committing ourselves to learning from them. Because it’s those we don’t understand who have the most to teach us.

Naamah Paley, a 2002 BYFI fellow, is Manager of Alumni Initiatives at The Bronfman Youth Fellowships.


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