The strict approach to conversions advocated by the rabbinic institutions in Israel and abroad infuriates Jewish billionaire Edgar Bronfman, the man who for nearly three decades led the World Jewish Congress. Anyone who declares himself Jewish should be accepted to the Jewish people, he says. Or else the Jewish people would cease to exist.
With Bronfman at its helm, the WJC has fought anti-Semitism, helped open the gates of the Soviet Union for aliyah and extracted funds belonging to Holocaust survivors from Swiss banks. Last year Bronfman was forced to hand over the leadership of the powerful organization to billionaire Ron Lauder.
But Bronfman, 78, is not ready to retire yet and has found a new platform for his philanthropic energies – Hillel, The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, of which he is now the international chairman.
In an interview to Yedioth Ahronoth held in Jerusalem this week, Bronfman elaborated on his belief that Judaism should be more open and agree to embrace those who wish to become part of it without placing too many obstacles in their way. "I want to change the Jewish way of thinking," he stated, and pointed out that almost 50% of Jewish students come from a mixed-marriage family in which one of the parents is non-Jewish.
The Orthodox rabbinate wouldn't agree with you. According to the Halacha, only someone whose mother is Jewish, or who converted according to the Halacha is Jewish.
Bronfman is outraged by this notion. Judaism used to be an open religion, he said, and the rabbis have only sealed the book lately.
'You don't have to believe in God to be Jewish'Bronfman's son Adam, Hillel's vice-chair, explained that Hillel's objective is to introduce people to Judaism through education. "We’ll accept anyone who walks in and says he's Jewish… we'll study Tikkun Olam with him… teach him how to celebrate the Jewish holidays."
Bronfman senior noted that many non-Jews in the United States who are married to Jews develop an interest in Judaism themselves, an interest which Hillel seeks to encourage.
The Jewish student organization Hillel was founded 85 years ago in Chicago and currently operates 530 branches in universities across the world. Several Hillel houses operate on Israeli campuses as well.
"Judaism belongs to every Jew," Adam Bronfman declares. According to him one does not have to belong to a certain religious denomination, believe in God or attend prayers. "Many of the Israelis who define themselves secular are in effect detached from their people's tradition. In Hillel we enable them to create a connection with their tradition in various ways."