Bronfman gives day-school kids a lesson in social justice

After years of touting religious education as a means to ward off assimilation, philanthropist Edgar Bronfman just set foot in his first Jewish day school.

The billionaire chairman of the Seagram Corp. and president of the World Jewish Congress was visiting the Bay Area last month when he popped in for a tour of the Mid-Peninsula Jewish Community Day School in Palo Alto.

The K-6 school is one of a dozen recipients of $12 million in grants offered in part by Bronfman. Mid-Peninsula's $300,000 challenge grant, which it won in 1997, will help build a middle school at the site and add two more grades.

The grant came out of a educational superfund created two years ago by Bronfman and 11 other high-powered philanthropists. They make up the Massachusetts-based Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education.

"It's a great thing and I'm so excited. I'm the first partner that's been at any of the schools," Bronfman said.

During the tour, he visited classrooms and a simulated archaeological dig, run by fourth-graders. Across the street, he surveyed the construction site — built by adults — for the new middle school.

A cement mixer noisily churned the concrete soup that will be the school's foundation as a foreman explained to Bronfman what the building will look like. Already, thick-slab walls jut upward from the center of the graded site.

Excavating their own site in a large planter box near the construction area, students showed off their archaeological finds, buried earlier by teachers. The household items were to be tagged, categorized and written about in reports as part of the day's lesson plan.

The 9- and 10-year-olds then asked Bronfman about his activism in recovering the assets of Holocaust survivors and heirs.

Standing at eye-level with the dirt-spattered kids atop the planter, Bronfman said, "I got interested because I'm a Jew. I can't get the 6 million back but at least I can get back some measure of dignity…

"Seeing your faces makes [the fight] more than worth it."

In a fourth-grade Hebrew class, Bronfman again took time out to shmooze, slap 'em five and answer questions.

What he didn't count on were the numbers of questions that perhaps only a Jewish class can ask. Each pupil had at least one. And a few brazen inquisitors had many more.

"How does it feel to be famous?"

"Wonderful," said Bronfman.

"Do you like being a billionaire?"

"Yes. I love it," he replied.

"Do you meet people who aren't Jews?"

"Sure, but I like being with Jews best."

Bronfman told the students that the best thing about power and wealth is being able to "leave the world a little better.

"Doing something good makes you feel good."

That philosophy has helped feed the philanthropist's vision for the future of American Jewry, which he describes as a "Jewish renaissance."

Such a cultural flowering , he said in a later interview, depends on the success of day schools and youth programs such as Hillels, summer camps and Israel trips.

"You have to convince people that they want to be Jewish because it's got to be for them and it's got to be comfortable.

"That's what these schools are all about. They've got to learn about the Jewish Bible and Torah. That's the way it's going to be in the future. It's not mama's cooking, it's going to be religion."

Bronfman, who studies Talmud and Torah regularly, expects the cultural rebirth to stem the tide of assimilation. After all, he said, to know Judaism is to love it. And to love it is never to leave it.

If all goes as planned, "there will be Hillels on every campus flowing over with people and day schools all over the country just like this one teaching not just about Judaica but life in general," he said.

Of course, everything seems possible after sharing the morning with precocious students.

"When I see those kids talk in Hebrew in California," he said effusively, "that's almost a miracle."

Lori Eppstein

Lori Eppstein is a former staff writer.