Bronfman Contest: We Want Answers– Correspondence with Prof. Jonathan Sarna


Prof. Jonathan Sarna, Chair of the Brandeis Bronfman Contest

If you know one thing about this blog, it should be that I care about what my readers think and that I always try to have you in mind.

Yesterday I asked if you were sick of the Bronfman contest. Most of you said no. I have an agreement over e-mail with someone that s/he will skip the blog for now and I’ll e-mail when the series/conversation is over. That sounds like a good bargain to me.

I think given our deep investment in the conversation on Jewish ideas so far– more than any other blog, website, or organization— we owe it to ourselves to see this contest and its ideas through. That’s what I plan to do.

Writing Prof. Sarna: We Want Answers

So, in the best interest of everyone who generously shared their proposals here and keeping in mind that many of you are very upset about how you feel you’ve been treated, I decided to write Prof. Sarna, the head of the contest, to find out some answers. We deserve to know the basics, right?

I didn’t plan to publish the letter (that wasn’t my intent in writing it), but given the response and its minimalist tone, I’ve decided to do it anyway, as I believe it will answer (or at least address) a number of questions we’ve been contemplating.

Intention & Tone

My goal in writing the letter was to get answers to some of our questions. I tried to be as non-threatening as possible in doing so in order to represent us and our intentions accurately. We have respect for the contest as a whole, but we don’t necessarily like their air of secrecy or half-way notifications about what is going on.

(You can also read a more passionate statement of frustration and discontent from one of my readers, Ian Zwerling, in his letter to the Brandeis Justice.)

Here is my call and response correspondence with Prof. Sarna.

The Letter

“Dear Ms. Norton,
Thank you so much for writing. My comments are interspersed below:

Maya Norton wrote:

Dear Prof. Sarna,

I write you with the greatest respect at what I can only imagine is an unspeakably busy time for you and your team.

As you know, I have had the pleasure of hosting 12 great proposals (4 finalists, 8 regular contributors) for the next big idea in Jewish communal innovation on my blog, The New Jew: Blogging Jewish Philanthropy.

As a central address in the Jewish blogging world for the contest, many questions are understandably directed my way. I hope you won’t mind if I pass some by you in hopes of finding some answers:

1. When might we expect the 20 semifinalists’ proposals to be published and what will the URL be? Have the semifinalists been notified of their status?

All of the semi-finalists have been informed. Only some of the 20 have agreed to allow us to publish their proposals. I hope that we can have a website up within a month.

2. What procedures or tenets are in place to guarantee that the ideas contained in the unpublished proposals will be protected?

We follow the regular search procedures at Brandeis. Only those individuals who have agreed in writing to allow us to post their proposals will have their proposals uploaded onto the site. Everything else connected to the search is, naturally, confidential.

Keep reading to learn more!

3. Will the Feb. 24th symposium be filmed or liveblogged for a worldwide audience? How shortly will the decision of the winner come in its wake?

I expect that we will film the symposium. We hope to announce the winner shortly after the symposium, but no promises.

4. Are you able to share any information about the composition of the committee beyond the information that has been released by official announcement?

The committee is composed of senior Brandeis University faculty. It includes faculty (male and female) from several different departments. Nobody outside of Brandeis is on the search committee. The composition of search committees at Brandeis is confidential. I am chairing the search.

5. Beyond the finalists and semifinalists, are there any plans by Brandeis or Mr. Bronfman to follow up on the ideas received (book, web publication, etc)?

None to my knowledge.

Lastly, when the contest has passed and you are finally able to draw a free breath of spring air, would you be amenable to an interview on my blog as we have focused so much energy and attention on this initiative? For obvious reasons, I would screen questions so that everything would be done with a maximum amount of respect for what the contest was attempting to accomplish.

It’s simply that my readers are so invested and invigorated by this idea, I believe they would like to have a better understanding of how to proceed now (in a general sense, not specific), and your insight in this matter would be sincerely appreciately.

Glad to think about this when the time comes.

For your reference, the homepage for the Bronfman Big Idea Series is here.

Thank you in advance & Shavua Tov,

Maya Norton

The New Jew: Blogging Jewish Philanthropy

Readers, Your Turn

Now it’s your turn to react Prof. Sarna’s words. I know there are some very strong feelings at stake– and I want to hear them– but as usual I ask that you keep it in the spirit of wholesome conversation so that we can learn from each other. Please avoid base insults and name calling, should you be tempted. I want real discussion.



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16 Responses to Bronfman Contest: We Want Answers– Correspondence with Prof. Jonathan Sarna

  1. Ian Zwerling says:

    Congratulations on getting him to almost answer your questions. It is no longer a contest but a search and I dont remember the committee being referred to this way before. Im afraid he will check this blog now and be frightened away by my presence.

    Tomorrow is the last day for my opinion piece posted at the Justice. I never got him to answer my dire request but by making a public airing of my grievance I feel I bought some security of my own. I regret some things Ive said in reaction to this contest, one in particular, but overall I am grateful they printed my letter and gave me license to publicize my thoughts on the contest/job search.

    I dont know what to think of Brandeis anymore. My parents have raised huge amounts of money for their library and will continue to do so I believe. I can say that a religious affiliated university has major liabilities but Im glad I studied at a Catholic University. It was refreshing to get a different point of view on life there. And feeling welcomed by the Catholic community was life affirming. I cant say the same for this contest and the behavior of leaders at Brandeis University.

    I imagine Boston has its own peculiar dynamic on acceptable behavior but Ill never understand the inability to respond to criticism or problems arising from the contest. The terseness has shaken my previous high opinion of this particular institution.

    Maya, thank you for posting the link to my strong criticism. I hope that this contest episode will lead us to discuss issues that this contest claims as its domain. I hope this episode will lead to greater openness at Brandeis because from my viewpoint it is in lockdown.

    Your blog once again proves its importance and provides the oxygen of discourse to resuscitate a dying body politic.

  2. Maya Norton says:

    You’re most welcome, Ian. I’m glad to.

    Why is the letter taken down if it’s a web publication? Isn’t it just moved to an accessible archive? (Or shouldn’t we ask.)

    BTW, I’m not sure we can hold the whole City of Boston responsible on this one.

    Glad to hear your warm views on the university you attended. I often hear nice stories about Jews who have attended Catholic school, often at a young age in an area where a parochial school may have provided a better education than the public.


  3. Having been on committees of various kinds in the past, I am all too aware of the difficulty in coming to a consensus, that it is not a mathematical process, that personal bias is involved, that the overall interests of the organization take precedence, and yes… that some people are going to be unhappy with the decision.

    So while I appreciate this info/interview, it is only out of curiosity and not out of any sense of demanding answers. They did what they needed to do, and I think the only deception was perhaps our self-deception that our dreams and visions for Am Yisrael were in line with those of the committee.

    The good news is, in only contest that *really* matters (that of making the most of our lives, our creativity, and our love for Am Yisrael) we have no secret committees to please, no competition other than the limits of our own passion and determination. Brandeis Shmandeis — Go out there and see your ideas to fruition!

    🙂 David

  4. Maya Norton says:


    “Go out there and see your ideas to fruition!”

    Exactly. It’s on us now.


  5. Gary Kulwin says:

    Hi, Maya –

    Thanks to both you and Prof. Sarna for this “blog interview”, as it were. This whole thing feels like a great TV series; just when it seems to be winding down and perhaps getting stale, the writers throw a brand new story line into the mix! I can only imagine where we might go next with a “Big Idea – Celebrity Interview Series”:

    Charles Bronfman – was the winning Big Idea worth the money?
    Steven Spielberg – Could a “Hunt for Big Ideas” movie be in the works?
    Jerry Seinfeld – could a show about nothing really be the biggest Big Idea of all – and are we, the Jewish People, put here as players in the Greatest Show on Earth?
    P.M. Ehud Olmert (and opposition leader MK Bibi Netanyahu) – Do you have any more Big Ideas you want to share (and, if so, why didn’t you already submit them to the contest)?

    Seriously, I love this blog, and I hope that we can find ways to keep the enthusiasm of the “Big Idea People” here going (even after this contest has formally run its course).

    Kol Tuv, GK

  6. Maya Norton says:


    I love it!


  7. Shai says:

    David, when somebody opens a contest and says they’re looking for the next Birthright, and says he’s looking for an idea whose basis is as transformative about how Jews think about themselves and their community as Kaplan’s was, and says that they’re interested in initiating a debate about the issues confronting our community, and stands up and says “no, Braveheart isn’t what I had in mind”, and in the end what happens instead is something substantially otherwise, it may not mean there was deception on their part but it surely doesn’t mean there was self-deception. Not at all. What happened is that for all the reasons you listed, the contest turned into something other than it was advertised to be, and that was a way to make Brandeis a better Brandeis.

    But that said, I agree with you. It’s always been up to us. But “us” just got smaller when it consists only of Jewish professionals and academics who write books for themselves, don’t you think?

  8. Shai says:

    GK, PT Barnum? Do you wanna go there? 🙂

  9. Gary Kulwin says:

    You’re right, Shai – the indirect reference to P.T. Barnum is a little politically touchy here. He is described on Wikipedia as “an American showman who is best remembered for his entertaining hoaxes and for founding the (Ringling Bros.) circus“. I would never claim that what we just participated in was a hoax; however, it did feel a little bit at times like a circus, and it has certainly been very entertaining. We should look on the bright side; as P.T. might have said, “there’s a Big Idea born every minute”. 🙂

    BTW, I was thinking today about another question that I might ask Jerry Seinfeld: of the major characters on your show, which would have been the most likely to win a Big Idea contest? Personally, I think that it’s a crowded and highly competitive field:

    George Constanza clearly seems to be the strongest “resume candidate”, since he was president of Vandelay Industries, worked as (or impersonated) a marine biologist and architect, and previously won another major competition (i.e. he was Master of His Own Domain).

    Cosmo Kramer would seem to have an edge in creativity: the homeless rickshaw business, the make-your-own pizza restaurant, and the Japanese businessmen’s hotel (using dressers as bedrooms) definitely broke new ground in unconventional thinking.

    Elaine Benes, however, clearly had the most talent as a writer. Remember, she worked both as an editor for Pendant Publishing, and later worked in advertising for the J. Peterman catalog. She clearly could knock out a book worth reading.

    Finally, we have Newman. While his talents are not immediately noticable, he does have a couple of things going for him: he’s crafty (useful for dealing with any organizational politics) and he works for the post office (maybe he could intercept somebody else’s Big Idea and submit it as his own – of course, he would probably wind up stealing one of Kramer’s ideas, which would probably do him little good).

    I am not really sure what all of this proves: that art imitates life, or that I spend too much time watching Seinfeld re-runs. (I think that my wife would attest to the latter…).

    Regards, GK

  10. Maya Norton says:

    I would also add that George worked for the Yankees, although whatever position he held was unclear, and Kramer was a follower of Da Vinci (?), wanting to create levels in his home. George was indeed Master of his domain, which is probably the most authoritative title of all.

    What a quality list, Gary. You made my morning.


  11. kulwin says:

    Sorry, Maya but I enjoyed my comments so much that I decided to steal them from here and re-post them on my own blog. Isn’t this sort of “creative re-publishing” and extending of content what Web 2.0 is partially all about? Happy commenting!

    Kol Tuv, GK

  12. Maya Norton says:

    That’s the beauty of the blogosphere, Gary. Thanks for the link, I’m excited to read your post.


  13. Ian Zwerling says:

    Maya, yes its archived so accessible. It only got one response. Sarna’s clarification, he is a pompous ass, on the Justice he is obsessed with my comment about the form letter. What a nerd. His priorites are totally warped. I feel sorry for the contestants who are finalists. The whole contest was a farce.

  14. Ian Zwerling says:

    Its easy to say that we can make things happen but this example shows that there is a philosophical opposition. Theres never been a greater split between American Jews and support of Israel and this says alot about the subtle effort to create this seperation by Americans. I cant accept that it is American Jews doing it to themselves.
    While other people are asserting themselves, we are pathetic cowards, with our cowardly leadership who resemble the characters of the Wizard of Oz with Olmert the tin man, Barak, the cowardly lion, maybe Livni is Dorothy.
    I dont know what to me this contest was the definition of absurdity and demonstrates that we are a divided people and ripe for destruction.

  15. TNT -KOCHNIK says:

    the problem with the contest was the disconnect between prize and the contest idea.. the winner gets to teach at brandeis for 2 yrs. most applicants myself included are not qualified to teach at a university therefore no matter how good our proposals were, we had no chance of winning. if you put me in a univ i would spend my time fooling around with college girls.
    awarding a teaching prize to the winner of the next big jewisg idea is like awarding the winner of the betty crocker bake off a 2 year job in the auditing dept of an accounting firm.
    the criticism of adam bronfman is unjust. he means well and is a good hearted person he could do what most other wealthy jews do and fund secular non-jewish programs, bronfman went out of his way to do a mitzva and help his fellow jews
    its just that his contest was hijacked by pin head profs. who want one of their fellow pinheads to win.

  16. $ says:

    The more I read Saul Singer’s articles, the more I like him. If he wins I hope he teaches a class on Middle Eastern politics and not just his Bronfman idea. That’s not to say I don’t like his idea, I just enjoy his strong articles a lot.

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