Bible scholar, historian Leila Bronner dies at 89

Rabbi Joseph Bronner and Dr. Leila Bronner were leaders in both the Johannesburg and Los Angeles Jewish communities.

By JULIE GRUENBAUM-FAX
July 22, 2019 15:32
3 minute read.
Journey to Heaven: Leila Leah Bronner

Journey to Heaven: Leila Leah Bronner. (photo credit: Courtesy)

Leila Leah Bronner, a Jewish history and Bible scholar died in Los Angeles on July 2. She was 89. She was buried in Jerusalem, at her request

Bronner was a community leader and Orthodox feminist and the first woman to receive a doctorate in Bible and Jewish studies in South Africa. The author of eight books, Bronner contributed hundreds of articles to scholarly and popular publications. She was an assistant professor at the University of Judaism (now American Jewish University) in Los Angeles, a visiting professor at Harvard University, Bar Ilan University in Israel and USC, and a frequent presenter at academic conferences around the world. A resident of Hancock Park for the past 35 years, Bronner also taught Shabbat afternoon Torah classes for women out of her home.

Born Leila Amsel in Czechoslovakia in 1930, she was the youngest of seven children. In 1936, her father, Rabbi Yitzhak Amsel, a respected Hungarian Chasidic leader and scholar, perceived the growing threat of anti-Semitism and procured visas for his family. With aid from the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, the Bronner family settled on the Lower East Side of New York in 1937, before moving to Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

At 10, Bronner convinced her father that, like her brothers, she should receive a Jewish education. She attended Bais Yaakov in Williamsburg, and in 1948 delivered the school’s valedictory address in modern Hebrew. She attended teacher’s seminary and took classes at Hunter College, and in 1949 married Rabbi Joseph Bronner, who had escaped Berlin with his family in 1941. They moved with their newborn daughter to Johannesburg in 1951.

Bronner had two more children while earning her bachelor’s in Bible studies at Witwatersrand University in 1955 and a master’s in Jewish history in 1960. When she was told that women were not welcome in the doctoral program at Witwatersrand, she transferred to Pretoria University, where in 1964 she earned her doctorate in Northwest Semitic Languages. She became an associate professor at Witwatersrand.

The Bronners were founders of Yeshiva College, the first and still largest Orthodox day school in South Africa. By 1974, Bronner had published four books and was a celebrity in the South African Jewish community, and regularly filled auditoriums and synagogues for standing-room-only lectures.

She became a pioneering Jewish feminist, writing in a South African newspaper in 1974: “Let us have less sermons, speeches and articles teeming with apologetics trying to prove that Judaism places woman on a pedestal, and more concrete actions showing that she has equal opportunity with her male counterpart to develop her talents and make a meaningful contribution to every sphere of Jewish life.”

In 1984, Yeshiva College rededicated the Leila Bronner Girl’s High School.

The Bronners opposed apartheid, but feared the violence that had taken over in Johannesburg. In 1984, they moved to Los Angeles, where Bronner taught at the University of Judaism and several other venues. She became president of Emunah Women and was involved in Amit Women, Builders of Jewish Education and Jewish Federation.

In 1994, Bronner published her most successful book, “From Eve to Esther,” one of the first books to analyze midrashic and rabbinic attitudes toward Biblical women. She was an early member of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, and wrote often about women’s issues. Her book “Stories of Biblical Mothers” was published in 2004.

Bronner never retired, publishing a book on the afterlife, “Journey to Heaven,” in 2011, and her personal memoirs, “The Eternal Students,” in 2017. She continued teaching until just a few months before her death.

Bronner is survived by her husband, Joseph; her children Temi (Bernard) Monderer, Esther (Walter) Feinblum and Moshe (Amira); 9 grandchildren and many great-grandchildren; and her brother, Avraham.

Julie Gruenbaum Fax, a writer in Los Angeles, co-authored Bronner’s 2017 memoirs, “The Eternal Students.” This article was originally published in the Jewish Journal.


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