Edgar M. Bronfman: A Tribute

Industrialist, philanthropist, diplomat, author, recipient of the US Presidential Medal of Freedom. Headed Seagram, the World Jewish Congress, Hillel, the Bronfman Youth Fellowships and The Samuel Bronfman Foundation.

March 6, 2014 12:54
3 minute read.
Edgar Bronfman

Edgar M. Bronfman. (photo credit: Courtesy)


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Edgar Bronfman was all of these things, as well as being the patriarch of a loving family. Born into a world of privilege, he dedicated his life to benefitting others. He directed the world-wide expansion of a great company, Seagram, Ltd. and fought for justice for Jewish communities in nearly every capital across the globe. Guided by a philosophy of inclusiveness and inquiry, he forged a model of philanthropy that put a premium equally on close study and an exchange of views. Above all, he invested his energy in young people and sought to help shape and mold future generations of leaders from all walks of Jewish life, grounded in pride for their past and inspired by hope for the future.

Edgar Miles Bronfman was born to Samuel and Saidye Bronfman in Montreal in 1929 (and given the Hebrew name Yehiel). Raised with three siblings amid the ambition and success of his legendary father, Edgar was groomed to head the company “Mr Sam” had founded and lead it to even greater achievements. Inspired by his father’s adage, “to leave the world a better place than you found it,” Edgar met and surpassed the expectations placed before him. Under his leadership, Seagram became a world leader in premium spirits and quality wines and set a standard for corporate citizenship and social engagement as the company expanded into investments in energy, agriculture, entertainment and the media.

EVEN AS a young executive shouldering the responsibility of an enormous business and family legacy, Edgar made time to become personally involved in issues of social justice and learned directly from prominent figures such as Justice Thurgood Marshall and Vice President Hubert Humphrey. In the 1970s, he became involved in diplomatic efforts to free Russian Jews from the systematic discrimination practiced by the Soviet Union and in the process, experienced his first true stirrings of a personal interest in Judaism.

This began a lifetime passion and a second career as a Jewish statesman.

Upon becoming President of the World Jewish Congress in 1981, Edgar forged a series of epic diplomatic achievements for the Jewish people.

Earning the right for Jewish citizens to practice their religion in the Soviet Union and to emigrate to Israel or other countries if they so wished, exposing the Nazi past of the Austrian President, Kurt Waldheim, establishing forums for improving relations between Israel and the Vatican, and between Catholics and Jews, providing the final push to rescind the United Nations resolution equating Zionism with racism, gaining financial restitution for thousands of Holocaust survivors and their families, and working to correct the historical record of Switzerland’s role in the Second World War.

For Edgar, fighting anti-Semitism was important and rewarding, but it was not an end in itself. He understood that it was the hope for a better future, not the fear of recurring woe which allowed Judaism to survive its past tragedies.

Now that insight would form the building blocks of Edgar's philanthropic mission – and the third leg of his career – as he left the corporate stage to head The Samuel Bronfman Foundation.

Edgar declared a bold mission for the foundation: to inspire a renaissance in Jewish life . In pursuing its mission, it would be more than just a grant-making foundation, but would also be a beit midrash – a place of learning, inquiry and dialogue. And indeed, The Samuel Bronfman Foundation’s offices in New York, soon became a site for Torah study groups, panel discussions, meetings of Jewish communal leaders and conversations with writers, thinkers, scholars and activists. The foundation’s philanthropy, although wide and innovative, was centered principally on the three initiatives he cared about most deeply.

EDGAR PLAYED a leading role in reviving the campus presence of Hillel: the Foundation for Jewish Campus Life and leading its international expansion.

He was especially proud of the Bronfman Youth Fellowships, a network of more than 1,000 young Jews from Israel and North America that includes some of today’s most inspiring Jewish writers, thinkers and leaders.

In 2002, Edgar launched MyJewish- Learning.co as a way to connect Jews around the world with Jewish knowledge and tradition.

Edgar was proud of his many awards and honors, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom awarded by President Bill Clinton in 1999. He derived deep satisfaction from writing five books , the last of which, The Bronfman Haggadah, was illustrated by his wife, Jan Aronson.

Edgar will be remembered for his many achievements and for his elegant, witty and warm personal style.

But above all, he will be remembered for his Jewish pride and his unyielding faith in the promise of young people to make the world a better place.

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