From ‘Let my people go’ to ‘Let my people know’

Matthew Bronfman, chairman of Limmud FSU International, lives his family’s legacy by empowering former Soviet Union Jewry and Israel.

Matthew Bronfman (photo credit: YAROSLAVNA SVETLOVA)
Matthew Bronfman
Matthew Bronfman, 55, traveled with his legendary late father, Edgar, on numerous business trips around the globe when he was growing up.
However, only on one such trip did he ever see the longest serving World Jewish Congress president and Seagram’s mogul truly nervous. According to Matthew, it was moments before a private 1990 meeting in Moscow with then-president of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbechev.
“He couldn’t find the tie he wanted to wear, and there were more expletives in a two-minute period than I’d ever heard in my entire life,” said Bronfman last month at a Limmud FSU conference in Moldova, where his grandfather emigrated from to Canada in 1889 before going on to create the storied Seagram’s empire.
“But ultimately, he found his tie, and off he went to the meeting with premiere Gorbechev.”
“And president Gorbechev was talking, and talking, and talking, and talking, and talking – and my father put up his hand and interrupted him,” Bronfman continued, raising his own hand to relive the moment.
“He then said to him: ‘Mr. President, with all due respect, you are a very, very busy man, and I would like, with your permission, to talk about the subject that we came here to discuss.”
The younger Bronfman then briefly paused, seemingly picturing the gravity of the image in his mind.
“Now, I think you can appreciate what it took to interrupt president Gorbechev to talk about Soviet-Jewish immigration, and my father did it.”
That interruption changed the course of history for Soviet Jewry.
“When the meeting concluded, Gorbechev immediately called his foreign minister and said, ‘Please meet with him, he’s coming now,’” Bronfman said. “This was the turning point in the process of Jewish immigration out of the former Soviet Union.”
Bronfman continued, “With a combination of charm and strength, my father took a huge risk because he was interrupting the guy who held the fate of millions of Jews in his hands, and my father interrupted him.
“But he did it in a polite way, and Gorbechev respected him in that moment. And that moment made a huge difference in the life of the State of Israel, and the lives of millions of Soviet Jews.”
The encounter also had a profound impact on his son.
“His leading by example, rather than just sort of telling me – and seeing it and living it – made a huge difference and impact on me,” Bronfman said.
(Bronfman and daughter Sasha visit a cemetery in Ataki, where their paternal family once lived.)
Indeed, his father’s actions helped set the stage for a second act in Jewish history that Bronfman has been instrumental in directing: reconnecting Jews from the former Soviet Union to their once severed past.
As the international chairman and primary benefactor of Limmud FSU (former Soviet Union) – an organization dedicated to educating Russian-speaking Jews around the world about a history that Communism shrouded in secrecy – Bronfman has taken his father’s vaunted mission to the next level.
“It seemed to me that when I was approached with the concept of Limmud FSU, that it was really a perfect extension of the work that my grandfather, my father and my uncle had done in terms of the fight for Soviet Jewry, Jewish communities, and the importance of Jewish communities from around the world,” he said.
“And as we know, we went from ‘Let my people go,’ to ‘Let my people know.’”
A chance encounter in Spain
Bronfman said his involvement with Limmud FSU began following a chance encounter with Chaim Chesler, the former head of the Jewish Agency’s delegation to the Former Soviet Union, who founded the organization in 2006, along with co-founder Sandra Cahn.
“I was working with my dad at the WJC at that point on the finance committee and was in Cordova, Spain at an OECD (Organization for the Economic Cooperation and Development) conference, and Chaim came up to me and asked me if I had an hour, and I said yes,” he recounted.
“I had never heard of Limmud, and he described it to me – and given the history of my father’s involvement with Soviet Jewry, when he said he wanted to create Limmud in the former Soviet Union, I thought it was worth a try.”
Chesler’s vision was inspired by the success of UK Limmud, a volunteer-based Jewish education organization founded 30 years ago in England, which sponsors conferences around the world. Limmud (meaning “learning” in Hebrew), was created to “enable participants to take one step further on his or her Jewish journey,” its mission statement says.
The conferences make accessible some of the world’s most dynamic Jewish intellectuals, educators and performers in a variety of educational styles – including lectures, workshops, study sessions, discussions, art exhibits, and performances.
Still, Bronfman conceded that he was not particularly sanguine about the chances of Chesler’s ambitious proposal succeeding.
“Frankly, I didn’t think he’d succeed, because having been in Russia a number of times before, I knew how complicated the landscape was – how much conflict there is between different Jewish organizations,” he said.
Nonetheless, Bronfman agreed to back the nascent enterprise, and attended its inaugural conference with Chesler and Cahn in Moscow in 2006 to see if it had legs.
“So we went to Moscow for the very first Limmud FSU to see if it would even have any resonance at all with the community,” he said. “And it did. And since then it has just become a movement.”
To be sure, Limmud FSU is now an international draw.
Spanning Russia, Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus, the US, Canada, Australia, Europe and Israel, and featuring world-renowned Israeli and American experts in Judaica, over 40,000 young Russian-speaking Jews have paid out of pocket to participate in the conferences.
“It was amazing to see, and to see the growth,” said Bronfman, noting that the organization’s April Moscow conference attracted over 1,450 people – nearly 10 times more than the 2006 debut there.
Asked the secret to Limmud FSU’s success, Bronfman, who attends roughly half of the 10 conferences every year, credited its volunteer-based ethos.
“I think that it’s critical that the local communities own the program – that it’s not from the top down, that it’s not some leader saying ‘do this, do that’ – that the organizing committees make the decisions, raises the money, picks the locations, gets the lecturers, that it’s theirs,” he said.
“That they own it is what makes it successful.”
Bronfman has since attended conferences in Moscow, St. Petersberg, Israel, Moldova, Toronto, New York, and soon will join Los Angeles’s debut on the growing roster.
“The reason I love coming to Limmud is because of the energy and the intellectual engagement that I see with people discovering their connection with Judaism,” he said.
According to Chesler, Bronfman immediately expressed interest in his proposal when he mentioned that a Limmud FSU conference would be held in Molodova, where his grandfather, Sam, fled Soviet persecution.
“Matthew continues the legacy of his beloved grandfather Sam, and father, Edgar, who helped Russian Jews while they were under the iron curtain,” said Chesler.
“Now that the curtain has been lifted, he is helping Jews who remain in the former Soviet Union to reconnect with their roots. He is a modest gentleman who leads by example how to be a proud and decent Jew.”
To be sure, co-founder Cahn, said a primary reason for Limmud FSU’s success is Bronfman’s hands-on leadership.
“Not only does Matthew give substantial monetary support, but equally as important, he’s on the ground attending most of our large events throughout the year,” said Cahn. “Since we are operating in nine countries, that is quite a task, as he runs his own business and has many family commitments at the very same time.”
Cahn continued, “Because he is actively engaged he is perceived to be a committed chair and a ‘real person.’ The participants of Limmud FSU throughout the world adore him for his leadership, caring and accessibility.”
Chesler noted that Bronfman’s support has also been buttressed by numerous foundations and individual major donors, including Limmud FSU President Aaron Frenkel, Diane Wohl, Vadim Shulman, and current WJC president and philanthropist, Ronald Lauder.
“Roman Kogan, Limmud FSU’s talented executive director, also keeps it all functioning smoothly around the world,” Chesler added.
Investing in Israel’s future
Beyond supporting Limmud FSU, Bronfman has been a major supporter of Israel’s economy, investing his considerable resources in a cross-section of industries there for nearly 15 years, despite his father advising against it.
“When I started looking to invest in Israel, I remember my father telling me that ‘Israel is a place to give money, not a place where you invest money,’” he said. “Fortunately, that has changed a lot over the years, and shows how Israel has grown up in such a remarkable way, and of course, it’s still a young country.”
Bronfman, who lives in Manhattan, has gone on to become the largest American-Jewish investor in the Israeli economy, as well as the primary shareholder in IKEA Israel, Shufersal, and formerly of Israel Discount Bank.
“People ask me: ‘How do you get other people to invest in Israel?” he said. “And my answer is that I think you are asking the wrong question.”
The right question, he says, is “How do you get people to fall in love with Israel?”
“And the way to fall in love with Israel is just to go to Israel, because for many people who travel to Israel for the very first time, they come back completely transformed,” he said, noting that his seven children have regularly visited the country since infancy.
Moreover, his uncle, Charles Bronfman, co-founded Taglit-Birthright Israel, which has flown over 400,000 young Jews from across the globe to Israel for 10-day educational trips designed to strengthen their Jewish identity and create a life-long connection with the nation.
Additionally, Bronfman’s cousin, Stephen Bronfman, who heads Montreal’s Jewish community, recently opened a fund to invest in Israel, as well.
“We’ve been very, very, very fortunate with my family that we’ve had the ability to do good things, but I think the most important lesson that we were taught by the older generation was that the commitment to the Jewish people is even more important than making money,” he said.
“Now, that’s easy to say when you have some money, but still, it is. I think it’s really part of our DNA, and honestly, it’s the thing that makes me the most proud.”
Living his father’s legacy
Edgar M. Bronfman died in December of 2013 at the age of 84. At a memorial service for him at Jerusalem’s Israel Museum, a cross-section of political luminaries and Jewish leaders from around the globe honored the 30-year leader of the WJC.
“It’s mission impossible to sum up the life Edgar had,” Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, whom Bronfman was instrumental in freeing from a Siberian prison in 1987, said at the ceremony. “Thousands would not be standing in Israel if it was not for the efforts and deep lifelong commitment of Edgar M. Bronfman.”
In a video message, former-president Shimon Peres described the late Bronfman as a “lion,” while Matthew called him his hero, and vowed to carry on his legacy.
“First of all, I think about him every day, and I do think about his legacy and his leadership when we’re doing whatever we’re doing – whether it’s investing in Israel, being in Israel, Limmud FSU – the whole Soviet Jewry movement was critical to him,” he said.
Bronfman added that it is equally critical to him to champion his father’s passion for empowering local Jewish communities throughout the world, and giving all Jews the freedom to choose where, and how, to live their lives.
“When the gates opened, he felt that people should be able to leave not just for Israel, but for anywhere else they wanted in the Diaspora,” he said. “He was, in that sense, a libertarian in that people should not have to go to Israel – they should go where they want.”
“So, for him,” Bronfman continued, “the importance was local Jewish communities, whether they were small communities in South America, or in Europe. And there was a whole division of the WJC dedicated to small communities.”
In this respect, he said Limmud FSU is the perfect vehicle to expand upon his father’s vision and work.
“What I think Limmud does is allow people in small communities to really find an expression of their Jewish life and their Jewish culture in a way that would really follow on his passion about small communities being able to survive and thrive,” he said.
Passing the torch
While Bronfman was not raised in a religious home, he said that he has raised his children to embrace their Jewish identities.
This was made particularly evident by his 19-year-old daughter, Sasha, who accompanied him to Moldova, including a visit to the family’s paternal hometown town of Ataki, now inhabited by only four remaining Jews.
“I try to do what my father did, which is to lead simply by doing,” he said, as he sat beside the incoming Duke University freshman, who attended Jewish day schools in Manhattan, and lived in Jerusalem for one year after graduating high school.
“And when they see the commitment – when they see the time and effort and energy that you spend on doing your best to help other people – it just provides them with a roadmap. Actions speak louder than words.”
Indeed, asked if her father’s involvement with Limmud FSU, world Jewry and Israel is something she would like to be involved in one day, Sasha was unequivocal.
“Yes, definitely,” she said.
“I think that as the generations get further and further away from the Holocaust and the Old Country, this is increasingly important. And as modernity takes over, I just feel that it’s really important to raise a family with Jewish values, which is the most important thing to me.”
“Obviously, when I grow up, I want to be more involved,” she added with a smile, as her father looked on with pride.