(RNS) Billionaire industrialist Edgar Bronfman Sr., who gave generously to Jewish philanthropy from his share of the Seagram Co.’s fortune, focused on Jewish interests in Israel and beyond for half his life.
He died Saturday (Dec. 21) at the age of 84.
As president of the Samuel Bronfman Foundation and president from 1981 to 2007 of the World Jewish Congress, he was devoted to Jewish survival.
“For many decades, Edgar was Diaspora Jewry’s undisputed leader,” the current WJC president Ronald Lauder told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.
Bronfman once told the JTA that his devotion to Jewish survival and flourishing awoke during a 1970 trip to the Soviet Union: “What is it about Judaism, I asked myself, that has kept it alive through so much adversity while so many other traditions have disappeared?
“Curiosity soon turned into something more, and that ‘something more’ has since turned into a lifelong passion.”
Bronfman campaigned to bring Soviet Jews to Israel or the United States. He battled Swiss banks to disclose and refund more than a billion dollars, stashed by Jews for safekeeping before the Holocaust, to their heirs.
Bronfman’s work led President Bill Clinton to honor him in 1999 with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
The oldest son of Samuel Bronfman, Edgar Sr. made Seagram’s into a global industrial brand, from liquor to oil to orange juice.
Canadian-born, he became a U.S. citizen and often focused on innovative programs for young North American Jews.
He created a fellowship program for developing leaders among U.S., Canadian and Israeli high school students, and helped strengthen and expand Jewish programming on college campuses through Hillel.
In 2002, he provided the funding to launch MyJewishLearning, an online site for education that now includes the Jewish parenting site Kveller.
And Bronfman and his younger brother, Charles, were among the first philanthropists to bankroll Birthright, a campaign by Jewish organizations and the Israeli government to provide free, 10-day trips for college-age students to explore Jewish faith in Israel.
So far, more than 330,000 young adults have made trips, most from the U.S. This may be a contributing factor in a finding by the new Pew Research Center that more than 40 percent of Jews under age 30 have visited the Jewish state.
The Jerusalem Post described Bronfman as a “staunch supporter of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process” and “a very vocal and public backer of liberal politicians in the U.S. and Israel.”
Not all his positions were embraced within the Jewish community. His views on interfaith marriage were controversial. According to Pew Research, 58 percent of Jews who wed since 2000 married a non-Jewish spouse. Where some fear assimilation, Bronfman wrote in The Jewish Daily Forward, in 2010, “Intermarriage today can even be an opportunity for a stronger embrace of Jewish identity.”
Said Dana Raucher, executive director of the Samuel Bronfman Foundation, in a statement released Sunday: “He was the first of his kind, a titan of industry that dedicated himself fully to advocating, advancing and encouraging the Jewish people.”