Edgar M. Bronfman, Jewish leader & philanthropist, passed away at 84

Edgar M. Bronfman, Sr., the son of legendary Canadian liquor magnate Sam Bronfman, who expanded Seagram Ltd. internationally and transformed the World Jewish Congress into a prestigious global advocacy force while separately fostering educational and social programs designed to promote a “Jewish renaissance,” died peacefully today at his home in New York surrounded by family. He was 84.

At the time of his death Mr. Bronfman was president of The Samuel Bronfman Foundation. With offices in the landmark Seagram Building that his family built on Manhattan’s Park Avenue, the foundation’s mission is to “inspire a renaissance in Jewish life” through programs Mr. Bronfman described as designed to cultivate “a Jewish community that is knowledgeable, proud and welcoming, where everyone is invited to learn and grow.” Mr. Bronfman personally exemplified this mission by turning the foundation’s offices into a hub of study groups, seminars and special gatherings to promote Jewish learning, discussion and innovation.

Foremost among the initiatives he supported are Hillel: The Foundation for Campus Jewish Life, the Bronfman Youth Fellowships, and MyJewishLearning.com.

Mr. Bronfman was instrumental in reviving Hillel’s campus presence and leading its international expansion. He visited more than 130 college campuses on five continents and met regularly with students.

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 writers, thinkers and leaders. The fellowships program, which Mr. Bronfman founded in 1987, engages future leaders at a formative point in their lives – after their junior year in high school – and immerses them in an intensive exploration of Judaism, including textual study and the examination of ideas about the Jewish experience, pluralism and social responsibility. The fellows and alumni embody Mr. Bronfman’s vision that young people who are enriched and energized by their Judaism are poised to contribute not only to Jewish life, but to the world at large.

In 2002, Mr. Bronfman launched MyJewishLearning.com as a way to connect Jews around the world with Jewish knowledge and tradition. More than a decade ago, Mr. Bronfman recognized that Jews increasingly would rely on the Internet to find answers to basic questions about Judaism. With nearly 1,000,000 visitors per month, MyJewishLearning.com utilizes the latest in technology to spread knowledge of Jewish religion, history, values, traditions, and culture to people around the world.

A prolific speaker and author, Mr. Bronfman described his work at the foundation as “finding new ways to teach young Jewish people the stories and ethics our ancestors have handed down, and to nurture in them a pride in our common history.”

Judaism became important to Mr. Bronfman late in life after he had built a career at Seagram and raised a family. As recounted in “The Making of a Jew,” one of four autobiographical books, the turning point was a trip to the Soviet Union in 1970 as part of a delegation to lobby the Russian government to allow greater freedom for Soviet Jews. As he later recounted, “It was on those trips to Russia that my curiosity was piqued. 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.”

The 1970 trip to Russia also marked the beginning of Mr. Bronfman’s three-decade long association with the World Jewish Congress and his emergence on the world diplomatic scene as an effective advocate for the Jewish people. On becoming president of the World Jewish Congress in 1981, Mr. Bronfman initiated a campaign to bolster its operations in Jewish communities around the world and engage in forceful diplomacy on behalf of the Jewish people.

Working directly with government leaders in foreign capitals, Mr. Bronfman achieved a series of diplomatic victories. Chief among them were agreements forged with the Soviet Union leading to the release of Jewish prisoners of conscience and to greater freedom of religious practice and emigration among Russia’s Jewish population. In 1986, Mr. Bronfman exposed the Nazi past of Austrian President Kurt Waldheim. He broke new ground in improving Jewish relations with the Vatican, including securing the removal in 1993 of a convent that had been built at Auschwitz by Carmelite nuns. While on a visit to a Tropicana Orange Juice plant in Florida in 1991, Mr. Bronfman persuaded President George H. W. Bush to secure the rescission of United Nations Resolution 3379, which equated Zionism with racism. In the later years of his WJC leadership, Mr. Bronfman fought for justice on behalf of Holocaust victims and their heirs, winning financial restitution for thousands of survivors and their families and forging a historic agreement with the Swiss banks over Holocaust era assets. In 1998, Mr. Bronfman was selected by President Clinton to chair the Presidential Advisory Commission on Holocaust Assets.

Mr. Bronfman’s skills as a negotiator and chief executive were developed during his career at Seagram Ltd., the world’s largest distiller of alcohol beverages, under the tutelage of his father Samuel Bronfman, known as “Mr. Sam.” Edgar Bronfman started his Seagram career as an apprentice taster in Montreal. In 1957, he was named CEO of Joseph E. Seagram and Sons, Inc., the company’s U.S. subsidiary. In 1971, he was named Chairman and CEO of the Seagram Company Ltd.

In the early 1960s Edgar worked closely with Mr. Sam to refine the branding and marketing of Seagram’s flagship premium aged and blended whisky, Chivas Regal, making it the premier whisky in its class. The campaign, conceived and spearheaded by Edgar, was celebrated for its innovative use of advertising created by Madison Avenue legend Bill Bernbach, whom Edgar had recruited to the Chivas account. Subsequently, Edgar Bronfman led the company’s purchase of Scotland’s prestigious Glenlivet Distillery, adding one of the world’s great single malt whiskies to the Seagram collection of brands and leading the way in meeting growing consumer interest in high-end single malts.

Under Mr. Bronfman’s direction, Seagram extended its line of premium whiskies and expanded into fine wines through its Chateau & Estates division. The company acquired Martell Cognac, Perrier-Jouet Champagne, and the distribution rights to Absolut Vodka along with other premium alcohol beverage brands, cementing its position as the global leader in luxury alcohol beverages.

Seeking to branch into other fields, under Mr. Bronfman the company also purchased Tropicana Orange Juice and orange groves throughout the world, including China.

In 1966, Mr. Bronfman bought a controlling stake in the movie studio MGM, which was later acquired by Kirk Kerkorian. In 1975, Mr. Bronfman formed Sagittarius Productions, which produced several hit Broadway shows and movies including 1776, a film version of Jane Eyre and the animated movieCharlotte’s Web. His most successful diversification venture was gaining a major stake in DuPont in 1981. Under Mr. Bronfman, Seagram sought to acquire 51% of the oil company Conoco in a bidding war with DuPont. Although DuPont was ultimately successful in the acquisition, Seagram’s Conoco shares were turned into a 25% ownership of the combined DuPont-Conoco entity, with Seagram wining 25% of the seats on DuPont’s board of directors.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Mr. Bronfman positioned Seagram Company Ltd. as a major champion of the alcohol beverage industry’s efforts to achieve equitable tax and regulatory treatment as compared to beer and wine. Notable on this front was the drinks “equivalency” campaign which successfully demonstrated that the amount of alcohol in a typical drink is the same whether whisky, wine or beer and that, therefore, all alcohol beverages should be taxed and regulated in the same manner.

During this time Mr. Bronfman discovered his true life’s calling in Jewish advocacy, devoting increasing energy to his work as president of the World Jewish Congress, leading Hillel’s resurgence, and forging a renaissance in Jewish life for the next generation.

In 1994, Mr. Bronfman retired as chairman and CEO of the Seagram Company. Upon its sale to Vivendi in 2000, he reconstituted The Samuel Bronfman Foundation, named for his father, as the institutional home of his activities centered on Jewish learning and education. In 2007, he stepped down from the World Jewish Congress to dedicate his time exclusively to the foundation.

Edgar Miles Bronfman was born in 1929 in Montreal, Canada. He was the third child of Samuel and Saidye Rosner Bronfman, and brother to three siblings, Minda, Phyllis and Charles. He graduated from Trinity College School in Port Hope, Ontario, attended Williams College and received a B.A. from McGill University in 1951. He moved to New York City in 1955 and became an American citizen in 1959.

Among numerous honors conferred and leadership positions earned over the course of his life, Mr. Bronfman received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Clinton; the Chevalier de La Legion d’Honneur from the government of France; the Justice Louis D. Brandeis Award from the Zionist Organization of America; and honorary doctoral degrees from Williams College, McGill University, Tel Aviv University, New York University and Hebrew University, among others. He served as the founding chairman of the International Board of Governors of Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life and chairman of the World Jewish Restitution Organization. He authored five books: The Making of A Jew, 1996; Good Spirits, 1998; The Third Act: Reinventing Yourself, 2002; Hope Not Fear: A Path to Jewish Renaissance, 2008; and The Bronfman Haggadah, 2013.

Mr. Bronfman married Ann Loeb in 1953 and together they had five children, Sam, Edgar, Jr., Matthew, Holly and Adam. They were divorced in 1973. With his wife Georgiana Webb, he had two daughters, Sara and Clare. In 1994, he married the artist Jan Aronson. In addition to Jan Aronson, he is survived by four sons and three daughters: Samuel Bronfman II, Edgar Bronfman, Jr., Matthew Bronfman, Holly Bronfman Lev, Adam Bronfman, Sara Igtet and Clare Bronfman. His brother Charles Bronfman, his sister Phyllis Lambert, 24 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren also survive him.

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