Edgar Bronfman, the Canadian-American beverage magnate, former head of the World Jewish Congress, and prominent philanthropist, passed away on Saturday in New York. He was 84.
Bronfman’s name is well-known in the Jewish world for the support he gave to many communal causes. A major backer of Hillel, Bronfman served as the founding chair of its International Board of Governors, and the organization’s campus center at New York University bears his name. Through his Samuel Bronfman Foundation, he established the Bronfman Youth Fellowships for high school seniors, which boasts many young Jewish leaders, thinkers, and writers–from Jonathan Safran Foer to Daniel Handler (a.k.a. Lemony Snicket)–among its over 1000 alumni. He also funded MyJewishLearning.com.
In 1981, Bronfman assumed the presidency of the World Jewish Congress, and used the position to advocate on behalf of Soviet Jewry. He would also secure over a billion dollars in restitution for Holocaust victims and their heirs from Swiss banks. Bronfman provoked controversy in the organization when he co-signed a letter urging President George W. Bush to pressure Israel to curb construction on its West Bank security barrier. While some Jewish leaders argued Bronfman should have directed his concerns to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, he garnered support from others, Shimon Peres among them. In 1999, Bronfman was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Bill Clinton.
Last month, Georgetown professor Jacques Berlinerblau asked Bronfman to define his Jewishness: “Jews have a tendency to describe themselves as Jews in many different ways–Reform, Orthodox, Conservative, secular, humanistic. Mr. Bronfman, how would you describe yourself as a Jew?”
Bronfman’s answer? “As a proud Jew.”