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A Big Philanthropic Hole To Fill

A Big Philanthropic Hole To Fill

Engaging young Jews energized Charles Bronfman; with his foundation ‘sunsetting,’ who’ll pick up the slack?

Gary Rosenblatt is The NY Jewish Week's editor at large.

Quietly, with the forethought and grace that has distinguished the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies as a trendsetter in Jewish life since its launch three decades ago, the foundation effectively shut down at the end of 2015. With much of the operation closed and staff diminished, this year will be one of “spend down,” completing commitments to prior obligations but no longer entertaining new grant proposals.

“No regrets,” Charles Bronfman told me during a recent interview. “It has been a hugely important part of my life, but it’s time.”

At 84, the Canadian-born billionaire philanthropist, whose father founded the Seagram liquor empire, continues to display candor and a wry sense of humor in discussing the successes and failures of the foundation, its legacy, his plans and hopes for the future, and his reasons for deciding to close the charity rather than continue it in perpetuity.

The Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies (ACBP) will best be remembered for its role in the creation of Birthright Israel, the most successful Jewish organizational project in memory, initiated and driven by Bronfman and fellow philanthropist and businessman Michael Steinhardt. But ACBP was a leader in many other ways as well in engaging the next generation and increasing opportunities for people to heighten their Jewish identity. As the foundation moves into its last stage it merits reflection not only for the hundreds of projects it supported in the U.S., Canada and Israel, and the two dozen major programs it helped launch and sustain, but for the way it has gone about winding down, which it has done with an unusual degree of openness, reflective of its benefactor.

“We made plenty of mistakes along the way,” Bronfman said in a phone interview from his home in Palm Beach, Fla., starting with “putting too much money in” the foundation at the outset “without much knowledge” of how best to spend it.

From the beginning, though, ACBP held to its mission statement “to strengthen the unity of the Jewish people, to improve the quality of life in Israel, and to promote Canadian heritage.” (Now a U.S. citizen as well, Bronfman still identifies as Canadian. A major project of his, Historica Canada, is a national leader in engaging young Canadians in the history of their country.)

Bronfman is a former chair of Seagrams, and later the investment holding company Koor Industries that focuses on high-growth Israeli companies, and he was majority owner of the Montreal Expos baseball team. He said he “always wanted to have a foundation,” in part because it allowed for experimentation and failure. “If you mess up, it’s your own money,” he said, unlike charities such as Jewish federations, which depend on communal funds.

“Our first flop,” Bronfman recalled, was a short-lived program in the early 1990s known as The Israel Experience, committed to bringing Jewish teens in North America to Israel in the summer. “I wanted every kid to be able to go to Israel” as a means of enhancing Jewish identity and understanding and love of the Jewish state, he said. “We wanted to see a big increase in the number of teens going, but the numbers didn’t really change. Our program was too expensive, at $5,500 per teen. It was too much.”

He refers to program now as a “noble failure,” with the lessons learned from the project leading a few years later to the creation of Birthright Israel, offering free 10-day trips to Israel for diaspora Jews between the ages of 18 and 26.

“Early on Charles said to me that Birthright was his greatest accomplishment,” said Michael Steinhart. “As with all of us who innovate there have been failures as well as successes, but Charles can be justifiably proud of his philanthropic efforts.”

ACBP’s tag line has been “investing in next generations,” and Joel Fleishman, director of the Center on Strategic Philanthropy and Civil Society at Duke University, credits the foundation for “inspiring young people by combining their normal and Jewish desires” to improve the world, “blending them in new ways.” He said ACBP created organizations that focused on making Jewish values meaningful to the lives of young people. He cited, among others, Reboot, which encourages culturally creative young men and women with little or no connection to Jewish life to discuss and create ways in which tradition can be meaningful to their lives; Slingshot, a Zagat-like annual guidebook to 50 Jewish innovative organizations and projects; and 21/64, which helps next generation philanthropists navigate between their parents’ charitable priorities and their own.

ACBP has made “a major contribution to Jewish life by being flexible, transparent and creative,” said Fleishman. “They have built a cadre of very good organizations and projects, and they have a very solid reputation, especially for being open to talented young people who want to work with them.”

I had a window into the workings and philosophy of the foundation soon after it began in 1986, when its founding president, Stephen P. Cohen, invited me to co-chair, along with Leon Wieseltier, a Fund for Journalism in Jewish Life. The project was intended to enable North American Jewish newspapers to provide in-depth enterprise articles to their readers, and it did so for almost a decade, with a free hand.

A visitor to the ACBP website,, will find a list of hundreds of projects and programs funded over the years with a remarkably wide range of grantees from healthcare to the arts, from Orthodox yeshivas to Reform synagogues, and from AIPAC to Peace Now. The site also has a detailed account of how the “spend down” is being carried out and the impact it has had on staff and grantees.

Bronfman attributes much of the impetus and energy of the foundation to his late wife, Andrea, who was killed in a car accident in 2006. She was passionately committed to Israel and to the arts and cultural projects. A year before she died her husband created The Andy Prize in her honor — now in her memory — which is awarded each year to an Israeli decorative artist for excellence in ceramics, textiles, jewelry or glass.

John Ruskay, the former CEO and executive vice president of UJA-Federation of New York who was senior consultant to ACBP, said that “Charles and Andy were both clear in their belief that Jewish life can be joyous, powerful and meaningful, with Israel at its center.” He noted that they were “ahead of the curve and decisive” in their philanthropic decisions, leading the way for many other foundations in seeking creative ways to reach the next generation.

Overall, Bronfman said, the foundation’s “thrust was informal education,” with an emphasis on social and economic equality in Israel. He said he is particularly proud of the Karev Program for Educational Involvement, an after-school cultural and cognitive enrichment program for Israeli children from low-income families. Founded in 1990, it now partners with the Ministry of Education and other foundations in reaching more than 250,000 students in more than 2,000 schools.

“I could not have done this work without Andy or Jeff,” Bronfman said, referring to Jeffrey Solomon, president of ACBP since 1997. “It’s been a wonderful collaboration, and we have become a helluva team.”

He and Solomon co-wrote two books, “The Art of Giving: Where the Soul Meets a Business Plan” (2009), on how to be a successful donor, regardless of income level, and “The Art of Doing Good: Where Passion Meets Action” (2013), on how to launch a non-profit.

Solomon praised Bronfman for his wisdom, values and willingness to experiment. “We both feel good about boxing well above our weight class” in the world of Jewish philanthropy, he said, pointing out that while ACBP is perceived as being one of the three or four largest foundations active in Jewish life, it distributed between $11 million and $16 million a year. By contrast, The Jim Joseph Foundation, The Avi Chai Foundation and The Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation each distribute an estimated $50 million to $70 million a year, he said, and The Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation is believed to spend about $100 million annually.

Solomon noted that ACBP reflected Bronfman’s “Canadian sense of fairness” in fostering programs that worked toward social equality in Israel, helping minority populations there and “seeing what it means to be The Other in the Jewish state.” He cited a project in the Negev that brings 18-year-old Israeli Jews and Bedouins together as volunteer tutors in the schools of their respective communities.

“One lesson we learned in our work was to be bold,” said Solomon, who has been a critic of private foundations, which he described as society’s risk capital, for being overly risk averse. He took pride in the fact that the great majority of projects ACBP started have “found a home” and are able to continue even after the foundation closes down by year’s end.

Bronfman explained the two reasons why he decided to “sunset” the foundation. First, was that his son and daughter were not interested in taking over the helm, preferring to do support their own pet projects through their own foundations. Daughter Ellen in Los Angeles is deeply involved in a local version of Teach for America, and son Steven is active in Montreal, where he heads the Federation campaign.

The second, and more painful, reason was what Bronfman describes as “the Vivendi disaster,” when, in 2001, the French mass media company acquired a significant portion of Seagrams, then headed by Bronfman’s nephew, Edgar Bronfman Jr., which led to Seagram’s demise. With that serious financial blow, Bronfman had to decide between “cutting back severely” in philanthropic grants or continue full funding and set a termination date for the foundation. He decided to “sunset” 15 years later. “At the time it seemed like a long way off,” he said.

But it is here now, and Joel Fleishman of Duke said he “worries every time a Jewish philanthropy of significant scale goes out of business.” Given how much ACBP accomplished, especially for young people, he said there is “clearly a hole that few others are filling in finding new ways for young Jews” to be engaged “and build careers that exemplify Jewish principles.”

But Bronfman, who is committed to continue his personal philanthropy going forward, said he is not concerned “about who will fill the gaps.”

“As long as enough of us give a damn, things will be in good shape,” he said.

A moment after we concluded our interview, he called back. “I hope this doesn’t sound maudlin,” he said, “but I just want to say how fortunate I am to have had the opportunity” to do the philanthropic work that was done.

Our community, in turn, is fortunate to be the beneficiary of his generosity and vision.

Full disclosure: Several of The Jewish Week’s educational projects have received grants from ACBP. Jeffrey Solomon, president of ACBP, served on The Jewish Week board and John Ruskay, a current member of The Jewish Week board, was a senior consultant to ACBP.

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