Born to a life of luxury, with admittedly little knowledge of Judaism growing up, Edgar Bronfman could have achieved success and adulation simply as the successor to his father, Samuel Bronfman, chairman of Seagram Ltd. The fact that in addition he became increasingly interested and involved in Jewish life as an adult — not only as president of the World Jewish Congress but as a student of Jewish text and issues — is a tribute to his capacity to both lead and learn.
On his death this week at the age of 84, Bronfman is being hailed as “the prince of Jews,” a man of regal stature who took it upon himself to help his people in a variety of meaningful ways. He made a profound impact on the lives of Holocaust survivors, who benefited from the large funds he helped secure through tough negotiations with Swiss banks; on Jews in the Soviet Union, whose emigration he promoted; and on many hundreds of young people in the U.S. and Israel, who were given intense Jewish educational experiences through the Bronfman Youth Fellowship program he established.
We are proud to offer personal remembrances on these pages from two major Jewish leaders who knew Bronfman well and had great affection for him as well as for his work. The fact that Richard Joel is president of Yeshiva University and Rabbi David Ellenson is outgoing president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion says volumes about Bronfman’s love for all Jews, across denominational lines, and his commitment to better their lives and deepen their Jewish identities.
Rabbi Ellenson writes that “the enduring legacy of Edgar Bronfman — as his deeds testify — is that he invested in souls.” And Richard Joel recalls Bronfman telling him, on becoming the lay leader of Hillel, that the key to success was “hope, not fear,” which became their mantra.
Much is being written this week about Edgar Bronfman the billionaire businessman and philanthropist, and deservedly so. What is most noteworthy, though, is that his contributions to the Jewish people he was so passionate about will endure, making it possible for future generations to explore and come to love their Jewish identity, as he did.
May his memory be a blessing.