Edgar M. Bronfman
June 20, 1929 - December 21, 2013
In every facet of his being, Edgar M. Bronfman devoted his life to leaving the world a better place than he found it. As a businessman, statesman, philanthropist, and author, Edgar dedicated himself to benefiting and motivating others.
Edgar was born in 1929 to Samuel and Saidye Bronfman. He later moved from Montreal and became a U.S. citizen in 1959. Groomed by his father to continue the family legacy and eventually take over Seagram, Edgar directed the company to prominence and expansion throughout the world and across several industries.
As the CEO of Seagram Ltd., Edgar expanded the Seagram name to worldwide recognition. He used innovation to fuel Seagram’s global expansion into fine wines and premium whiskies, energy, entertainment, and media interests. He was a creative visionary who blazed new corporate paths without fear of failure. He earned incredible loyalty and dedication from his employees and wholesalers by sharing the rewards and allowing them to participate financially in the company’s success.
Across four decades under Edgar’s stewardship, Seagram attained a leadership position among Fortune 500 companies in the areas of human and civil rights. Seagram’s commitment to social responsibly set the standard for corporate citizenship. As a leader in civic responsibility, Seagram designed the Compliance Manual for spirts industry behavior in the marketplace that was adopted by a Federal multi-agency task force for use by the entire industry. In the 1960s, Seagram adopted the Sullivan principles and the corporation divested in assets in South Africa, in part by setting up two distributorships owned and operated by black South Africans. Under Edgar’s leadership, Seagram became an early supporter of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s civil rights legislation by implementing equal opportunity policies across the company, linking executive bonuses directly to recruitment of minorities. In the 1980s and 1990s, Seagram was among the first corporations to actively and visibly support HIV/AIDS organizations, in part to provide corporate cover in an era of public fear. Seagram supported LGBT policies among its employees and in the public arena, with its corporate sponsorship of GLAAD among its broad efforts.
Edgar grew up with a sense of shared concern for the welfare of other Jews. It was the notion of peoplehood that motivated him to become President of the World Jewish Congress, a role he held with distinction for over two and a half decades. Throughout his presidency, Edgar used his position as a platform to advocate for Jews around the world. His deep sense of peoplehood motivated him to fight for the freedom of Soviet Jews, patiently visiting Eastern European countries and the Soviet Union in the 1980s, gaining increased credibility, trust, and influence culminating in his private meeting with President Mikhail Gorbachev when the Soviet Premier agreed to begin the process of permitting Soviet Jews to emigrate. Combining his personal leadership with the support of Jewish communities around the world, Edgar gathered the votes and successfully advocated with President H. W. Bush to undo the 1972 UN resolution equating Zionism with racism. During his Presidency, the World Jewish Congress had a unique relationship with the Vatican. Under the leadership of Pope John Paul II, Edgar had a strong hand in the removal of a covenant established near Auschwitz. Edgar also persuaded Pope Benedict XVI to begin using the term “acceptance” rather than “tolerance” of Jews.
In pursuing the advancement of Jewish peoplehood, Edgar stood strongly for justice. Resisting immense political and diplomatic pressure, Edgar exposed the Nazi past of Austrian President Kurt Waldheim who was declared persona non-grata in capitals around the world as a result of the revelations. Edgar also led a global campaign to achieve a small measure of justice for victims of the Holocaust and their heirs, most notably by Chairing the US Presidential Commission on Holocaust Era Assets and in confronting the Swiss banks over their wartime past.
In addition to unstinting global travel, Edgar became known as an eloquent and effective diplomat, engaging heads of state, diplomats, and policy makers to advocate for issues of concern to the Jewish people. Edgar served as President of the World Jewish Congress from 1981-2007.
When Edgar retired from Seagram, he took on new dimensions of philanthropy with the reconstitution of The Samuel Bronfman Foundation. The Foundation promotes Jewish renaissance through Jewish learning, youth, community, and peoplehood. Edgar believed that with a new generation come brand new challenges and needs. Youth today need to see the hope and light in Judaism in their own way. Edgar was a committed and hands-on philanthropist. Throughout his career as a philanthropist, he held numerous leadership positions and served as a visionary leader for many organizations. He spearheaded and led Hillel International’s Board of Governors and visited over 100 Hillels during his tenure. He was also the Founder of MyJewishLearning, Inc., a Founding Trustee of The Foundation for Jewish Camp and Co-Chairman of the Bronfman Center’s Advisory Board. He served in a leadership capacity to, among others, American Friends of Beth Hatefutsoth, American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, Yad Vashem, Anti-Defamation League, BBYO, Birthright Israel, Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Museum of Jewish Heritage, Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education, STAR-Synagogues: Transformation and Renewal, and Survivors of the Shoah: Visual History Foundation. Edgar was the Founder of The Bronfman Youth Fellowships and chose to identify it as his living legacy.
Beyond conventional philanthropy, Edgar took the lead in fostering discussion and debate on a wide range of issues that inform Jewish identity and learning. Through the Bronfman Vision Forum he hosted many learning opportunities for educators, fellow philanthropists, and Jewish leaders. These opportunities fostered discussion and debate on a wide range of issues that inform Jewish identity and learning. During his presidency at the Foundation, hundreds have participated in the Foundation’s weekly Talmud sessions, Edgar’s High Holiday services, Tu’bshvat seders, Why be Jewish conferences, and the 375 Series public lectures.
In 1999, President Clinton recognized Mr. Bronfman's philanthropic efforts by awarding him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States' highest civilian honor. Mr. Bronfman also received the Chevalier de la Legion d'Honneur by the government of France and the Justice Louis D. Brandeis Award of the 85th National Convention of the Zionist Organization of America. In addition, Mr. Bronfman held honorary doctoral degrees from various institutions of higher learning, including Tel Aviv University, New York University, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, McGill University, and Williams College. In 2012, he was among the world’s wealthiest individuals and donors to sign the Giving Pledge and commit to dedicating the majority of his wealth to philanthropy.
Edgar Bronfman passed away on December 21st, 2013. His work endures to advance the Jewish renaissance and continues to be an inspiration to transform the future of the Jewish people.