Edgar Bronfman, Prince of the Jews

Appreciation

getty images

By Ami Eden

Published December 23, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

(JTA) — In the coming days, many eulogies will attempt to capture the magnitude of the loss suffered this week by the Jewish community. Really, though, all you need are eight words: Edgar Bronfman was a prince of his people.

There are other machers who devote much of their time and money to Jewish causes. But none of them boast the same combination of lineage, intrigue, eccentricity, wonder, grandness and love for Judaism and the Jews.

By birth, he was the son of Samuel Bronfman, chairman of Seagram Ltd. and president of the Canadian Jewish Congress, making him the scion of a family renown both for its beverage empire and its tradition of Jewish leadership. And on both counts it showed: He was never quite like the other boys, never quite like the other billionaires.

The differences were on display the first time I met him, at a conference in Chicago in 2000 dedicated to making synagogues more meaningful and attractive. He shared the stage with two other mega philanthropists, financier Michael Steinhardt and oil and gas magnate Charles Schusterman.

Steinhardt berated the Reform and Conservative rabbis in the audience, sounding very much like a Wall Street guy who made enough cash not to suffer fools lightly. But he was balanced by Schusterman, who was more humble and modest than most of the rabbis getting the Steinhardt treatment – not surprising for a self-made man who, though he literally struck it rich, never thought of himself as too big for Tulsa.

And then there was Edgar. He talked about how holding the end-of-Shabbat Havdalah ceremony on Saturday night didn’t feel right to him in the middle of his ski weekends, so he started doing it on Sunday night. High Holidays services were boring, so he started putting together his own in his East Side apartment building. Then mid-session, without comment, he stood up, left the stage and exited the room. When he returned a few minutes later, he let us know – with his particular brand of self-assuredness – that it was just a case of a man’s got to go when a man’s got to go.

In those moments, I saw the silver spoon side of Edgar and had little trouble comprehending his tabloid-rich family history or his roller-coaster business record. It also wasn’t hard to see how two other traits – his occasionally vulgar rebuke of political opponents and his reliance on and loyalty to a cadre of lieutenants – helped fuel the controversy and dysfunction that would bring an end to his otherwise storied tenure as the president of the World Jewish Congress.

But in between, and in the years since his stepping down as WJC president, what became clear was that his immeasurable contributions to the Jewish people far outweighed the bumps and were byproducts of the same set of life experiences and character traits.

Edgar’s memory is already a blessing, and will be for decades to come, because he chased big ideas and remained true to himself in a way that few of us could afford to be.

He lived large but was no dilettante, neither in his defense of Jewish rights around the world or his determination to connect young Jews to their heritage. He was passionate about studying Jewish texts and hearing what the policy experts had to say, but at the same time never hesitated to speak out against tradition or convention.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • Is $4,000 too much to ask for a non-member to be buried in a synagogue cemetery?
  • "Let’s not fall into the simplistic us/them dichotomy of 'we were just minding our business when they started firing rockets at us.' We were not just minding our business. We were building settlements, manning checkpoints, and filling jails." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: 10,000 Israel supporters gathered for a solidarity rally near the United Nations in New York yesterday.
  • Step into the Iron Dome with Tuvia Tenenbom.
  • What do you think of Wonder Woman's new look?
  • "She said that Ruven Barkan, a Conservative rabbi, came into her classroom, closed the door and turned out the lights. He asked the class of fourth graders to lie on the floor and relax their bodies. Then, he asked them to pray for abused children." Read Paul Berger's compelling story about a #Savannah community in turmoil:
  • “Everything around me turns orange, then a second of silence, then a bomb goes off!" First installment of Walid Abuzaid’s account of the war in #Gaza:
  • Is boredom un-Jewish?
  • Let's face it: there's really only one Katz's Delicatessen.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.