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The year before, in the wake of an Israeli media report that the Union of Swiss Banks had made a $40 million donation to the Swiss Red Cross as compensation for Jewish money pocketed during the Holocaust, Bronfman walked into the union’s Geneva offices and demanded to see the president. Bronfman came out of the meeting as he had come in: empty-handed.
“But that didn’t prevent him from bluffing and banging his fist on the table,” said Martin Stern, the British-born Jerusalemite and restitution campaigner who alerted Israeli media to the donation.
That encounter was only the opening shot in a much wider effort that culminated in the 1990s, when Swiss banks finally agreed to pay out roughly $1 billion in restitution.
The legacy of these and similar campaigns is evident at Bronfman’s office, located in the iconic Seagram’s building at 53rd street and Park Avenue in Manhattan, which is lined with photos of him with popes and presidents as well as a framed copy of Israel’s Declaration of Independence.
In the latter decades of his life, Bronfman would turn his attention more toward grooming the leaders of tomorrow than fighting battles on the world stage, particularly through his work with Hillel and the Bronfman Youth Fellowships.
Other projects he championed – some independently, others with a group of major donors informally known as the Study Group – include the Foundation for Jewish Camp, Birthright Israel, STAR: Synagogue Transformation and Renewal, the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education, and MyJewishLearning.com. Such efforts coincided with Bronfman’s own growing embrace of Jewish ritual practice.
“His involvement in Jewish things reflected a sense of, ‘If Judaism has all these interesting things to say, why didn’t I know more of it growing up?’” Marker said.
In the last weeks of his life, as his health faded, Bronfman’s love of learning continued unabated. The weekend before he died, he apparently finished Ari Shavit’s “My Promised Land” and had begun reading a book by Nietzsche.
Four weeks ago, after Bronfman’s appointments were canceled because he wasn’t well enough to come into the office, he called the executive director of his foundation, Dana Raucher, demanding to know why she cancelled his Talmud class. Raucher explained it was because he wasn’t coming into the office.
“What’s wrong with my apartment?” Bronfman responded.
“He loved the discourse, dialogue, debate and strong characters of the Talmud, how they were human and made mistakes, how they preserved the minority opinion,” Raucher told JTA.
Bronfman was also an advocate for women, gay Jews and the intermarried long before such views became the norm. He liked to relate how in the 1970s a Seagram’s human resource director had asked him to fire an employee because he was gay.
“He fired the HR director on the spot,” Raucher said. “He saw it as ethical, but also the right business decision. You fire people for what they do, not for who they are.”