Keeping Alive a Philanthropic Family Tradition
Even at age 42, Adam Bronfman has the air of perpetual youth to him: He wears a gold hoop earring, and his shock of red hair frequently has a pair of Oakley sunglasses perched on top — even in the dreariest of hotel conference rooms. So it did not feel inconsistent when the last two weeks shaped up as a kind of coming-out party for him.
On April 6, just a year after joining Hillel International’s board, Bronfman chaired a gala dinner honoring his father, Edgar Bronfman Sr. A few days earlier, he attended his first conference of the Jewish Funders Network — a group of philanthropists, most of whom are graying — where he was greeted like the boy wonder he passes for in Jewish philanthropic circles. As soon as it was over, he jetted off for an extended skiing vacation in Greenland.
This being the Bronfman family — perhaps the single largest force in the Jewish charitable world — Adam’s sudden high profile did not happen by chance. As he explained it at the Hillel dinner, in December 2003 he accompanied his father, who is currently the president of Hillel’s board of governors, on a trip to Rio de Janeiro to open a new student center. During their stay, Edgar asked Adam, his youngest son, to join Hillel’s national leadership and to help run the family’s main charity, The Samuel Bronfman Foundation.
This trip with his father, Adam said, came “after leading quite separate lives.” He said that, while in Rio de Janeiro, “we entered into a dialogue that has since led to a deeper relationship than we ever had before.”
In his life as ski expert and private investor, Adam had been involved with local Jewish communities in the resort towns where he has lived, but the last year has marked his first appearance on the national scene. Moving fast, he already has become vice chair of Hillel’s board of directors as well as managing director of the family foundation, which distributed $7.5 million of Edgar Sr.’s money in 2003. In person, Adam exudes a California ease about taking on all this new responsibility.
His new work appears to be part of a larger coordinated move by Edgar Sr. to hand down his Jewish philanthropic legacy to his children, years after he handed down his business responsibilities at Seagrams to his second oldest son, Edgar Jr. In January, Adam’s other brother, Matthew, took on a role in their father’s other major Jewish philanthropy, the World Jewish Congress, where Edgar Sr. is the president and Matthew is now a member of the finance committee.
“It’s just time,” Adam told the Forward. “My father likes the idea of collaborating with his sons and bringing them on as partners. So Matthew is probably going to spend more time partnering on the World Jewish Congress work, and I will be doing most of the other family philanthropies.”
The family wealth originates from Adam’s grandfather, Samuel Bronfman, who built a multibillion-dollar business from humble beginnings as a Canadian bootlegger. He spawned a family in which responsibilities are parceled out carefully. Adam says that among Edgar Sr.’s seven children from two wives, he and Matthew have taken on all the Jewish philanthropic work.
While the money comes from an earlier generation, Adam, at least, has a hint of the maverick to him as he wanders through the frequently staid ranks of philanthropists. When Adam went to the Auschwitz commemoration ceremonies earlier this year, he brought along a troop of his friends, including a young photographer. In his charitable work, Adam has shown interest in programs that support what he calls “a pluralistic and open Judaism.” In this, he is working from his own experience, with a non-Jewish wife and a relatively secular upbringing.
“I come from a demographic that on some level is not that invested in its own Judaism,” he said during a panel discussion last Sunday. With his four children, he has been careful to create a Jewish environment, with no Christmas celebrations at home. Last year, his 17-year-old son was a Bronfman Youth Fellow, part of a program designed to foster young Jewish leaders.
Despite Adam’s seeming newness to this whole world, his assumption of the elder Bronfman’s Jewish philanthropic work is not a total surprise. As he tells it, he was the only one of his mother’s five children to have a bar mitzvah at age 13. When he left New York to attend the Taft School of Connecticut, a prep school, Adam was “proud of his traditions and standing up for them, from the time he walked into school,” according to headmaster Lance Odden.
Odden said that shortly after arriving at Taft, Adam had succeeded in pushing the school’s administration to change the grace said before meals so that students from other religious backgrounds would feel comfortable. Today one of Adam’s major philanthropic projects is The Curriculum Initiative, which helps introduce Jewish learning into elite prep schools.
But other elements of the Bronfman legacy did not wear so easily for him. Edgar Sr. has had three wives, and he divorced Adam’s mother when Adam was 9 years old. When Adam showed up at Taft, Odden said, Adam’s father “was tied up and life at home was not particularly easy.” Adam, Odden said, “felt pretty lonely.”
After high school, he followed his own path, attending Pomona College, where he majored in religion. He stayed out west, far from Bronfman corporate headquarters. Adam married his high school sweetheart, and they had their first child when he was only 24.
Almost everyone who knows Adam immediately comments on the incredible commitment he has to his wife and his four children.
“Edgar [Sr.] was a businessman first and a family man second,” said Odden, who came to know the family through their philanthropic involvement with the school. “Adam is a family man first. He’s just a wonderful father.”
Until now, Adam has made his homes the center of his philanthropy. In Santa Barbara, Calif., he helped found the Hillel. In the skiing resort town of Park City, Utah, Adam helped start a Reform congregation 10 years ago. As the congregation grew, he helped shape the community for Jews like himself who came from unexpected places. That includes a Friday afternoon service in a mountain chalet accessible only by skis.
In his work at the national level, said Marc Charendoff, chairman of the Jewish Funders Network, Adam’s philanthropy has already distinguished father from son: “Adam is more likely to support the great social entrepreneur than to support the existing institutions that are already out there.”
Such a free-spirited approach to the family mission has not always expanded the family legacy. Within five years after Edgar Jr. began running Seagrams in the mid-1990s, the value of the family’s stake had dropped by more than half after a furious series of ill-timed acquisitions.
Adam Bronfman, however, is getting only positive marks so far. Dana Raucher, executive director of The Samuel Bronfman Foundation, accompanied him to a meeting at Stanford University with Jewish students who had no interest in Hillel or in Jewish life on campus. None of the standard questions were getting the conversation started. Then Adam took the floor and after a few questions about their weekend social life, the conversation was brought around to an informal discussion of what it means to be a Jew.
Bronfman gave a talk about his own sense of Jewish identity when he visited Rio de Janeiro with his father. Avraham Infeld, president of Hillel International, was next to Edgar Sr. during the talk, and he says it was the first time he ever saw the elder Bronfman cry.
“Before that,” Infeld said, “I’m not sure Edgar really realized that was a part of his son.”