In their early 20s, Sara and Clare Bronfman were looking for some direction in life, a way to focus and find fulfillment. The two youngest daughters of Jewish billionaire Edgar Bronfman Sr. signed up with a “self-help” program in upstate New York that they believed would transform their lives.
But the sisters wound up sinking $150 million of their family’s fortune into the group called Nxivm, even as it was dogged for years by reports of cultlike abuse, including recruiting new members as “slaves” and branding of women to enforce loyalty.
It also sparked a brutal rift with their famous father.
A chilling New York Times story detailed new reports of abuse in the group and questions about its leader, the self-help guru Keith Raniere.
It’s unclear if the sisters or all female members have gone through the branding procedure. But it’s clear that Raniere has relied on the Bronfman family wealth for over a decade to support his controversial work.
A lengthy Vanity Fair article from 2010 describes the sisters’ entry into the group and how they devoted a fortune to supporting the organization. Their financial backing includes $66 million allegedly used to cover Raniere’s failed bets in the commodities market, $30 million to buy real estate in Albany and Los Angeles, and $11 million for a two-engine jet.
Millions more were spent to support the legal battles of the secretive organization — which has sued multiple journalists who have written stories about it.
“They have been his meal ticket for a long time,” Cathleen A. Mann, a cult expert who has been analyzing the Bronfmans’ involvement in the group, told the Albany Times Union. “I think they’ve been completely snookered by him.”
Sara Bronfman was the first of the sisters to join the Nxivm, according to Vanity Fair. She was only 25 and was looking for some meaning in her life. As she would later write on her blog, she was “in search of finding ways to bring peace to the world.”
She was introduced to the group by a family friend and went through an intensive course. “She was enamored right away,” a former Nxivm trainer told Vanity Fair.
Sara Bronfman then urged her younger sister Clare Bronfman, then 23, to also take the intensive.
According to the Vanity Fair article, Raniere urged the two sisters to reach out to their father and bring him in. So, in the early part of 2003 Edgar Bronfman Sr. took a five-day “V.I.P.” course, that cost $10,000 and was taught by Nxivm’s president, Nancy Salzman.
And he, too, was apparently taken with the program. “If everyone were to go through this training, the world would be a much better and safer place to live,” Edgar Bronfman Sr. reportedly wrote in a testimonial after the intensive course. “We learned to look deep into our psyches, to get rid of hang-ups that had plagued us for years.”
But he soon had a falling-out with the organization, perhaps when Claire Bronfman told her father that the group had borrowed $2 million of her money.
The father cut ties with the group — and also drifted away from his daughters.
“I think it’s a cult,” he declared to Forbes magazine the next year, in an explosive story detailing some of the more shadowy elements of the self-help group. He told the magazine that he was also troubled about his daughters’ “emotional and financial” ties to the group.
What was it exactly that troubled him? His two daughters were pouring in millions of dollars to boost Raniere’s project.
Their donations started in relatively small amounts. In 2004, the sisters gave a $2 million loan to an Albany businessman and attorney who worked as an adviser to Nxivm.
Other donations were more lavish. During an extravagant celebration of Raniere’s birthday in August of that year, Sara and Clare presented Raniere with check for $20 million — purportedly to finance Raniere’s “scientific research.”
Months later they bought a jet for the group. In early 2005 they started covering Raniere’s financial losses in commodities.
Meanwhile, the sisters rose within the organization’s ranks. Sara Bronfman joined Nxivm’s board and became the “minister of humanities,” meaning she was was responsible for organizing all of the group’s events.
Clare Bronfman was a competitive horse rider, but she dropped the sport when she joined Nxivm. She would eventually sell most of her horses, put her $7 million Pennsylvania estate on the market, Vanity Fair reported, and devote herself into the running and financing of Raniere-inspired projects.
The Bronfmans’ ties to the group remained somewhat under the radar until a scheduled 2009 visit from the Dalai Lama thrust them — and some of the more unseemly stories about Nxivm — into the headlines.
The Dalai Lama initially cancelled the visit amidst the controversy — but did attend an inaugural event of a Raniere-connected non-profit founded by Sara and Clare Bronfman later that year.
In recent years, Sara Bronfman has focused her efforts on economic restructuring in Libya and was even appointed to the U.S. Libyan Chamber of Commerce.
The Bronfman family fortune comes from the Seagram Company, which was bought by the father and uncle of Edgar Bronfman Sr., who were Eastern European Jewish immigrants to Montreal who built a successful mail-order liquor company during Prohibition.
Edgar Bronfman Sr. moved to the United States in the 1950s and expanded his family’s liquor empire. Starting in the 1980s he became increasingly involved in Jewish issues. From 1981 to 2007 he was president of the World Jewish Congress and under his leadership, the Congress put pressure on the Soviet Union to improve conditions for Jews.
Edgar Bronfman Sr. was married four times and had seven children, with Sara and Clare being the youngest.
Sam Kestenbaum is a contributing editor and former staff writer for the Forward. Before this, he worked for The New York Times and newsrooms in Sana, Ramallah and Beijing. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @skestenbaum and on Instagram at @skestenbaum.