Edgar Miles Bronfman, former president of the World Jewish Congress, passed away Saturday, Dec. 21 at his home in New York. He was 84. Bronfman, a billionaire beverage executive and major philanthropist to Jewish organizations, was also known for his central roles in the liberation of Soviet Jewry and the fight to secure restitution from more than a dozen European countries to Holocaust victims and their families.
Bronfman was born on June 20, 1929 in Montreal. After graduating from Williams College in 1950, Bronfman joined the Seagram Company, his family’s liquor and beverage distribution business. A naturalized American citizen, he became head of Seagram’s U.S. subsidiary in 1957 and became president, treasurer and director of Seagram after his father died in 1971.
Bronfman became acting head of the World Jewish Congress in 1979 and president of the organization in 1981. A year later, Bronfman, the first leader of a Jewish organization to address the United Nations, defended the State of Israel before the U.N. Special Session on Disarmament. In the late 1980s, he shuttled between Moscow and the United States to plead for the lifting of restraints on Russia’s Jewish community, leading to the opening of the Soviet Bloc’s borders and the establishment of a Jewish community center in the Russian capital.
“Many Jews around the world are better off today because of Edgar’s determined, unrelenting fight for justice on their behalf,” said Ronald S. Lauder, who succeeded Bronfman as WJC president. “He not only turned the World Jewish Congress into the pre-eminent international Jewish organization that it still is today, he broadened its base by bringing in new member communities in Eastern Europe and other countries.”
Lauder also called Bronfman an “ardent campaigner against anti-Semitism and all forms of racism.”
“He advocated for a better understanding between different faiths and peoples,” said Lauder, “and his credo was that mutual respect was the key to overcoming hatred and to creating a better world.”
In response to the news of Bronfman’s death, letters, articles and posts about the Jewish leader poured in throughout the day on Sunday. Israeli President Shimon Peres wrote in a letter to Bronfman’s family that the businessman “understood that today’s youth represented tomorrow’s leaders and the future of the Jewish people, and strongly invested in shaping them for their responsibilities to come.”
Reflective of that dedication to strengthening youth, Bronfman counted Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life as among his major philanthropic pursuits.
“I am so lucky that I got to know him. His generous spirit came through in every conversation,” said Eric Fingerhut, chairman and CEO of Hillel International. “In his sacred memory, we will work even harder to make Hillel the leading organization in shaping the Jewish future, and we will think of him every day as we do it.”
Chaim Chesler, founder and chair of the executive committee of Limmud FSU, which works to strengthen Jewish intellectualism in the Former Soviet Union, called Bronfman a “giant among men and a giant in contemporary Jewish history. … He will be best remembered by us for his significant role in helping to liberate Soviet Jewry.”
Bronfman’s son, Matthew Bronfman, is chairman of Limmud FSU’s International Steering Committee.
Simone Ellin writes for the Baltimore Jewish Times, sister publication of Washington Jewish Week.