Edgar Bronfman, the billionaire businessman and leading Jewish philanthropist, died Saturday at the age of 84.
According to family charity The Samuel Bronfman Foundation, he died peacefully at his home in New York, surrounded by family.
As the longtime president of the World Jewish Congress, Bronfman fought for Jewish rights worldwide. He led the successful campaign to secure more than a billion dollars in restitution for Holocaust victims and their heirs from Swiss banks. As a philanthropist, Bronfman created and funded efforts to strengthen Jewish identity among young people.
Bronfman made his fortune working for his family’s beverage business, Seagram Ltd. He took over as chairman of the company in 1971, the year of his father’s death. Under his leadership, the company expanded its offerings and was acquired by a French media group in 2000.
In 1970, Bronfman took part in a delegation to Russia to lobby for greater rights for Jews in the Soviet Union. He later credited the trip with inspiring his increased interest in Judaism.
“It was on those trips to Russia that my curiosity was piqued,” Bronfman said. “What is it about Judaism, I asked myself, that has kept it alive through so much adversity while so many other traditions have disappeared. Curiosity soon turned into something more, and that ‘something more’ has since turned into a lifelong passion.”
In 1981, Bronfman became the president of the World Jewish Congress, and he worked to step up the organization’s activism on behalf of Jewish communities around the world. He continued the fight for Soviet Jewry, took the lead in exposing the Nazi past of Kurt Waldheim and worked to improve Jewish relations with the Vatican. In 1991, he lobbied President George H. W. Bush to push for the revocation of a United Nations resolution equating Zionism and racism.
“In terms of defending Jews, I’m a Jew,” Bronfman told JTA in a 2008 interview. “And I was in a position to do so, so I did so.”
Bronfman’s final years as president of WJC were marred by allegations of financial irregularities involving the organization’s secretary general, Rabbi Israel Singer. Bronfman was never implicated, but the controversy and feuding surrounding his top aide dominated the final years of his presidency.
After he left the WJC, he continued his staunch support of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, vocally backing liberal politicians in the United States and Israel. As president of The Samuel Bronfman Foundation, he dedicated most of his final years to his Jewish philanthropic causes.
He founded the Bronfman Youth Fellowship in 1987, a young leadership program that brings together Jewish high school students from Israel and North America. In the 1990s he worked to revive Hillel, serving as the founding chair of the campus organization’s board of governors. In 2002, he provided the funding to launch MyJewishLearning, a digital media site that now also includes the Jewish parenting site Kveller and boasts 1 million visitors per month.
“He was the first of his kind, a titan of industry that dedicated himself fully to advocating, advancing and encouraging the Jewish people,” Dana Raucher, executive director of The Samuel Bronfman Foundation, told the Associated Press.
“Bronfman laid an example for all of us involved in Jewish communal affairs and his legacy framed much of the agenda for the challenges facing world Jewry even today,” the European Jewish Congress said in a statement.
Current WJC President Ronald Lauder declared, “Many Jews around the world are better off today because of Edgar’s determined, unrelenting fight for justice on their behalf. His name will forever be enshrined in the history books. He not only turned the World Jewish Congress into the preeminent international Jewish organization that it still is today and broadened its base by bringing in new member communities in Eastern Europe and other countries.”
Bronfman is survived by his wife, Jan Aronson, his seven children, 24 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, as well his brother and sister.