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Saidye Bronfman, Matriarch of Canadian Jewry, Dies at 98

Saidye Rosner Bronfman, the mother of one of the most renowned Jewish families in the Diaspora and considered by many to be the matriarch of Canadian Jewry, has died here at the age of 98.

The wife of the late industrialist and philanthropist Samuel Bronfman died in her sleep early last Friday morning.

More than 2,000 people crowded the theatrical center that bears her name for her funeral ceremony on Sunday, among them Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien.

Throughout her life, Bronfman was a communal benefactor and committed supporter of Israel and many other causes.

She turned the good manners and Jewish ethics she learned from her well-to-do parents in her hometown of Plum Coulee, Manitoba, into a fabled existence.

After her marriage on June 20, 1922, the Bronfman moved to Montreal, where Samuel, a former bootlegger, founded the Seagram’s empire.

Four children followed, each to become prominent and respected players on the Jewish and international scenes: Edgar Miles Bronfman, chairman of Seagram Company Ltd. and president of the World Jewish Congress; Charles Rosner Bronfman, co-chairman of Seagram’s and founder-president of the Montreal-based CRB Foundation; architect Phyllis Barbara Lambert, founder of the Canadian Center for Architecture; and the late Aileen Minda de Gunzburg, the wife of a baron.

At the funeral held at the Saidye Bronfman Centre, which is affectionately called “The Saidye” and donated to the community by her children in 1968, three packed halls of people sat in sadness, awe and respect as Bronfman was eulogized.

The theater, in which her casket rested, was reserved for family and close friends, while two auditoriums seated members of the public, who witnessed the proceedings on large screens.

About 1,000 people gathered outside the building, located next to the YM-YWHA that Bronfman had generously supported.

Aside from two rabbis and daughter Phyllis Lambert, the eulogies were tendered by three of Bronfman’s grandchildren, who were an important part of her life.

Bronfman had 11 grandchildren and 18 great-grandchildren. “She was the unifying figure in the family,” said grandson Charles de Gunzburg. “For us here today, it’s like a page of history that’s turned, an era that’s over.”

Granddaughter Ellen Bronfman Hauptman flew in from Asia for the funeral. “She was so sweet and caring, yet could be tough as nails,” Hauptman said of her grandmother.

“She was the wisest woman I have ever known,” she added, sobbing. “Granny wasn’t afraid to say what was on her mind.

“She was a true matriarch,” Hauptman said, adding, “she knew how important it was for us to stay together as a family.”

Hauptman called Bronfman an “old-fashioned woman progressive.”

And grandson Samuel Bronfman II, named after his late grandfather, spoke of the great, legendary love affair between Samuel and Saidye.

“Saidye, Saidye, special lady,” he intoned. “Today for us is a celebration of a special life, one that was as [great] as it was long.

“She was so committed to the Jewish people, here, in Israel and the Diaspora. It is no coincidence that her four children have done so much for humankind.

“Grandma is with poppa (Samuel) now and she’s singing, `Babyface, you’ve got the cutest little babyface.'”

Bronfman’s efforts and actions on behalf of numerous charities and causes won her worldwide acclaim.

Both Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres sent personal condolence notes to the family.

Also in attendance at the funeral was the new Canadian ambassador to Israel, David Berger.

Recognition of her efforts date to much earlier times. In 1943, King George VI of England bestowed upon her the title of Officer of the Order of the British Empire for her establishment of the Jewish branch of the Canadian Red Cross Society.

In 1968, she was honored by State of Israel Bonds as its first-ever Woman of the Year.

In 1974, then-Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir presented Bronfman with the Prime Minister’s Medal for her service in the cause of Israel’s development.

And the Canadian Jewish Congress named Bronfman the recipient of its Samuel Bronfman Medal, presented in honor of her late husband to commemorate the men or women who gave of themselves for the betterment of community, in 1982.

Until her death, Bronfman was honorary president of Montreal’s Jewish federation, Federation CJA, as well as honorary president of the Samuel and Saidye Bronfman Family Foundation.

She also worked on behalf of the Winnipeg Jewish Orphan’s Home, the Women’s Division of Montreal’s Combined Jewish Appeal, ORT, National Council of Jewish Women, Hadassah-WIZO of Canada, Canada-Israel Cultural Foundation and Save the Children’s Fund.

Her passing has affected community members of all ages and walks of life, including those who never knew her personally.

“She was a model to young women, mirroring the potential they could aspire to,” said Ronit Amsel, a 22-year-old law student.

Retired Schoolteacher Abraham Schwartzberg concurred.

“She taught the public that Jewish women have a large role to play and she inspired them to move ahead,” she said. “She replaced Sam a bit in people’s hearts after he died and became very visible. She was very unique and we will all miss her very much.”

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