WASHINGTON (JTA) – Adam Bronfman knows his surname can be a blessing and burden.
Bronfman, the son of mega-philanthropist and former beverage baron Edgar Bronfman Sr., recalls when he and his non-Jewish wife, Cindy – she has since converted – wanted to put their first son in religious school 15 years ago.
They joined a synagogue, paid their dues and tuition. Then the rabbi asked Adam whether he could get his father to speak to the congregation.
“I’d been an outsider, and suddenly I was an insider,” Bronfman, 44, recalls wryly, referring to how his last name has helped and hurt him.
Four years ago Bronfman emerged seemingly out of nowhere to become managing director of his father’s New York-based philanthropy, the Samuel Bronfman Foundation.
His appointment elicited grumbles: Who was this guy, and where had he been all this time?
Bronfman had been spending most of his time at his homes in Phoenix, Ariz., and Park City, Utah.
He isn’t deaf to the grumbling. Bronfman is smart and very much his own man. He speaks with disarming, almost guileless honesty about his intermarriage, his troubled relationship with his father, his personal spirituality – and quite publicly.
“I had an estranged relationship with my father,” he announced Oct. 14 at the opening-night session of the Jewish Outreach Institute’s conference in Washington, which he co-chaired. “Then four years ago we went to Rio together and something happened – I think it had something to do with God – and He brought me back to my father.”
In a few short years Bronfman has carved a niche for himself, at his father’s side within the foundation, where he describes his role as helping “define and narrow my dad’s philanthropic vision,” and on his own when it comes to the Jewish causes he lists as his priorities: Jewish learning, religious pluralism and communal outreach.
He has done so without bravado and, unlike many top figures in the Jewish and philanthropic world, he’s eminently approachable.
At the recent outreach conference and Jewish identity summit he hosted in July with his father in Utah, the younger Bronfman joined in at meals and workshops. Often he chatted one on one with people in hallways and hotel lobbies. More often, however, he listened intently as they described a need in their community.
Bronfman’s rise in the Jewish world is part of the effort by Edgar Sr., now 78, to hand over the reins of his business and philanthropic interests to his children.
Years ago Bronfman’s eldest brother, Edgar Jr., took over at Seagrams Company Ltd. Edgar Sr., Seagram’s former CEO, left five years ago to turn his attention full-time to Jewish philanthropy, which he does privately and through his foundation.
That segued with Bronfman’s growing interest in Jewish community affairs – he had become active in Hillel, federations and synagogues in the cities he maintained homes.
Noting that he asked for the foundation job rather than the other way around, Bronfman acknowledges that it was a “huge leap of faith” by himself and his father.
“There are moments between parents and children that don’t work – I’ve lived many of them,” he acknowledges. “This one did. We’ve worked very hard to make sure there is real continuity, real collaboration, real respect.”
The foundation now gives the bulk of its funding to Jewish educational and outreach groups, notably to Hillel International, where Edgar Sr. serves as chair and Adam as vice-chair of the board of directors.
Most of Adam Bronfman’s business travel is related to Hillel, visiting chapters in North America, South America and the former Soviet Union, or meeting with local directors to discuss new programs. He also spends about a week each month at the foundation’s New York headquarters, where he joins the staff at the Wednesday afternoon Torah study.
It’s no gimmick. Bronfman is deeply interested in Jewish learning and spirituality, often referring to stories from the Talmud or Torah to illustrate a point. He eagerly offers up those tales to share the insight.
“When two people discuss a text, it is the best portal into each other’s souls,” he says. “I find I can do self-exploration better when discussing Torah and Talmud than I can in any other way.”
Bronfman laughs when he considers how odd it is that someone raised by secular Jewish parents in a non-observant home – parents he had to ask for a bar mitzvah – would end up majoring in religion at college, raising his children Jewishly and, at the age of 40, taking up a leadership position in the Jewish world.
To some degree Bronfman attributes his life path to generational change. Whereas his father was part of the postwar generation that was concerned with communal safety and strong Jewish institutions, he and other Jews his age are “looking for meaning,” he says, and are eager to explore their spiritual sides.
That desire affects his work at the foundation and undoubtedly will have greater impact as he grows more fully into his position.
Bronfman has brought a passion for outreach, a cause he champions in print and conversation – and with his money. Certainly that has much to do with marrying a non-Jew who agreed to build a Jewish home and raise their four children Jewishly.
He never asked his wife to convert – “We always were a Jewish family,” Bronfman says – but a year-and-a-half ago their youngest son, then 11, had an incident at school that Bronfman declines to discuss.
“My wife, after having led a Jewish life for so long, responded to the issue by saying, ‘We are a Jewish family and we have Jewish values that dictate our behavior,’ ” he relates.
That seems to have been her tipping point.
“She realized that her self-identity had become so strong, nothing else mattered,” Bronfman says.
On her own, Cindy consulted a rabbi the couple knew in Phoenix and began the conversion process. The final ceremony took place in a garden in Jerusalem.
That meant a great deal to Bronfman.
“There’s something special about having an American Reform rabbi perform a conversion ceremony right next to the Old City,” he says.
If his last name weren’t Bronfman, he says with a grin, he’s sure many of the rabbis and Jewish leaders who were so welcoming to his family over the years would have been less forthcoming.
“We were lucky no one put stumbling blocks in our way,” he says. “I want that for everyone. I think anyone who identifies as a Jew is a Jew.”
Just as he turns the discussion to spirituality when asked about his foundation’s funding priorities, he would rather talk about people being open and inclusive toward each other than list new outreach programs.
“Outreach is an overused word,” he says, likening it to “a Samuel Beckett play where the characters sit around saying, ‘Yes, here it comes, here it comes’ and nothing happens.”
Bronfman is more interested in encouraging Jews and Jewish institutions to treat newcomers with warmth than in counting “which percentage of the Jewish world does X.”
Outreach, he says, should be used to help Jews find more meaning in their lives. As a philanthropist and a person, that’s more important to him than bean counting.
“I’d rather sit around a table with three people,” he says, “and have a meaningful conversation that is based on Jewish values than have a much larger number get together and not quite understand why they’re there.”