NEW YORK, June 21 (JTA) The name Bronfman means “whiskey man” in Yiddish.
But the Bronfman family whose members have given millions of dollars to Jewish causes in their native Canada and around the world is severing its generations-long connection to whiskey and spirits.
And this may give them more cash to spend on Jewish causes.
Edgar Bronfman Sr. and his brother, Charles, are among a handful of mega-philanthropists in the Jewish world, and they have each given millions of dollars to established Jewish organizations and their own Jewish ventures.
The Bronfmans this week sold their multibillion-dollar business, Joseph E. Seagram and Sons, to Vivendi, a French media company. The whiskey company was bought by Edgar and Charles’ father, Samuel, in 1928.
Neither Edgar nor Charles agreed to be interviewed, citing advice of their attorneys.
But observers of their philanthropic habits predict that the sale of the family’s stake in Seagram valued at $6.8 billion according to The New York Times can only be good news for the family’s Jewish communal beneficiaries.
“It will give them more financial resources,” said David Mersky, a senior lecturer in Jewish philanthropy at Brandeis University’s Hornstein Program in Jewish Communal Service, who noted that the Bronfman philanthropy is “legendary.”
“Would that there were 34 more people like them to give like they do,” he added.
“They give not only a lot, but creatively and in a way that encourages others to do likewise. They’ve been responsible for bringing other mega-donors to the table and they’re outstanding leaders in addition to being great philanthropists.”
According to Jonathan Sarna, Braun professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University, the sale may leave more of the assets ending up in the hands of the Jewishly committed elder Bronfmans than had the money remained tied up in the business.
“Suddenly, the senior Bronfmans will be able to cash out while they’re still alive,” said Sarna, adding that “had things gone differently, presumably all that stock would have made its way down to the third generation, and it’s not clear that generation has concern for Jewish causes.”
Perhaps more important than its impact on the Bronfmans’ finances, the sale of the company may give them additional time to devote to philanthropic causes, suggested Jeremy Burton, associate executive director of the Jewish Funders Network, of which both Charles and Edgar are members.
“If in fact they are no longer going to be in the day-to-day management of the business, we may see a period where they are giving even more of their time to their philanthropic passions and leadership,” said Burton.
Edgar, 71, is the president of the World Jewish Congress, where he led the battle to reclaim dormant Holocaust-era Swiss bank accounts for survivors and their heirs. He is also chair of the board of governors of Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life and most recently partnered with two other philanthropists to form an organization promoting synagogue transformation and renewal.
Charles, 68, is chair of the newly formed federation umbrella organization, United Jewish Communities, and founded Birthright Israel together with hedge fund manager-turned-philanthropist Michael Steinhardt.
Birthright this year began sending young Jewish adults on free 10-day trips to Israel. So far 8,000 participants have taken advantage of the trips, and the program recently snagged over $200 million in financial commitments from additional philanthropists, the Israeli government and the UJC.
Charles was also one of the founders of the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education, a foundation providing seed money to new Jewish day schools.
The third Bronfman generation, including Edgar Bronfman Jr., who ran Seagram for the past six years during which time he added Universal Studios and Geffen Records to the company’s portfolio, has been far less visible in Jewish philanthropic circles than the older Bronfmans.
According to the Times, Edgar Bronfman Jr. has also been criticized for uneven management of the company, with stock prices of Seagram doubling while other media companies’ shares more than tripled.
Jack Wertheimer, who is provost of the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary and has written on Jewish philanthropic trends, said the Bronfman brothers have been particularly notable in their Jewish giving because of their focus on “here and now projects identifying what are some of the most pressing areas of Jewish need” as opposed to long-term endowments.
Wertheimer also said the two are distinctive in their “willingness to work in partnership with other large funders.”
Sarna noted that the Bronfman brothers are also unique in that the two have both donated through foundation giving and have “elected to operate within existing institutions of the Jewish community, like the World Jewish Congress and United Jewish Communities.”
“That’s different from, say, a Leslie Wexner and others who’ve operated chiefly through their own foundations and exerted influence in that direction,” he said, referring to the retail clothing magnate who has created a Jewish leadership training program and funded scholarships for graduate students in Jewish studies, rabbinical schools and schools of Jewish communal service.
Sam Bronfman, who died in 1971, was also known for his Jewish philanthropy. The child of Russian Jewish immigrants, the Bronfman patriarch was a longtime president of the Canadian Jewish Congress and active in the Jewish federation world, said his biographer, Michael Marrus.
“Was he a learned or sophisticated Jewish leader? Absolutely not,” said Marrus, who is dean of the University of Toronto’s graduate school. “But he set new standards for Jewish philanthropy. The pressure to give until it hurts that had Sam’s stamp on it.”