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Obituary Untimely Death of Major Philanthropist Shocks and Saddens Jewish Community

January 24, 2006
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Andrea Bronfman kept the book-lined study in her Jerusalem home exactly as it had been when the house belonged to her parents years before. The gesture, say those who knew Bronfman, was characteristic of a woman who had devoted herself to perpetuating Jewish ideals and education both in Israel and in the Diaspora.

Bronfman, a giant in the world of Jewish philanthropy, was killed Monday when a car struck her while she was walking her dog in Manhattan. She was 60 years old.

“She was a Zionist — and her parents were lovers of Israel and strong Zionists,” said Marlene Post, who worked with Bronfman at birthright israel, the 6-year-old program that to date has brought nearly 100,000 young Jews to Israel for free 10-day trips. “She had excellent Judaic and Zionist values that I believe came from her parents.”

“I don’t even have the right words to say what a great loss this is,” Post added. “Not only to her husband, Charles, personally, but to New York City, because she loves New York; to the Jewish world; but especially to Israel, where she was a champion of everything.”

A chorus of Jewish leaders throughout the United States and Israel expressed shock and sadness at news of Bronfman’s untimely passing, lamenting the hole they said her death would leave in the Jewish and philanthropic communities worldwide.

Born in London to a Scottish father and a mother from New York, Bronfman and her husband — the billionaire businessman and philanthropist Charles Bronfman — maintained residences in New York, Florida and Jerusalem. They spent about three months of each year in Israel and in 2002 were awarded honorary Jerusalem citizenship.

In an interview in Ha’aretz last summer, Bronfman, known widely by her nickname, Andy, said: “I feel like the Wandering Jew.”

Avraham Infeld, president of Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, first met Bronfman when she was a young woman in England and he was an emissary there for the Jewish Agency for Israel.

“She in every way was a symbol of life,” he said.

Twenty years ago, the Bronfmans founded the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies Inc. The foundation has supported numerous programs and initiatives aimed at strengthening Jewish life, in addition to programs not related to the Jewish community — from projects at the Hebrew University and the Israel Museum to the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada and Historica, and the Foundation for Excellence in the Arts.

Perhaps the organization’s boldest and best-known project has been birthright israel, a program that the Bronfmans helped co-found.

“She was, unquestionably, a visionary with the project,” Post said. “She was a keen planner and thought a great deal about it in its earlier years. She was definitely visible and active and involved in the early years. Later on Charles took a more leading role.”

Bronfman was also a great patron of the arts and worked to establish a nexus between her concern for Israel and her artistic pursuits.

Tourism to Israel dropped precipitously at the height of the intifada, and this drop brought with it a sharp decline in revenue for Israeli artists who had been largely dependent on tourist dollars to earn a living.

So in 2003, Bronfman founded AIDA: the Association of Israel’s Decorative Arts, which has helped expose Israeli artists to North American galleries and collectors and educate North Americans about decorative arts in Israel.

Lynn Schusterman, another major Jewish philanthropist and president of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, remembers Bronfman’s passion as the two toured Israel looking for artists they could help out.

“I remember the fun that we had the very first summer the two of us were there, at the height of the intifada, running about Israel finding these artists in far-fetched places, wondering what would happen,” said Schusterman. “I don’t think she realized the effect this would have.”

“She was just so alive, creative and always thinking outside of the box,” Schusterman added.

Jeffrey Solomon, president of the Bronfman Philanthropies, said this project was emblematic of Bronfman’s philanthropic modus operandi.

“Outside her immense passion for her family was a vigor and a deep personal connection to Israel, to the arts and to young people — and to connecting the three as often as possible to her philanthropy.”

For her 60th birthday earlier this year, Charles announced creation of the “Andy Prize,” a $10,000 annual award for an Israeli artist.

Bronfman’s passing will leave a void in the realm of Jewish philanthropy, said Mark Charendoff, president of the Jewish Funders Network.

“Time will tell, but there aren’t that many strong female role models at the very height of Jewish philanthropy and Jewish leadership,” said Charendoff, who worked directly with the Bronfmans as the former vice president of their foundation. “Andy was not by any stretch of the imagination a silent partner or a junior partner in one of the most important Jewish families in the world.

“This really leaves a major vacuum for that kind of voice in the Jewish philanthropic world.”

Infeld recalled Bronfman’s hands-on approach to her philanthropy.

“She was always directly involved in what she gave money to,” he said. “She became involved in the issues, and the financial help was only part of what she gave. She truly gave of herself,” he said.

After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Bronfman turned her philanthropic eye to the attack’s victims. She became founder and deputy chairman of The Gift of New York, a non-profit initiative to provide free tickets to a variety of cultural offerings and sports events for the bereaved families of the 9/11 attacks.

Other initiatives included 21/64, which supports young philanthropists; and Reboot, which nurtures young Jewish leaders outside the mainstream of organized Jewish life.

Friends and colleagues described Bronfman as attractive, dignified, vibrant — and highly intelligent.

“Andy was one of the smartest and wittiest persons I have met,” said Amir Shaviv, assistant executive vice president at the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, who worked with Bronfman, a JDC board member, on a committee devoted to rescuing and providing for the security of Jews around the world.

“Thousands of Jews in scores of communities around the world live more securely thanks to Andrea’s work in the last decade.”

Those who knew her also spoke of Bronfman’s deep devotion to her husband, five children and six grandchildren.

“She was totally dedicated to her family, and to the Jewish people,” Schusterman said.

The Bronfmans also were major supporters of the United Jewish Communities, the umbrella of the North American federation system, where Charles served as its first chairman and Andrea served on its Prime Minister’s Council.

“The Jewish world has lost one of its best friends, a woman who exemplified Judaism’s highest values and whose vision led our community into the future for generations to come,” said UJC’s chairman, Robert Goldberg.

Earlier this month, Bronfman attended a birthright israel “mega-event” in Jerusalem, where thousands of young Jews from around the world come together during their Israel trip to meet and celebrate. Later she attended the ceremony for the Charles Bronfman Prize, an award given to outstanding young Jewish humanitarians.

“We were all together at these events,” Post said. “We were happy. She looked great. She was feeling good. She was so proud. The two of them were smiling and happy and everything was so good.”

“Her way was that of the Jewish matriarchs and her passing leaves a void that can never be filled as she was niktifah b’dmei yameha — cut off in the prime of her life,” Rabbi Israel Singer and Stephen E. Herbits, chairman of the World Jewish Congress and secretary-general respectively, said in a statement.

Charles Bronfman’s brother, Edgar, is president of the World Jewish Congress.

Zeev Bielski, chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, was one of many Israeli officials to lament Bronfman’s death. Bronfman’s passing was “a tremendous loss for the Jewish people,” he said.

A memorial ceremony will be held at 11 a.m. on Wednesday at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in Manhattan. Burial is scheduled for Friday in Jerusalem.

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