Adam Bronfman makes a great
cup of tea. The brewing
the colorful giant mugs
all part of his way of making guests feel
instantly at home effortlessly transforming
would-be formal meetings into relaxed and
My first clue about what Bronfman would be like came when local driver
David picked me up from the airport in Phoenix, Arizona. You're
going to love the Bronfmans, were the very first words he spoke
as he showed me to the car. They've restored my faith in humanity.
David was right. Bronfman,
managing director of the New York-based The
Samuel Bronfman Foundation, makes it seem
easy to be an approachable yet respected
and generous leader in the worldwide Jewish
community. Like his father, Edgar Bronfman
Sr., and uncle, Charles
Bronfman, he is fast becoming known for
his philanthropic vision promoting Jewish
learning, outreach and pluralism.
Small talk in his home, located between Phoenix's
Camelback and Mummy mountains in scenic Paradise
Valley, immediately centers on family. Family comes first, says 41-year-old Bronfman of his life
with wife Cindy and their four children.
Bronfman, one of the heirs to the Seagram liquor empire, grew up as
the youngest of five children. His childhood, though privileged, was
not always easy. His parents divorced when he was 9. At 14 he was sent
to boarding school. Now, as a parent himself, he seems determined to
provide a loving and stable life for his children.
Top hits from eldest son Josh's radio travel from a back room, filling
the spacious, light-bathed family room just off the kitchen with background
noise. The family's 5-year-old pet dog, Shiva, whom they saved from
the pound, walks around the room as if she owns the place. When 17-year-old
Josh emerges moments later to say good-bye before going out, he exchanges
a quick hug and an I love you with his father before heading
out the door.
Bronfman is wearing blue jeans, a blue shirt, brown loafers and a Jewish
star around his neck. He's got his laptop open, looking up some information
about his foundation's work, which raises money for a myriad of Jewish
and other causes. We get sidetracked and start talking about heli-skiing,
a sport Bronfman got into 12 years ago and avidly enjoys. In fact, he
has skied more than 100 first descents all over the world. He pulls
up a digital photo of him heli-skiing in the remote snowcapped mountains
of New Zealand, where he and a ski group were dropped by helicopter.
I'm from New York, I'm a city boy
but the absolute silence
of being up there on those unmarked trails, it's almost spiritual,
says Bronfman, in his animated, easygoing voice.
Getting away from it all is one reason Bronfman chooses not to live
in New York, although his organization is based there. Instead he works
from home, dividing his time between his chief residence in cactus-
and palm-tree-filled Arizona and his second home in increasingly popular
Park City, Utah.
Taking a moment to glance outside at the almost-too-blue, picture-perfect
day, he explains that he loves small towns, where things are more of
an open book and an individual can have a greater impact.
Bronfman may look the part of a small-town guy, with
his brown hair and beard, rugged, fit looks and casual dress, but he
is also something of a Renaissance man, the kind who is equally at home
on the slopes of a deserted mountain in New
Zealand as he is presiding over a crowded boardroom in New York.
Others have credited him as a visionary for his groundbreaking
work at the foundation. If you ask Bronfman about the secret behind
his success at reaching out to Jews, he'll attribute it to what he calls
random chance. He believes we don't choose our life paths, things just
arbitrarily happen. It's the way the world operates, he
I beg to differ. It almost
seems that Bronfman was predestined for
the role he says he never envisioned but
has now found himself in: serving as a driving
force behind efforts to connect people to
Judaism and draw Jews to or back
His youth alone assures that Bronfman does not fit the bill of the
stereotypical aging Jewish philanthropist. Nor can he be made to neatly
fit into any one box. Yes, he is a devoted husband and father. And yes,
he gives generously, in both time and money, to the Jewish and general
communities. But then there are the unexpected and little known talents
he possesses. In addition to enjoying heli-skiing, he's a self-described
exercise fanatic, serious golfer and past martial arts instructor. His
real estate dealings may be well known, but he has also spent time working
as a producer and choreographer of educational videos.
Moreover there's an unexpectedly humble and introspective
side to Bronfmanthe side that studies Torah on a twice-weekly basis, blesses his children on Shabbat,
gives thanks for what he has, and continually seeks the answer to the
question Who is a Jew?
It's a question that hits home for Bronfman. Although
he and Cindy have always raised their children as Jews, she is not Jewish
and never converted.
The couple were teenage sweethearts. She lived in the area and worked
in the snack shop of the private boarding school he attended. And, in
fairy tale romance fashion, he saw her across the room and knew
she was the one. They've been together ever since.
According to much of the Jewish world today, my children, technically,
are not considered Jewish, yet they think of themselves as Jewish and
do so much [Jewishly], says Bronfman, pointing out the irony that
you could have two Jewish parents, and their kids not know anything.
Yet we are an intermarried family that lives a very Jewish life and
knows how to live and celebrate as Jews.
One of Bronfman's goals is to create forums for safe discussion on
the issue of intermarriage and what makes a person Jewish. We
need a place where people can talk and not feel judged. The future of
the Jewish world depends on it, or else people will get turned off and
go elsewhere [to find religion].
Judaism, he warns,
needs to be rejuvenated with new entry points or it will cease to exist.
Despite his avocation of the need for more open discussion, however,
Bronfman has no interest in rewriting the Torah.
He didn't grow up as a particularly observant Jew, but says he loves
Judaism because it is such a life-affirming religion. It's not
about heaven and hell, it's about what you do in the here and now.
He elaborates that Judaism allows you to choose to
have a relationship with God, to answer to a higher power. It's
a religion based on relationships, on reality
Abraham and his descendents are faced with extremely painful and often impossible
situations. They sometimes make poor decisions
they screw up. That's
It's his passion for Judaism and firm belief in tikkun
olam that fuels Bronfman's drive to bring more people his own age
out of the woodwork and into Jewish philanthropic and communal life.
And, if anyone has a way of persuading other young successful Jewish
professionals to apply their business know-how to the Jewish community,
it's Bronfman. He makes being a Jewish leader hip and contemporarysuddenly
it's not just something our parents do.
I decided to help complete what my father started, says
Bronfman, explaining that after his father sold Seagram, his focus shifted
from corporate to philanthropic. I enjoy working with him; we
have very similar ideas.
He calls his work at the foundation a union between him, his father,
and the organization's executive director. He takes a sip of tea, settles
back in his chair, and prepares to outline some of his work:
On The Samuel Bronfman Foundation:
Foundation Executive Director Dana Raucher credits Bronfman with providing
the philanthropic vision to govern the foundation's giving. Bronfman
likewise largely credits Raucher with the foundation's operating success.
A former participant of the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel, she
says that experience introduced her to Jewish philanthropy and its power
to transform lives. The Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel is one
of the flagship projects of The Samuel Bronfman Foundation and for the
past 18 years, it has been educating and inspiring exceptional young
Jews from diverse backgrounds to become active participants in Jewish
Adam brings new issues to our radar screens. He encourages us
to think of Jewish life outside of New York
to reach out to those
disengaged by existing Jewish programming, says Raucher, a former
corporate lawyer in Israel before coming to work for the Bronfmans three
years ago. The most rewarding aspect of this job, she says,
is that the foundation rewards innovation and thinking that is
outside the box.
Along with a host of other
projects, Bronfman is highly engaged in working
to further the reach of MyJewishLearning.com,
which was inspired by his father, who Bronfman credits as truly
understanding that whether you are religious or not, being a Jew requires
a knowledge base. MyJewishLearning.com is, according to Bronfman,
the only significant website that is pluralistic. If you want
to learn something about Jewish religion, practice or Jewish history,
MJL is the place to go. Bronfman is enthusiastic about the prospect
of anyone, from any background, being able to access content about the
Jewish religion, spirituality, culture or history online.
On Hillel International:
While not necessarily the last opportunity to cultivate a strong Jewish
identity, the four years a person spends in college are often the most
formative. That's why Bronfman is so passionate about the importance
of his work with Hillel.
There are literally hundreds
of Hillels one found in every major
university throughout North America and
all over the world. Bronfman got his start
working as a lay leader with Hillel at the
local level when he lived in Santa Barbara
several years ago. He played a key role
in helping the Hillel at the University of
California, Santa Barbara to complete its
capital/ building campaign. He still sits
on the university's Hillel Support Foundation
Board and supports the Edgar M. Bronfman
But Bronfman has also gone on to serve as a member of Hillel's International
Board of Governors and its International Board of Directors. In addition,
he serves on Hillel's Strategic Planning Committee and chairs its International
Division, leading Hillel's expansion globally.
Hillel is honored to include global leaders in the world of business
and philanthropy, Hillel President Avraham Infeld was quoted as
saying upon the installation of Bronfman and other prestigious board
members from around the world.
On Temple Har Shalom:
Bronfman is an active congregant at Temple Har Shalom, a decade-old
Reform synagogue located near his home in Park City, Utah. Initial volunteer
efforts focused on teaching fifth- and sixth-grade religious and Hebrew
classes and delivering d'vrei Torah to the synagogue on Shabbat.
Then, in typical Bronfman style, his vision took over.
He went on to establish the Saidye Rosner Bronfman Rabbinic Chair, which
enabled the synagogue to hire a sorely needed rabbi. He also is helping
to lead the temple's current campaign to secure the future of the local
Jewish community by building a permanent home, which would not only
house the synagogue, but a JCC and other Jewish institutions as well.
I plan to build a center for Jewish life
an artistic, cultural,
social, religious and academic campus, not just a synagogue.
Adam is emerging as one of the Jewish world's most compelling
leaders, says Rabbi Joshua Aaronson, who was hired three years
ago to fulfill the rabbi position at the temple. Primarily due
to his vision, our community has thrived. We have almost doubled in
One successful program Bronfman helped implement is the congregation's
ski shul, North America's only ski-in/ski-out Kabbalat Shabbat
service. The service takes place in a cabin on a mountain at Deer Valley,
one of the world's great ski resorts. Every Friday afternoon, Jews from
around the world gather on the mountain for a Kabbalat Shabbat service,
Kiddush wine and challah.
On The Taft School:
Bronfman has always believed in giving back to the community. That's
why he contributes so generously to The Taft School, the Connecticut
boarding school of which he is an alumnus. He has endowed several scholarships
there, including the Maureen Donahue scholarship in memory of a classmate.
Concerned with the cultivation of a strong Jewish community at Taft,
Bronfman, along with his parents, has also donated a Torah and Ark,
and played a pivotal role in linking the school to The Curriculum Initiative.
The Curriculum Initiative provides support for Jewish students in non-Jewish,
Adam is much more than a funder, he is a roll-up-the-sleeves
thinker and strategist, says Eileen Gress, The Curriculum Initiative's
The Curriculum Initiative recently hosted Jewbilee, the only Jewish
student conference held at a prep school. Since its inception a few
years ago, Jewbilee has gathered hundreds of Jewish students from across
New England for a two-day conference dedicated to exploring Jewish identity
and fostering Jewish community at private schools. Bronfman draws much
inspiration and insight from working closely with his father. Indeed,
Bronfman feels that his father has given [him] a gift with the
work he has done. He adds, I hope to work with him and help
in the work of The Samuel Bronfman Foundation for a long time.
Bronfman recalls his father teaching him as a young boy that we
need to leave this world a little better than we found it. It
is certainly clear that he will do that.