(1931 - )
Charles Bronfman says the proudest moment of his life
was in 1992 at the Sky Dome in Toronto, where he threw the first pitch
at the first World Series baseball game ever played outside of the United
States. "Then, the next afternoon, I found myself at the Governor
General's being invested as a member of the Queen's Privy Council,"
says Bronfman leaning back in his chair behind his desk at his home
office in Jerusalem's upscale Catamon neighborhood. The sun poured in
through the window as he basked in the joy of one of his fondest memories.
"Then, at 5:00 p.m. that night, I was made a Companion of the Order
of Canada. It was an amazing 24 hours and it all started off with that
first pitch," he smiles a warm and compelling smile. "I will
never forget it."
A proud Canadian, the 72-year-old, Montreal-born heir
to the Seagram liquor empire has done a lot with his good fortune. By
age 23, the businessman-at-heart was head of the Seagram Co. Ltd. Thomas
Adams division. By age 37, he was the principal owner of the Montreal
Expos, the first Major League baseball team in Canada.
But, it is neither his business savvy (Bronfman currently serves as
Chairman of Koor Industries Ltd., Israel's largest industrial holding
company) nor his self-description as a sports junkie that most predominantly
define who Charles Bronfman is today.
In 1985, after establishing the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies
Inc. in the United States, Keren Karev in Israel, and the CRB Foundation
in Canada-the primary objective of which charities is to develop, implement
and support initiatives that help to strengthen both the Canadian national
identity and the unity of the Jewish people-philanthropy has become
Bronfman's full-time job.
Committed to encouraging young people to strengthen their knowledge
and appreciation of their heritage, the Bronfman Philanthropies have
been involved in a number of projects involving the Israel Museum, the
Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and the McGill Institute for the Study
of Canada and Historica, just to name a few.
But by far the most dynamic project initiated by Bronfman to date,
not to mention one of the greatest contemporary contributions to the
future of world Jewry, is birthright israel. Since December 1999, birthright
israel has brought over 48,000 young, Jewish adults aged 18 to 26 from
around the world, to Israel on free 10-day educational tours.
"Our gamelan is a very simple one," says Bronfman, about
his brainchild. "In the age in which young adults live today, they
are free to make a choice of where they want to go and what they want
to be. But a lot of people at that age don't know what they want to
do, and they also don't quite know who they are, what they are and why
they are," he claims. "So, we are saying to young adults-particularly
those for whom the idea of being Jewish is at least ambivalent, if not
downright negative-that it's decision time in your life. You have to
make some fundamental decisions and one of them is who you are. So,
why don't you come here, meet some other people and meet your peers
in Israel and find out something about how all this happened and what
the roots are. Then, you have some information. If you want to go further,
you go further, and if you don't want to go further, you don't go further.
But, armed with some knowledge, some sort of beginning, you'll make
a better decision."
The decision to launch birthright israel didn't happen
overnight. Although it is hard to imagine a world without the plethora
of Israel experience programs that are available to Diaspora youth today, it was Bronfman who came up with the original idea. But
he wasn't satisfied with the outcome of the programs he had initiated,
which entailed the establishment of a consortium between the UJA, the
UJF and the Jewish Agency. "The problem was that nothing much was
happening," explains Bronfman. "We just couldn't get the numbers
It wasn't until he was approached by fellow philanthropist and birthright
israel co-founder Michael Steinhardt that the ball really started rolling.
"My wife and I were at an evening session of the International
Council at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem when Michael asked to speak
with me outside," recalls Bronfman. While chatting about Bronfman's
work with Israel experience programs, the idea to send kids to Israel
for free, suddenly dawned on them. "I will never forget looking
over the Valley of the Dry Bones when the moment of inspiration happened,"
says Bronfman, who deliberated with Steinhardt for almost a year after
that initial meeting before settling on a funding structure that consisted
of a three-way partnership between philanthropists, the government of
Israel and the Diaspora communities.
Even after the pair had yet to gain the support of the Israeli government,
the communities and nine more philanthropists in order to finance the
operation, they were not dissuaded. "We decided to proceed. That
decision was made in this very office in June 1999," says Bronfman,
his eyes brightening, as he scans the tastefully decorated room. "I
can't remember if it was me or Steinhardt, but one of us said, 'But
we promised them.' That was the birth of birthright."
Since that fateful day, he says he has received a lot of grief, particularly
from the federations. "They say, 'You didn't consult us, you didn't
use process, you rammed this down our throats, we didn't want it, it
would have been different,' and so on," explains Bronfman. "I
guess I was spoiled because I was always able to just make decisions
and that would be the end of it. They [the federations] have their process
and their consensus, and I don't mind that. But my goodness, it takes
time. That's the difference between a bureaucracy and entrepreneurs."
Bronfman says he doesn't regret his decision to go ahead-not for a
second. "Had we not made the decision in June 1999, birthright
never would have happened," he claims. "If you look at the
chronology, the first trips went at the end of December. That winter
was an astonishing success. Then, we had the summer trips-another smash.
Then, in September 2000, came the intifada."
While it's true that had the program not been established
prior to the intifada it would not have the credibility it has today, birthright israel continues
to pose a great financial struggle. "To finally get the Israeli
government to commit to a five-year program with that kind of money
wasn't easy," says Bronfman. "To ask people for huge amounts
of money on faith and to deal with fundraising through the federations-only
a few of which have gotten involved in the program-is also not easy.
We have yet to be able to crack that very important nut. And now, we
are in a terrible money crunch. Birthright israel continues to be the
greatest challenge of my philanthropic career."
It is the program's overwhelming success that keeps
Bronfman going. According to a March 25, 2002, survey by the Maurice
and Marilyn Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University
of over 1,500 birthright israel participants, the program has had a
profound and lasting impact on participants' Jewish identities.
Research professors Leonard Saxe and Charles Kadushin concluded that
participants had stronger Jewish identities and more positive attitudes
towards Israel, Judaism and the Jewish people, compared to a control
group of 150 non-participants who had applied to the program, but didn't
"They say that they've never seen numbers like this," comments
Bronfman. "But the real measure of birthright israel's success-aside
from the fact that during the worst times of the intifada, there even
was such a thing as birthright-is the words that you hear from young
adults. Even in our travels around Israel, when you mention the word
'birthright,' people's eyes light up. To me, it's an astonishing success.
It's much more successful than anything that any of us ever dreamed
So, what is it about birthright israel that makes it so special? According
to Bronfman, the answer is Israel. "If [our ancestors] struggled
so hard and their struggle was so costly in terms of every human quality
that we know, well then this place has got to be very special, and I
think there's that feeling that this place is very special. So, when
people come here, they probably feel that," he says.
Not having grown up in a particularly religiously observant household-as
a child, Bronfman and his brother were the first Jews to attend Trinity
College School in Port Hope, Ontario, an experience he describes as
"the three most difficult years of my life"-did not make him
unreceptive to the spirit of Israel when he came on his first trip to
the country in 1958. Quite the contrary.
Bronfman had come with his best friend and his wife, the three of
whom met with then-Deputy Assistant Minister of Defense Shimon Peres,
along with a handful of other budding Israeli political leaders. "I
came to Israel out of curiosity, more than anything else," he says.
"I liked it. There were certain things that I thought were emotionally
appealing. There were other things that I thought were intellectually
appealing. But most of all, I was very curious as to how the country
Sensing the tension in the Israeli air, that first trip inspired Bronfman
to predict a few of the country's longest-standing obstacles. "An
IDF army spokesman took us on a tour of some of the not-so-nice parts
of Tel Aviv." He recalls telling the officer that he was lucky
for not having had to confront Israel's real problems yet. "He
said, 'What do you mean? We have problems all the time,' and I responded,
'Yeah, but your real problems are going to be the gaps between the rich
and the poor and the rift between the Ashkenazim and the Sephardim.
Right now, you are concentrating on physical survival and you will survive.
Once that's been established, you will get into the real problems of
Bronfman cast down his eyes in disappointment at the accuracy of his
forecast. But despite, or perhaps because of the plethora of serious
social issues that have developed throughout Israel's history, Bronfman
chooses to spend three months of every summer living in Israel with
his wife, Andy [Andrea] and dog, Yoffi, in a lovely home built by her
parents some thirty years ago. "I feel very much at home in Israel,"
says Bronfman, who together with Andy has taken up studying Torah from
an historical and sociological perspective, rather than a religious
one. States Bronfman, "My teacher says the whole question that
Genesis poses is can a dysfunctional family at the end of the day make
it? And the answer is yes.
"I have believed for a long time now that the
Jewish people have some kind of destiny. I don't think tikkun olam is
a joke. The Jewish people who are around are around for a reason. I
don't know exactly what that is, but I do know that there is so much
talent in the Jewish people," says Bronfman, who pointed to the
continuation of Judaism throughout
the Spanish Inquisition as an unbelievable instance of Jewish preservation. "It boggles
my mind," he says. "I would have been the fastest convert
this side of Madrid. But why didn't they?
"That is why Israel is a miracle," he continues, passion
flaring in his eyes. "I feel that if you are Jewish and you don't
have a real emotional connection with Israel, you're missing something
very important to your neshama [soul]. All of these introductions we
make-through birthright, for instance-just expands the consolidation
of the Jewish people as a people," he maintains.
"That's why I hope that birthright becomes a permanent part of
the Jewish journey and of growing up and becoming an adult. Frankly,
we have enough faith in the magic of Israel that the decision of participants
will be to stay Jewish 80% of the time. And that is pretty cool."