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 up."
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 go.
"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 of."
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 would develop."
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 your society.'"
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."
Sources: LifeStyles Magazine