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December 2013 Hero of the Month: Edgar Bronfman Sr.

The world lost a great philanthropist and a magnificent leader of the Jewish community on December 21, 2013 when Edgar Bronfman Sr. passed away at 84 in New York City.

During a long and eventful life, Edgar rescued The World Jewish Congress from collapse and transformed it into a major player on the world stage in defense of Israel, then he did the same for Hillel, the international support group involving Jewish college students, and along with Charles Bronfman created the Birthright Israel program that thus far has provided over 300,000 jewish young people with the ability to visit Israel and connect with their heritage.

In the 1980s, Edgar played a pivotal role in persuading the Soviet government to allow Jewish migration to Israel. As a result, today hundreds of thousands of Russian Jews live in Israel. Then he did the same for a major migration of African Jews to Israel. Subsequently, he spearheaded the lengthy and ultimately successful effort to achieve compensation from Swiss banks for Holocaust survivors (eloquently documented by Adam Lebor in his 1997 best seller, Hitler’s Secret Bankers) and more recently, and quietly, provided funding to many Jewish charities that lost their endowments in the Madoff Scandal and would have otherwise had to curtail, if not end, their charitable endeavors. Along the way, Edgar was also very generous with financial support for many colleges and universities as well as the arts. Edgar received many honorary degrees and awards, but as a naturalized American one of the most significant to him was surely the Presidential Medal of Freedom (pictured above).

Because of my involvement with clergy and laymen in PCUSA in overturning a divestment overture directed against Israel and defeating multiple efforts of a similar kind since then, I had occasion to spend a delightful afternoon with Edgar and Jan Bronfman, at Edgar’s request, while vacationing at our Ketchum, Idaho home. Edgar was curious to know how we had defeated divestment, because our efforts had helped stop the spread of divestment actions in other mainline protestant churches (Lutheran, Episcopal, and Methodist, among others). During a lengthy discussion that I will never forget, Edgar equated today’s boycott/ divestment/ sanction movement (which focuses on inducing churches and universities to cut off economic, educational and other connections with Israel ) to the systematic isolation of the Jewish community in Germany that most memorably led to Kristallnacht on November 9-10, 1938, when Jewish businesses were destroyed, a key step on the road to Hitler’s “Final Solution” and the Holocaust. (Martin Gilbert’s book, Kristallnacht: Prelude to Destruction is an excellent testimonial to the suffering inflicted by that pogrom and its part in the eventual death of 6 million European Jews). I agreed with the analogy and told him that when speaking at various temples and synagogs over the last decade I had Holocaust survivors express to me their anguish over the similarities between the BDS Movement and Kristallnacht.

While I answered his and Jan’s questions, I had my own for Edgar. My daughter Veronica graduated from Williams College and on one of our campus visits I had noticed that Edgar was a major benefactor, but I thought he had graduated from McGill in Toronto. He then explained that he had basically flunked out of Williams because he had too much fun and didn’t pay enough attention to his studies. As a result, even though he finished his education at McGill, he had a soft spot for Williams and had encouraged his son, Edgar Jr. to go there. It was a pleasure to know that a man with such serious commitments to so many worthy causes also knew how to have fun and in his day had been a rascal.

Edgar, rest in peace, knowing that you made an enormous difference in the lives of countless people on a scale few can ever match, and that you, among a select few, have righted some of the wrongs that the Nazis and their collaborators inflicted on the Jews of Europe. You may have inherited billions and made billions more with your outstanding skills as a businessman, but you will be remembered and revered for what you gave back. — Jim

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