Center field: Charles Bronfman’s catalytic philanthropy
Opinion By GIL TROY
On January 1, 2016, the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies (ACBP) closed after three decades of miracle making, having “spent down” their capital, as planned. While saying shalom, adieu and farewell to this family of foundations based in Jerusalem, Montreal and New York, we also should say toda, merci and thank you for their “catalytic philanthropy,” triggering constructive change throughout Israel, North America and the Jewish world.
Full disclosure: I am a great fan of Charles Bronfman, the 84-year-old heir to the Seagrams liquor fortune who funded these foundations. His three favorite (and favourite) cities are mine too. I had the privilege of watching him and his extraordinary late wife Andy in action, as they launched Taglit-Birthright Israel, and I have tried helping him in my own insignificant ways in that endeavor ever since.
Bronfman is the un-Trump, warm and refined, not gruff and crass; witty and humble, not flamboyant and brash. He is not a high-born type who makes himself feel big by making you feel small, nor is he a hyper go-getter type who never stops looking for the next score. Unlike many other heirs, Bronfman admits he was born on third base. Rather than pretending he hit a triple, he honors his father, the entrepreneurial genius Samuel Bronfman.
The prospect of giving away millions of dollars sounds like fun, but Bronfman and his foundation president Dr. Jeffrey Solomon explain in The Art of Giving: Where the Soul Meets a Business Plan that “serious philanthropy is serious work.” Considering that “in philanthropy, the choices are not between right and wrong, but between right and right,” they learned to define their mission carefully. Through their example, and then more recently by publicizing the lessons they learned, they have taught all givers, large and small, how to use tzedaka¸ righteous giving, to express the givers’ values and nudge the real world a little closer to their ideal universe.
Since 1986, the ACBP team has worked hard, distributing $340,000,000 to 1,820 grantees, amplified by priceless program services and coaching. Although Bronfman funded worthy conventional institutions too, including McGill University, the Brookings Institution and Hebrew University, he made his mark through focusing on young people as change agents, pioneering path-breaking initiatives, and, most recently, teaching his method.
Even if Bronfman had not co-founded Birthright, even if Taglit had not wowed more than 500,000 young Jews since it began, he would deserve credit for a historic transformation in the Jewish community’s attitude toward identity-building. In the 1980s, when I worked at Young Judaea’s national camp Tel Yehudah, the American Jewish establishment didn’t appreciate the immersive, experiential informal education the Zionist youth movements offered. By the mid-1990s, “24-7” Jewish experiences, especially in camps and Israel, suddenly were fashionable.
The Bronfman team helped trigger an experiential informal educational revolution that is now best exemplified by Birthright Israel’s open-ended, welcoming, exciting, person-centered free 10-day Israel trip, which invites 18-to-26-year-old Jews to launch and chart their own Jewish journeys. Central to the Taglit experience is the Mifgash, the encounter with Israelis, which the Bronfman philanthropies also championed. This mutual exchange has taught Israelis about their own Jewish identities and about the power of peoplehood, reflecting Charles’s personal touch as someone who cares more about touching young people’s hearts than rubbing elbows with adult bigwigs.
While demonstrating the importance of Israel and informal education as identity-builders, Bronfman’s longtime adviser Professor Barry Chazan notes that Birthright and Bronfman brought 20- and 30-yearolds to the establishment’s attention.
Twenty years ago, few organizations helped young Jews after college and before they rejoined synagogues when their children enrolled in Hebrew school. It was absurd. Just as they were deciding where to live, what career to choose and whom to marry, non-Orthodox Jews felt orphaned by Jewish institutions.
Thanks to ACBP, hip organizations like Reboot and Slingshot are helping reimagine Jewish life creatively, while empowering young people to exercise their Jewish birthright as participants not observers.
In Israel, Keren Karev (Hebrew for “CRB,” Charles’s initials) has been a constructive disruptor in many fields, especially education. One afternoon, as Charles and Andy wandered Jerusalem, they were struck by how many kids seemed to have been let out of school early. When they discovered that was normal, because Israel’s school days are short, they created a web of cultural and educational programs extending the school day by six hours weekly for disadvantaged Israelis. Today, more than 265,000 Israeli students in 110 different municipalities benefit annually from these programs.
As a proud Canadian, Bronfman funded stirring, 60-second video vignettes celebrating Canadian history.
“Heritage Minutes” have appeared on TV and during movie previews for years. Another foundation should honor Charles’s vision by producing “Israeli Heritage Minutes” in Hebrew and English, instilling Jewish pride by recapturing great moments in Zionist history.
After Islamist terrorists attacked the Bronfmans’ new hometown on September 11, 2001, Andrea and Charles brainstormed with their foundation chief Jeffrey Solomon about how to help. Solomon recalls, “Having learned the power of a gift in the first year of the Birthright Israel experience we had the ‘aha’ moment: let’s arrange for every cultural, sports and entertainment venue in the tristate area to make available their services as a gift to families who lost a loved one.” Ultimately, the Gift of New York hosted 12,000 families at over 200 New York cultural institutions.
Charles is now trusting his children to continue his philanthropic tradition.
Let’s hope they – along with many of us – follow his example of supporting Israel and the Jewish people, while perpetuating ACBP’s golden method of responding sensitively and nimbly to needs, not heavy-handedly imposing solutions; empowering young people; respecting informal experiential education; and building a sense of identity with values-oriented communities that appreciate history.
The writer is the author of The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s, just published by Thomas Dunne Books of St.
Martin’s Press. He is professor of history at McGill University. Follow on Twitter @GilTroy.