Edgar Bronfman: A Life Fulfilled.

Matthew Bronfman speaking at the event; photo by Marc Israel Sellem.
Matthew Bronfman speaking at the event; photo by Marc Israel Sellem.

by Allie Freedman

Edgar Bronfman: A Life Fulfilled. That was the running theme of last night’s memorial service in Jerusalem for the late Jewish leader, recipient of the U.S. Presidential Medal of Honor and longest running president of the World Jewish Congress. More than 300 invited guests from around the globe gathered at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem to commemorate Bronfman’s life and achievements. Bronfman passed away on December 21, 2013 at the age of 84.

“He is the Moses Montefiore of our generation,” says Leader of the Opposition, MK Isaac Herzl. “He wasn’t a builder but a doer.”

Organized by Limmud FSU, Hillel Israel and the Bronfman Fellowships, the event featured remarks by Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, Chairman of the Labor Party and Leader of the Opposition Isaac Herzog, Director of the Israel Museum James Snyder, Limmud FSU Founder Chaim Chesler, President Emeritus of Hillel International Avraham Infield and Bronfman’s son, Matthew. Each speaker shared a small piece of Bronfman’s profound influence as an entrepreneur, social activist and visionary.

Throughout the evening, which began with guided tours of the museum’s Samuel and Sadie Bronfman Wing, guests exchanged stories about the leader’s legacy. The guest list included Jewish world influentials Samuel Bronfman Foundation Executive Director Dana Raucher, Limmud FSU president Aaron Frenkel, Hebrew Union College’s Jerusalem Dean Rabbi Naamah Kelman, Hillel Israel Founder Yosef Ciechanover, Founder of International Fellowship of Christians and Jews Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein and many more.

During the event, Rabbi Mishael Zion, co-director of the Bronfman Youth Fellowships, spoke with eJewish Philanthropy about his personal ties with Bronfman.

“The day Edgar Bronfman died, the Jewish people did not just lose a leader. They also lost a teacher,” Zion told eJP. “This is a bittersweet event for me. Over the last three years, we shared an office. I was able to grow from him. I worked with him, I studied Talmud with him, I laughed with him and I learned from him.”

The memorial service was hosted by Jerusalem Post Editor-in-Chief Steve Linde and Channel 2 personality and Bronfman Youth Fellow graduate Dana Somberg, and paid tribute to the heroic Jewish leader and philanthropist through keynote speeches, musical interludes and multimedia presentations. From his days heading Seagram to his success in freeing Prisoners of Zion, Bronfman’s life and legacy was on full display.

Young presenters from Limmud, Hillel and Bronfman Foundation shared their personal stories on how his work trickled down and changed their lives. From a Georgian Jew who found a second home at Hillel to a Soviet Jew who embraced her Jewish roots thanks to Limmud and a homosexual Jew who discovered acceptance through the Bronfman Foundation, Bronfman’s impact continues to touch countless lives, they said.

Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein discussed Bronfman’s vital role in freeing him from a Siberian Prison in 1987. He says, “For me, it’s Edgar Bronfman and thousands of Yuli Edelsteins. His life today is a life of achievement.”

After Edelstein’s speech and a musical performance by Israeli singer Yonatan Razel, two short video messages were broadcast from President Shimon Peres and Former U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton.

“Edgar comes from the lions,” Peres said. “He was a leader for our people and a spokesman for our justice.” Clinton called him a man of “faith” who fought for all of mankind.

While Edelstein focused on Bronfman’s influence as a social activist, Infield discussed his role as an entrepreneur by taking Hillel to the next level. He spoke on behalf of Adam Bronfman, who could not make it due to a prior commitment. Infield discussed how Adam received a deeper understanding of his father’s passion for Judaism through his involvement in Hillel. Infield also touched upon his views of Bronfman as a leader.

“It’s not a personal loss. It’s a public loss,” said Infield. “It is a public loss because of his vision. He knew that linking the past is the only way to guarantee a viable future. He will be missed.”

Chaim Chesler, who works closely with Matthew on Limmud FSU events around the world, told those assembled, “Edgar Bronfman was one of the major personalities who helped to open of the gates for Soviet Jewry.

“It is because of the Bronfmans that Russian-speaking Jews will be close to their heritage for generations to come. We owe him a debt that cannot be repaid,” he said.

After Herzog deemed Bronfman the “number one Jewish leader,” Matthew Bronfman was the last speaker of the night. Contiuing his father’s legacy, Bronfman joined the family business and has become a Jewish leader in his own right.

“I remember his memorial when he died,” said Bronfman. “On one hand, I was celebrating this larger than life public figure. On the other hand, we were celebrating my Dad, just my Dad. It’s almost like two different people.”

Bronfman went on to share stories from Jewish communities around the world touched by his father’s work. He concluded by crowning his Dad his hero.

“My father is far from perfect. He is flawed,” said Bronfman. “But that is just like every Jewish hero from the Bible. I view my Dad as my hero. He was, he is, and he always will be my hero.”