Matthew Bronfman: A New Generation Philanthropist

    “Thriving Jewish communities throughout the world can do nothing but strengthen the Jewish world.”
    Matthew Bronfman, Moscow, April 16, 2010

Slowly, changes are a-foot on the American Jewish philanthropic landscape. The federation system – like several other organizations – has experienced a decreasing donor base even though an older core demographic is often giving more. In the foundation world, two highly visible foundations, Avi Chai North America and the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, are in “sunset” – winding down the affairs of the respective foundations in an orderly manner. Long-time philanthropic families are seeing new faces at their own table while more and more donors are developing personal relationships with organizations and are giving direct. And most important, there are more and younger wealthy people than ever before. In fact, according to Forbes, 35% of total giving this decade is expected to come from those currently in their 40’s and 50’s.

Who is this next generation of philanthropic givers? Who will be the next group of philanthropic ground-breakers? I recently had the opportunity to sit with one, Matthew Bronfman – son of Edgar – and talk about his philanthropic foci and the convergence of business and philanthropy.

Matthew comes from a family with a long history of involvement in both the business and Jewish philanthropic worlds. The family namesake, The Samuel Bronfman Foundation, is today focused on a multitude of Jewish causes, most with a focus on Jewish youth or Jewish renaissance. Organizations such as Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel, Hillel, The Curriculum Initiative, and the World Jewish Diplomatic Corps are just some of the many initiatives funded by the Foundation.

In business, Matthew has branched out a bit on his own. Assuring me that two rumors about him are incorrect – the first, that he lives in an airplane (at the time, we were sitting some 40 km. outside of Moscow) – Matthew, though living in New York, is Israel focused in his business dealings. He is the controlling stakeholder in both Discount Bank and IKEA Israel. Thus the second rumor – Israelis are convinced that buried deep somewhere in this country, IKEA Israel is actually manufacturing money. A visit to either IKEA store and you’ll understand why.

Comparing his own, and the foundation’s, philanthropy to the business world, Matthew explained that just as venture capital is channeled to start-up businesses, their giving is venture philanthropy – investing in the future. And even though the foundation supports Hillel on campuses here in Israel, Matthew feels it is not necessary to support Jewish activities in Israeli society in the same manner as it is in other parts of the world. This is why you find IKEA Israel supporting Akim, an organization that works with severely handicapped children and Discount Bank employees providing pro-bono services to a range of organizations, thus becoming individually invested in those they work with.

Individually over the past few years, Matthew has put his own time, energy and money, into Limmud FSU, where he serves as international chair of the steering committee. This is why we were sitting in a Moscow area holiday hotel, originally built for Russia’s top Communist party leadership, absorbing the energy, connection and community that prevailed at Limmud Moscow. For whether in business or philanthropy, Matthew sees “doing well and doing good tied together, locally and globally”. Using Discount Bank as an example, he continued, “Discount is focused on one customer at a time, yet is a global banking operation. Limmud is also local – individual programs developed around the world by members of their respective communities, yet all a part of a global Limmud”. At Limmud, “connections are made – one at a time”.

Connection is important in Matthew’s Limmud relationship for a number of reasons. First, this is where his grandfather is from. Further, he explained, “after sixty years of Communism, a great number of Jews are without connection. Here, participants are attracted by the energy and a yearning to grow as individuals. Limmud is just one small step in connecting in whatever way that works for them; allowing them to explore and to flourish”.

Sitting where we were, and with other discussions happening around the Jewish world, it was a natural to speak about Russian Jewish philanthropy and philanthropists. In Matthew’s view, for an initiative in Russia to be successful, “local support is critical”. Limmud FSU is one organization that has already made “some inroads both with organizations and oligarchs.” While Matthew has a “sense that most Russian Jewish philanthropy is driven out of protectzia and ego, [it] will graduate to commitment to cause.”

The FSU countries themselves are not the only places where Matthew, and Limmud FSU, have made inroads. Nowhere was this more apparent than yesterday, some 1600 miles from Moscow, at the kick-off event at the Yitzhak Rabin Center in Tel Aviv for July’s Limmud FSU Jerusalem event. The attendance list was impressive with senior representatives from two governments, screen personalities, academics etc. – in other words, a typical gathering for a Limmud FSU event. The Russian Federation was represented by a 1st Secretary, the Government of Israel by Prof. Daniel Hershkowitz, Minister of Science and Technology, MK Yulia Shamalov-Berkowitz (Kadima), MK Anastasia Michaeli (Yisrael Beiteinu), and Israel’s ambassador-designate to the Russian Federation Shulamit Lidor. We were also joined by Dalia Rabin, Chair of the Yitzhak Rabin Center, who told us that “Limmud is at the top of priorities of the Rabin Center”.

As she addressed the audience MK Michaeli expressed everyone’s thoughts about Matthew best, “Thank you for your big influence to all our lives; to different generations, different countries”.

There you have it – Matthew Bronfman, up close. If he is his father’s son, I’m certain we have only just begun to hear from him.

image l to r: Shlomit Lidor, Chaim Chesler (co-founder Limmud FSU), Helena Yaralova (best actress Israel 2008), Matthew Bronfman, Alexander Kriukov (1st Secretary, Embassy of the Russian Federation), Dalia Rabin, Prof. Daniel Hershkowitz, Elena Lagutina (Israeli TV journalist)