Alon Tal
Alon Tal
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‘Distilled’: the extraordinary life of Charles Bronfman

In his memoir, Distilled, the Birthright co-founder paints a surprisingly candid picture of a life well-lived

y450-293Canadian businessman and philanthropist, Charles Bronfman, has written a memoir that is of interest to the business community, sports fans and anyone interested in the future of the Jewish people.

Charles Bronfman has always been a fairly unconventional figure in the pantheon of great Jewish philanthropists: Born into a family renowned for its aggressive tactics, he opted for a style that remains informal, unpretentious and patient. In a world increasingly characterized by right-wing business moguls, he consistently remains progressive. Although he seems to enjoy portraying himself as a McGill university dropout who suffered through the symphony concerts his mother forced him to attend, Bronfman went on to became one of Israel’s (and Canada’s) most important patrons of music and the arts.

For anyone interested in this remarkable man and what makes a philanthropist on this level tick, Distilled will not disappoint. It contains an uncompromisingly forthright and animated description of an extraordinary life. Bronfman manages to walk a very difficult line — never falling into the trap of false modesty or self-aggrandizement. Thanks also to author Howard Green, the book’s plain-speaking style made this reader feel as if he had simply sat down at a bar with Charles, who was in a mood to reflect, letting the chips fall where they may.

Naturally, the book is filled with terrific anecdotes involving the many intriguing people he has met along the way. Charles tells how in 1951, his father, Sam Bronfman had to take a very young Shimon Peres to buy black socks to replace the white ones he was wearing that clashed with his suit pants, before meeting a top Canadian minister to secure a critical weapons order for the nascent state of Israel. Soon thereafter, Charles began his own encounters with Israeli Prime Ministers, a few of which he shares. For instance, there was the time he went to meet then Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who he believed was stiffing Bronfman’s Birthright program by reneging on a government commitment to contribute to the program’s funding. When Bronfman made the case for what 50,000 tourists do for Israel’s economy each year, Bibi countered wryly: “Yeah, but none of it goes to the treasury.”

Bronfman is well aware of the blessings that being born into uber-affluence brought him. But he also acknowledges the less edifying aspects of such comfort. He calls the opening chapter about his childhood: “Basket Case Kid,” reflecting the effect that living up to the Bronfman name had on him. The book describes how his mother didn’t even know how to fry eggs or flag a cab, something her boys had to do for her. He grew up amid the severe expectations of Sam Bronfman, whose mantra was “blood matters.” The Bronfman children were inculcated with an ethos of achievement and privilege, but also service and charity.

As Bronfman has led a full and diverse life, it is not surprising that there is great variety in the chapters, and some will interest some readers more than others. As the man who brought major league baseball to Montreal, he chronicles the challenge of managing a team with a fraction of the stadium gate and TV potential of New York rivals. This will surely be more fascinating for Expos fans than for the rest of us. Nonetheless, there are more than enough baseball tidbits to keep readers engaged: like the time he chewed out superstar Gary Carter for swinging for the fence when the team actually just needed singles to win. Bronfman would eventually trade the unrepentant slugger to the Mets.

Other chapters have more profound historical interest. The restorative impact of Birthright on today’s Jewish communities in North America and beyond is increasingly recognized. Without being bombarded with excessive detail, readers are given full access to how this exceptional project unfolded. Apparently, a chance conversation at Jerusalem’s Israel Museum between Bronfman and hedge fund manager extraordinaire Michael Steinhardt eventually evolved into a program that has transformed the lives of half a million participating, Jewish young adults.

Bronfman’s Montreal-based CRB foundation actually started supporting youth trips to Israel long before his storied partnership with Steinhardt. And Bronfman was well aware of what an odd couple the two made: “I’m an inheritor, Michael is self-made. I’m a long-term brand builder with a twenty-year time horizon, Michael is a trader with a ninety-second attention span. I’m an optimistic, he’s a pessimist. And as others would add, I’m the establishment while Michael’s the rebel.” In retrospect, it was a synergy. Both understood a basic truth that was actually articulated by Bronfman’s non-Jewish, Canadian foundation director, Tom Axworthy: “What you don’t know you can’t love. And to visit Israel is to love it.”

It turns out that the whole Birthright venture almost didn’t happen when the two founders were at loggerheads over whether or not the trips should be entirely free or whether financial participation by the young travelers should be required. Bronfman insisted on some payment but soon changed his view and acknowledges that Steinhart was absolutely right to make the trips a gift. Typically, Bronfman kept the vision of Birthright’s objectives simple. Notwithstanding the intense ten-day educational program each group undergoes and the rigorous, retrospective pedagogical evaluation, he only set three basic goals for participants: to be happy you’re Jewish; to identify with the Jewish people; and to have a positive emotional relationship with Israel.

The jury is in and the empirical results of the Birthright trips have been measured. They work. Bronfman, who from the start insisted on running the initiative like a business, is quick to quote some performance indicators: 42% of participants are more likely to feel “very much connected to Israel” than youth who do not attend; an astonishing 45% are more likely to marry someone Jewish.

It is probably Bronfman’s underlying humility and natural willingness to partner that turned Birthright into such a success. Although openly at odds with the political agenda of Sheldon Adelson, he is also openly grateful to the right-wing American casino king, who has taken on much of the heavy lifting to meet Birthright’s annual $140 million budget requirement. Indeed, it can be argued, that a more egoistic philanthropist, who favors solo recognition, could never have achieved the engagement necessary for an endeavor on this scale.

The book allows for other fascinating peeks into the world of philanthropy. Many may have wondered how it was that the cacophonous Mann Auditorium, long home to the Israel Philharmonic, got its remarkable makeover in 2013 and reemerged as Tel Aviv’s acoustically exquisite Bronfman auditorium. (The transaction it turns out involved preserving a special column and room dedicated to the original donor, Fredric Mann. Bronfman also paid the Mann family back the original 300,000 dollars that it donated in the 1950s.) There must be many dozens of other philanthropic deals that were left on the cutting floor to keep the book a reasonable 326 pages. I for one can confirm that the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, an inspirational, peacemaking study center on Kibbutz Ketura, would not have happened without a leap of faith by Charles Bronfman and the support of the venerable Israeli director of his CRB Foundation, Dr. Janet Aviad. Bronfman’s strategic approach to giving was unique enough for him and his innovative American foundation director Jeffrey Solomon to write an entire book about their approach: The Art of Doing Good.

Bronfman does a good job, without really trying to, of showing how it is possible to be both a diehard Canadian patriot and an unabashed supporter of Israel. His philanthropy was equally divided between these twin passions. Yet, he does not try to reign in his profound disappointment at present political trends in Israel and never misses an occasion to reiterate his belief in the moral and practical virtues of a two-state solution.

Of course, anyone who follows the undulated fortunes of the Bronfman family will be curious to learn how it was that the family came to lose Seagram, its iconic liquor company, along with its controlling shares in DuPont as part of an ill-advised acquisition of Hollywood entertainment companies that soon collapsed. Here the book reads like a cross between an MBA school case study and a Shakespearean tragedy. Charles remains deeply remorseful about the whole experience, but doesn’t blink when relating the tale.

The book’s presentation of the debacle appears to be balanced, with Bronfman blaming himself equally for the disaster. In the mid-1990s Charles consistently and openly opposed the direction his nephew, and young Seagram CEO, Edgar Bronfman Junior envisioned for the company. But he chose not to engage in a bloody boardroom battle with Edgar senior, Charles’s older brother, who was giving his son’s ideas full support. Charles acknowledges that as an equal partner in the company he could have dug in his heels and insisted that the company preserve the less glamorous but far more prudent and profitable status quo.

Throughout the book, Bronfman is startlingly open about the dynamics that characterized his complex relationship with his domineering, older brother. Edgar was at once his protector at a very mean-spirited boarding school and his father’s heir apparent. But he was also consistently dismissive of his younger brother’s formidable business acumen. Well aware of the litany of slights, Charles loved his older brother deeply and continues to, insisting on painting a sympathetic picture of the man throughout the book.

Anyone who has watched in horror as families implode after ugly arguments over money has to wonder whether Charles Bronfman should be so hard on himself and his decision not to launch a war against his brother’s house to stop Seagram from being sold. Innumerable families would be healthier and still intact if one sibling had only been willing to bend or take an economic hit for the good of “shalom bayit.”

Of course, when you are a Bronfman, the dimensions are a bit different. In retrospect, Charles reckons his family lost over half its net worth, more than two billion dollars. Given the Bronfmans’ uncommon magnanimity, hundreds of Canadian and Jewish non-profit organizations were also losers in the collapse. On the positive side of the balance sheet, however, the two brothers fully reconciled several years later – an achievement which can only be attributed to Charles’s generosity of spirit.

This uncanny ability to keep the family together is also seen in Bronfman’s rather complicated personal life. Much more interesting than his four marriages is his remarkable relationship with his two children Stephen and Ellen and their spouses, who seem to share so many of his core values and congeniality. Now highly accomplished in business, philanthropy and parenting on their own, the two gave their father a 70th birthday present: “The Bronfman Prize” which recognizes uniquely inspirational achievements among young humanitarians that are inspired by Jewish values. It was through this prize that I got to know the family a bit and catch a glimpse of the very special relationship between them and their father. While Charles gives full credit to their mother Barbara for raising them, it seems that here is another area where he chose a very different strategy than his intimidating and aloof father.

Modesty used to be a quality that was admired among leaders. Tradition says that Moses was Israel’s greatest leader because of his fundamental humility. King Solomon may have had a higher IQ and David been a fiercer warrior. But it was Moses’ underlying humbleness that made him the ultimate trail blazer. In today’s world, it is hard to see this trait very often in our political leaders. In considering the story of the life of Charles Bronfman, readers may find that at least in philanthropic leadership, humility and decency are still qualities that matter.

“Distilled, A Memoir of Family, Baseball and Philanthropy” by Charles Bronfman with Howard Green, HarperCollins Publishers

About the Author
Professor Alon Tal is a member of Israel's Knesset representing the Blue and White Party, a veteran environmental activist, and an academic based at Tel Aviv University's Department of Public Policy.
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