Jewish Journal


October 4, 2001

That Pioneer Spirit

Bronfman was rooted with a sense of tikkun olam.


Edgar Bronfman will recieve the Spirit of Life Award.

Edgar Bronfman will recieve the Spirit of Life Award.

On Oct. 11, City of Hope will honor Edgar Bronfman Jr. with its Spirit of Life Award.

The success stories of Bronfman, Vivendi Universal's executive vice chairman, and the medical center are remarkably similar: both came from humble beginnings and were rooted in a strong sense of Jewish identity, community and tikkun olam.

Sam Bronfman, Edgar's grandfather was the son of whiskey-making Russian settlers who turned the family business into industry leader Seagram Company Ltd. He served as president of the Canadian Jewish Congress, and, with his wife, Saidye, organized the first Young Men's Hebrew Association and Young Women's Hebrew Association in Canada, where the Bronfman family settled in the late 19th century.

City of Hope originated in 1912 as a Jewish response to tuberculosis after Sam Cook, a Russian immigrant, found a 21-year-old fellow tailor dead of TB, then an incurable disease, in front of his walk-up apartment building in downtown Los Angeles at 12th Street and Central Avenue. Cook organized a Garment District collection, gathering the money on an American flag, to pay for the victim's funeral.

Bronfman's award ceremony will take place at the hospital's Music and Entertainment Industry Chapter gala fundraiser, when Mary J. Blige, Sisqo, Jon Bon Jovi, Melissa Etheridge, Vince Gill, Amy Grant and legends Smokey Robinson and The Who's Roger Daltrey will unite for a Motown tribute.

Chairing the evening will be Doug Morris, Universal Music Group's chairman/CEO; and proceeds will establish an honorary research fellowship in Bronfman's honor at the Duarte-based City of Hope National Medical Center and Beckman Research Institute.

Universal Music Group has long been entwined with the Music and Entertainment Industry Chapter gala, since one of the fundraiser's greatest champions is Zach Horowitz, Universal Music Group's president/COO, who connected Bronfman with City of Hope.

"Zach's father [former City of Hope head Ben Horowitz] ran the place for many years," Bronfman told The Journal. "Zach's been a tremendous supporter. City of Hope for me is an extraordinary institution. They've done tremendous work for many, many people struggling with cancer and other life-threatening diseases throughout the country. I am honored to be able to help raise funds for the City of Hope's important mission."

In its 27-year history, the Music and Entertainment Industry Chapter gala has raised $30 million.

Bronfman applauds this sense of extended family, community connection and cultural pride, as evinced by executives such as Horowitz.

"You can never make that kind of thing a prerequisite," Bronfman said, "but we've strived in our company to make that an important element in who we are and what we believe in, what we try to do as a company. People enriched spiritually in great causes -- that's a very important part of corporate life." Bronfman has reason to understand the need for a place like City of Hope, with its binary functions as a hospital and a research institution: he lost a sister-in-law to cancer.

"The experience of having gone through that and seeing what she went through and what my older brother went through," underscores the importance of the hospital's mission.

The upcoming Music and Entertainment Industry gala will not be Bronfman's first brush with tzedakah this season. Vivendi Universal was the driving force behind "America: A Tribute to Heroes," the star-studded Sept. 21 telethon that raised $150 million in two hours.

"Jimmy Iovine [of Interscope Records, a Universal Music Group label] led the charge," Bronfman said. "It was a tremendous effort, with that quality, to do that in the space of time that it was done."

Bronfman knows about moving quickly in a short amount of time.

In 1982, he joined Seagram Company Ltd. He climbed up the corporate ladder, and, by 1989, became the liquor company's president and chief executive officer, a position he maintained until 1994. In May 1998, Bronfman was elected to Seagram's board of directors.

In December 2000, the Seagram-owned Universal merged with Vivendi and Canal Plus. Vivendi Universal now ranks as the second-largest media and communications conglomerate in the world, behind only AOL/Time Warner. Its music arm, Universal Music Group, is home to Universal Music Publishing Group and a vast consortium of record labels including MCA, Mercury, Motown, Interscope Geffen A&M and Island Def Jam Music Group.

Bronfman's enterprising spirit and connection to his Jewish heritage runs in the family. The Bronfman family has long manufactured ultra-successful, self-made businessmen with strong Jewish values, as similar to the mass producing of the Captain Morgan's spiced rum for which Seagrams is known.

Upon arriving in Canada in the late 1880s from Bessarabia, then a province of Russia where making whiskey was a way of life (Bronfman means "whiskey man" in Yiddish), Bronfman's obstinate paternal great-grandfather provided for his eight children by growing tobacco in the bitter winter wastelands of Saskatchewan.

Bronfman's grandfather, Sam, was the colorful, larger-and-louder-than-life character who started Seagrams. Sam's sons, Charles, and Bronfman's father, Edgar, the first Jews admitted into Trinity College School in Ontario, turned Seagrams into a business empire. Edgar Bronfman Sr. became president of the World Jewish Restitution Congress, which led the cause of exacting Holocaust reparations from Swiss and German institutions. He now serves as the international chairman of Hillel.

Charles Bronfman, with philanthropist Michael Steinhardt, founded Birthright Israel, which aims to provide a free trip to Israel for every Jew between the ages of 15 and 26. The Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies and the Charles Rosner Bronfman Foundation disburse millions more for educational programs in Israel.

His father and uncle were not only role models in business matters when he was young, Edgar Bronfman told The Journal, "they were role models in philanthropy.

"But interestingly," he adds, "neither my father nor mother were Jewishly involved until they were in their 40s, and I was about 20."

Bronfman believes that their spiritual awakening had to do with the death of his grandfather, Sam, which "prompted them to search for additional meaning in their lives," he said. "They turned to their religion, to their culture, to their history."

A long time ago, the Bronfmans adopted the famous Talmud edict "to leave the world a better place than you found it" as a family motto.

"It's always been important to express [this ideal] on as broad a scale as possible and to improve human condition," Bronfman said.

Since the Sept. 11 attacks, Hollywood has reacted quickly in taking responsibility for movie content. Disney shelved a Tim Allen comedy revolving around an airplane bomb plot, while Warner Bros. benched a Schwarzenegger action flick about a fireman fending off terrorists.

"The way that the entertainment industry responded really spoke of quality of people," Bronfman said, adding that he nevertheless ultimately supports artistic freedom and expression. "Movies and art tend to reflect society."

Psychologists have noted that since the atrocities of Sept. 11, many people feel powerless, and some even fantasize about possessing great wealth and status because they would be able to effect change, perhaps influence politics or the ways of the world. With so much money and the power of the media at his disposal, Bronfman is such a man. Yet, he said, his reaction to the events was not substantially different from anyone else's.

"We all reacted as Americans first, and then as fathers and brothers and sisters and mothers," said Bronfman, who lives in New York but was in California at the time of the attacks. "My first reaction was: Where's my daughter?"

One of his seven children, she attends New York University, not far from the World Trade Center disaster site.

"She was uptown at the time, and she called me, not really knowing what was going on. I explained what happened. I could hear the timbre of her voice change. It was very upsetting for me, not to be at home, and to be stuck elsewhere was frustrating."

While Vivendi Universal did not lose any employees, relatives and friends of employees were killed.

Besides his company's donating $5 million to the September 11th Fund, Bronfman established a matching gift fund in-house at Vivendi Universal. "We cared for them immediately," Bronfman said. "Our company did a great job of trying to care of its own."

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