BRONFMAN , Canadian family prominent in business, philanthropy, and Jewish affairs. sam bronfman (1891–1971), the patriarch of the family, claimed he was born in Brandon, Manitoba, in 1891 although, according to his biographer Michael Marrus, he was probably born in Russia shortly before the family immigrated to Canada. Before World War i Sam and his brothers, Abe (1882–1968) and Harry (1886–1963), worked in the small family-owned Manitoba hotels, better known for their bars than their rental rooms.
Even as Prohibitionist sentiment rolled across English-speaking Canada, an ambitions and competitive Sam Bronfman gradually refocused his business goals from running bars to distributing liquor – skirting the edge of the law as he supplied spirits to bootleggers who serviced Prohibition America – and eventually to manufacturing liquor. In 1924 Bronfman and his wife, Saidye, moved to Montreal, Quebec, where attitudes toward liquor were more open. Here Bronfman built his first distillery.
Bronfman's timing could not have been better. Prohibition was a waning force in Canada and, Prohibition or no Prohibition, there was money to be made in quenching the thirst of nearby American population centers. With the end of Prohibition in the United States, Bronfman's liquor company, Seagram's, acquired a significant share of the American liquor market and Bronfman came to control one of the largest family fortunes in Canada. With the passage of time, Bronfman also expanded into other profitable enterprises, including commercial and business land development across North America.
While Sam Bronfman, Mr. Sam as he was commonly called, retained the rough edges of his gritty upbringing, wealth afforded him membership in Montreal's Jewish elite. By the early 1930s Bronfman was active in a wide range of Montreal Jewish fund-raising activities, although the Yiddish-speaking industrialist kept his distance from the Montreal downtown immigrant world and its politics, preferring philanthropy over ideology.
In November 1938 came *Kristallnacht (the "Night of Broken Glass" in Germany and Austria). The Canadian Jewish elite was forced to admit that philanthropy afforded no answer to the rise of Nazism in Europe, to the crisis of Jewish refugees denied Canadian entry, and to fears of growing antisemitism in Canada. A new and active community political agenda was required. Bronfman, now an influential community leader and financial powerhouse, was approached by H.M. *Caiserman to become actively involved in the Canadian Jewish Congress and, specifically, to take up the cause of Jewish refugees. Bronfman, who had previously dismissed the Congress as an ineffectual debating society for "greenies," an organization scarred by ideological divisions he neither understood nor cared to understand, accepted. For Bronfman, the challenge was not just to advance the cause of refugees but also to build the Canadian Jewish Congress into a powerful voice in Jewish and Canadian life. This, he concluded, required a firm hand at the organizational wheel, his hand. He was soon elected president of the Canadian Jewish Congress and with him and his financial clout came support from others in the Jewish elite, a revitalized and "Canadianized" Congress agenda, and a businesslike organization run by dedicated professional staff. With Bronfman as its president for a quarter century and supporter until his death in 1971, the Congress became the organizational heart of Canadian Jewry.
In spite of the Congress' organizational success, not all of Bronfman's hopes were realized. An outspoken Canadian patriot, he never satisfied his personal dream of being appointed to the Canadian Senate. But he did cast a long shadow across Canadian and particularly Montreal Jewish life, contributing generously to the organizational and institutional success of the community. An ardent champion of Israel, Bronfman was also active in support of the Jewish state. In 1964 Bronfman was appointed the first Jewish governor of McGill University, reflecting both his status and the changing status of Jews in Montreal. When Bronfman died, the billionaire head of the world's largest distillery had been for 40 years the single most influential leader of the Canadian Jewish community.
On his death, Bronfman's business empire, as well as his legacy of community service, passed to his four children: Aileen (Baronne Alain de Gunzburg), Phyllis (*Lambert), Edgar Miles *Bronfman, and Charles Rosner Bronfman.
aileen mindel bronfman de gunzburg (1925–1986) was born in Montreal. She went to Smith College in the United States before taking a graduate degree in history at Columbia. In 1953 she married Alain de Gunzburg, a banker and member of a prominent and aristocratic French-Jewish family. They lived in Paris, where, then a baroness, she became deeply involved in *Youth Aliyah.
charles rosner bronfman (1931– ) was born in Montreal and attended McGill University. He joined the family business and in 1958 assumed responsibility for the family's Canadian holdings, which had gradually expanded beyond the liquor business to include new areas of enterprise, including major commercial property development. His business interests also included professional sport when, from 1968 to 1990, he was chairman and principal owner of the Montreal Expo baseball team. He also served as chairman of Koor Industries Ltd., Israel's largest industrial holding company.
Deeply committed to Jewish community life, Charles Bronfman has devoted time and wealth to community service. His Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies is working to strengthen Canadian identity and to promote Jewish education and cultural awareness in Canada, the United States, and Israel. To foster appreciation for Israel among Jewish youth around the world, Bronfman was also a founding partner of Birthright Israel and chairman of its forerunner organization, Israel Experience. He helped found and was chairman of United Jewish Communities, an umbrella body of merged Jewish Federations and the United Jewish Appeal across North America, and he serves on many boards including the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada and the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
The Bronfman family's tradition of service to the Jewish and larger community continues but their financial empire has been greatly reduced. After the handover of management of the family's business empire to a new generation, a series of business reversals and resulting corporate adjustments in the 1990s cost the family considerable wealth.
M.R. Marrus, Mr. Sam: The Life and Times of Samuel Bronfman (1991).
[Harold Troper (2nd ed.)]