September 18, 2019

Q&A with Charles Bronfman on Birthright and the Best Prize of All

In the summer of 1998, Charles Bronfman was sitting outside the Israel Museum in Jerusalem with fellow philanthropist Michael Steinhardt, discussing an idea: What if every young Jewish person in the world had a voucher for a free trip to Israel?

The idea struck Bronfman as implausible, but he was willing to give it a try. Two decades later, Steinhardt and Bronfman are best known in the Jewish community as the names behind Birthright.

Since 2001 — the year he parted with Seagram’s, the liquor company that made his fortune — Bronfman, 86, has been more concerned with giving away money than making it. He spoke with the Journal from his New York City office, where he was spending a few days before returning to his winter home in Palm Beach, Fla.

Jewish Journal: From your perspective, what is the greatest challenge to the Jewish people in North America?

Charles Bronfman: Keeping our relationship with Israel on a sound basis. The Israeli government reneged on its commitment regarding the Western Wall and reneged on the conversion deal. That’s the kind of thing that’s going to do onerous things to our relationship over time. What’ll happen will be that youngsters on both sides will say, “Well, they don’t give a damn about us.”

JJ: Nominations recently opened for the 2018 Charles Bronfman Prize, a $100,000 award in your name for humanitarians inspired by Jewish values. Can you tell me about past prize winners?

CB: The amazing thing to me about the prize winners is although they all have to be under 50, they have gone on to achieve greater results than they had before. They’re amazing people. I love them all. When my children gave me that prize, 15 years ago, it was one of the greatest days of my life. I cannot imagine a more loving present and more impactful present that any child could give a father. And I’m tearing up as I say this to you.

JJ: They gave you the prize as a present?

CB: They’re funding it, and it’s in my name. They set it up on my 70th birthday.

JJ: Not a lot of children have the means and connections to give that sort of birthday gift.

CB: It doesn’t have to millions of dollars. They can promise to keep the lawns on the street nice. It just has to be something that the children know that the parent or parents really appreciate, and because of my life and my philanthropic bent, nothing could have pleased me more that I could ever imagine.

JJ: I would be remiss if I didn’t ask about Birthright. Did you think it would become as big as it has?

CB: Never in a million years. This was something that Michael Steinhardt and I decided to give a shot. We didn’t know if it was going to work. We had no idea. I call it the quintessential venture philanthropy. It’s the same idea as venture capital: You’re really placing a bet, saying, “Can this thing work?” We’re thrilled, of course, thrilled right through to our bones.

JJ: How did the idea come about in the first place?

CB: It came up when both Michael and I were in Israel in the summer of ’98 and both of us had met Yossi Beilin. He was one of Shimon Peres’ boys. And Yossi had this idea that all 17-year-olds should have a voucher from anywhere in the world for a trip to Israel. Michael was sort of taken with this idea. So later, I was at a party with Michael. We were at the Jewish Museum overlooking the — pardon the expression — the Valley of the Cross, sitting on a wall, because he’d asked to speak with me. And he said, “What do you think of this idea of Yossi’s?” And I said, “That’s a scheme to bankrupt the Jewish world.” I said, “Well, this is an audacious scheme.” And he said, “Well, if it’s audacious, why don’t we try to figure it out?”

JJ: What’s next for Charles Bronfman? You don’t seem to show signs of slowing down.

CB: I am slowing down, thank you very much. I have decided that at my tender age, it’s about time to smell the flowers, son, to play some more golf and read.