December 18, 2018

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.

Reform movement should take a page from Chabad playbook

Charles Bronfman and the other kings, queens, princes, dukes, duchesses, lords and ladies of the American-Jewish community need to wake up to the impressive accomplishments of the passionate, strategic and creative serfs and vassals of Chabad, who serve the Jewish people globally with all their hearts and souls. 

It is outrageous that Mr. Bronfman told the attendees of the Reform movement at its convention two weeks ago to “take back Birthright from Chabad.” Imagine if the tables were turned what kind of indignant outcry there would be by the liberal Jewish world. 

Too bad that Chabad runs circles around the Reform movement and has managed to send thousands of young Jews on your Birthright program. 

There is a reason for this. And it’s not that Chabad is doing something wrong. It’s that the Reform movement and nearly the entire Jewish world aren’t doing something right. And the fault can be attributed to all you funders who claim Jewish royalty.  The Jewish professional world is scared to death of your power and, as a result, doesn’t take the risks that Chabad does. 

Two years ago, I spoke to a packed breakout room at the Rabbinic Assembly of the Reform movement in Long Beach. Following my lecture, leaders of the movement wanted to talk with me about urgent marketing issues. It took them about three months to organize a breakfast in New York. At the breakfast, I explained to them that in order to market effectively these days, they needed to take risk, to think critically, to create big, bold ideas of engagement. Every risk and idea I tossed at them during the breakfast was met with the same stone-faced response: “Our lay leaders and funders would never go for that.” Over and over, I saw the looks of near panic on their faces in response to my ideas. The group couldn’t get rid of me fast enough. 

That evening, I had a meeting with the leaders of Chabad on Campus at Lubavitch headquarters in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Seated around the table were about 15 Chabad rabbis working on campuses across America. I explained my same philosophy to them. Every risky, big idea I threw out was continually met with, “How do we do this? How can we make this happen?” They probed and pushed my brain for more and more. They jumped into thinking about implementation. The meeting began at 7:30 p.m. and ended at 1:30 a.m. 

As I walked out in the wee hours of the morning, I contrasted my two Jewish meetings that day. The morning one was boring, frightening, paralyzing and lifeless. The evening one was vibrant, pulsing, exciting, passionate and fun. It was a creative person’s dream. I asked myself, “Who is going to win here? Who is going to succeed?” The answer was obvious. 

The Jewish community needs to take a lesson from Chabad. They have become the McDonald’s of the Jewish world. They are everywhere, with Jewish spiritual retail outlets, attracting and engaging the masses, the grass roots, the people — AMCHA. The rabbis live on a shoestring budget and work their brains to exhaustion raising local money for each of their locations and programs. They move their families to the hinterlands — Tashkent, Guangzhou, Caracas — sometimes very dangerous places, to blend in with a Jewish community and build its soul. 

Chabad, through, has invested in and cracked the complex digital challenge of social marketing, having created the most visited Jewish website on the planet. In a boiler room at their Crown Heights worldwide headquarters sit about 25 young Brooklyn hipster Lubavitchers, who know more about the digital universe than all the professors and students who surround me at USC’s Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism, where I teach. When I am stumped by a social marketing challenge for my clients or students, I call them and gather some of the best practices and insights on all the evolutions of Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat and Periscope. 

Yes, Chabad chases people down with tefillin and they give out lots of tiny Shabbat candles. But they also give out something else: love. As I have told my wife, “God forbid something should happen to us, the next morning there will be 300 Chabad rabbis at our door.” 

I don’t believe in everything Chabad thinks or does. Some of it drives me crazy. I, too, can argue their Orthodoxy, practices and beliefs. But who in the Jewish world isn’t arguing Jewish issues of practice and belief with every other Jew? We don’t dare say in the end, “Take this back from the Reform, Conservative, Sephardic, Persian, Russian or Israeli Jews.” 

To Mr. Bronfman and every other member of self-declared Jewish royalty: 

Chabad doesn’t have a heavy, empowered lay structure. They, too, have mega donors like you. But their rabbis are respected and revered by their donors. The rabbis of Chabad have the ultimate power in the organization. This is a very different construct from the Jewish world that you know. In that Jewish world, where I spent so many years working as a marketing consultant, I witnessed a constant and overwhelming fear and intimidation of many intelligent, savvy, capable professionals who were loath to make themselves vulnerable to donors who had the ultimate say. As a result, that Jewish world doesn’t take enough risks. Professionals are scared of the rebuke of the lay people. They are hesitant to make decisions and take risks and put themselves at the mercy of their committees and funders. It is an unhealthy environment and a construct that keeps the Jewish world back. 

With all the millions of dollars the Jewish community spends on studies each year, they need to study Chabad. And then, different from writing about all those studies in the Jewish press and hauling them out to meetings and conferences, the results of this study need to be implemented. Because Chabad’s successes are undeniable.

Mr. Bronfman, you are simply jealous. And another thing: No one can intimidate Chabad. It will forge ahead with great success no matter what you say about it. 

Gary Wexler is the executive manager of the Third Space Thinking initiative at the USC-Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism, where he is also the adjunct professor of both advertising and creativity, as well as nonprofit advocacy.

Charles Bronfman: The most wonderful gift I’ve ever received

Ten years ago, my children Ellen and Stephen, and their spouses Andrew Hauptman and Claudine Blondin Bronfman, gave me the most unbelievable gift.

They founded and endowed The Charles Bronfman Prize, which annually recognizes a humanitarian under the age of 50 who is changing the world, guided and informed by their Jewish values. What I could not have imagined at the time, and what continues to amaze me still, is how this gift has continued to pay dividends, year after year as we welcome each new laureate into our prize family. 

I have often spoken about the importance of intentionality in philanthropy; that it has to stir the soul. This is true whether you are feeding the homeless, mentoring a child or working on climate change. This is true if you are giving $5 or $5 million.  Philanthropy and social change work are at their best when they are driven by your values and connected to what you care about most.

As we prepare to celebrate the 10th Anniversary of the Prize this week and present the award to our newest laureate, I have had the time to reflect on all of the individuals we have recognized so far.  It has been an inspiring privilege to come to know them.  Each year, I learn from them, and am inspired by their work and their passion and enriched by the experience of getting to know them.  Each of them has pursued the path that stirred their soul. They have tackled challenges in education and pursued justice for those held by the world’s darkest regimes. They have protected women and girls fleeing danger in Darfur by literally harnessing the power of the sun, helped the Lost Boys and Girls find their way and given voice to the disabled children the world would like to hide. They’ve created hope for leukemia patients, found missions at home for returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, stirred a nation’s environmental conscience and changed the way we educate doctors.

We recognize young humanitarians who are already changing the world.  And it is our hope that they will inspire the next generation to interpret the Jewish values that have inspired their work, and mine, to continue striving towards tikkun olam—repairing the world.

The Prize has endured because we have built a lasting fellowship of humanitarians that have followed the passions that stirred their souls. They’ve given their time, their dedication and their lives, and in doing so, they’ve stirred my soul—and the souls of our international panel of judges as well. 

I have also said that our philanthropic endeavors should be run with the same accountability as our business enterprises. There has to be a plan. There have to be goals. The goals must be measurable and measured. And the impact of our laureates can indeed be measured by the lives they’ve touched. The Talmud teaches us, “whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he has saved an entire world.” By that token, these 12 individuals have saved the world many times over, impacting the lives of more than 600,000 people in 120 countries on 6 continents.

This year’s recipient is Sam Goldman, who founded d.light design to bring clean, safe and affordable light to the 1,600,000,000 people worldwide that still live by kerosene. In doing so, he has improved the health, education and earnings potential of almost 40 million people, including 9.5 million children, as well as removed nearly 3 million tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Sam is the youngest recipient we have recognized so far; and perhaps not coincidentally, the first social entrepreneur. Sam is also the first Canadian to receive the Prize.  With each generation, we see new ways for people to increase the impact of their philanthropy, and as the Prize aims to inspire the next generation, we are always looking ahead and thinking about what giving might look like in the future. For Sam to be able to reach the greatest number of people as quickly as possible, he needed the capacity to scale afforded by a for-profit enterprise.  This allowed him to create the truly innovative design, marketing, financing and distribution network necessary to bring light to the dark corners of the world. Sam truly exemplifies what can happen when the soul meets the business plan.

Recognizing our first social entrepreneur provides a perfect capstone to the first decade of The Charles Bronfman Prize.  I am immensely humbled and honored by this generous and awe-inspiring gift from my children.  I could never have guessed how life affirming the past 10 years have been, and – as we enter our second decade – I can hardly wait to see what’s next! 

How Israel can help Egypt

After Egypt’s wondrous revolution the Middle East will never be the same again. Egypt is so large and so consequential that such profound political change there is bound to impact everything, including the prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace.  Is it a threat to peacemaking or an opportunity?

The idea that Israel and the Palestinians have, at long last, been given an ideal opportunity to come to a peaceful resolution of their long-standing differences might sound outlandish to some and heretical to those who think that Israel should now hunker down and prepare itself for armed conflict or use the Egyptian crisis, to gain more time to do nothing!

Despite the fact that the peaceful revolution has succeeded, Egypt will have many problems on the way to democracy.  The first is its economy, which was already struggling before the protests brought it to a temporary halt.  The interim government and its freely elected successor will have to provide major incentives to business to invest in equipment and create the job opportunities that the people are demanding.  Those who massed in Tahrir Square and elsewhere throughout the country no doubt will lack patience. Those who have graduated from college and promised jobs by the former government must have access to them. Not menial jobs, but the serious jobs that the educated youth expect in a sophisticated society.

As Egypt’s neighbor, Israel can help.  Israel’s technological brilliance, her breakthroughs in so many fields, from irrigation to nano technology, can be of huge advantage to a new democratic Egypt that is in search of 21st century jobs for its young people. The Palestinians are benefitting from an important increase in their standard of living, at least on the West Bank. That could be a helpful signal for both Jordanians and Egyptians that with the proper infrastructure economic advances certainly are possible.

But first, Israelis and Palestinians must end their conflict by establishing clear and recognized borders between two states living in peace. So long as they prey on each other, their ability to relate positively to the events around them will be hampered. In fact, from Israel’s standpoint, the status quo will have a profound negative influence. Israel is no longer considered the David, surrounded by the Arab Goliath, nor has it been since 1982. Israel is now viewed in the Arab world and beyond as Goliath, protected by the United States. It is seen as an occupier denying freedom to the Palestinians as surely as Hosni Mubarak denied freedom to the Egyptian people.  As long as it fails to end the occupation, Israel will be seen to be on the wrong side of history. 

That is a shame, for Israel as the first democracy in the Middle East could do so much to help Arab democracy emerge from the ice age imposed by its autocratic leaders.  Imagine a reformed, democratic Egypt; a peaceful, democratic Palestine; a Jordanian constitutional monarchy; and a democratic Israel, no longer considered a pariah by its neighbours, no longer an occupying nation, no longer the “imperialist” country of the Middle East. Imagine how cooperation between these democracies could lead and benefit the rest of the region, politically and economically.

When Shimon Peres dreamed of a “new Middle East” two decades ago, the region was not yet ready for his vision.  But today the Internet and new Social Media have made the 21st century revolution possible in Egypt. These cheap and efficient means of connecting people defy physical borders as much as they defy governmental controls.  Imagine if Israel’s tech-savvy youth connected with their Egyptian, Palestinian, and Jordanian counterparts and rose up in unison to demand that their elders put an end to their 20th Century conflicts.  Would Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas then respond by creating their own peaceful revolution?

Let the Egyptian people’s example guide them in breaking the bonds of fear and mistrust.  Let them now garner the courage to go forward and let peace no longer elude them.

Charles Bronfman is former co-chairman of the Seagram Company and the founder of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies. A version of this column originally appeared in the Hebrew edition of Yediot Aharanot, Israel’s largest paper.  Reprinted with permission.

UJC’s Challenge

The outgoing chairman of the United Jewish Communities (UJC), Charles Bronfman, has challenged the UJC leadership to "change the perception out there that rich, old guys who write big checks are the only ones who count."

"There are rich young men and women, who may or may not write big checks but who may have a wealth of ideas," he said. "They may even have a desire to become more involved with the Jewish community. Will we give them the opportunity to lead?" Bronfman, said in his departing speech to the North American Jewish federation system.

"If a person in his 20s or 30s can lead a major corporation, why can’t she or he run a federation project or an agency or, indeed, a federation?"

Bronfman made his comments Monday at the UJC’s annual General Assembly, held this year in Washington, D.C.

Bronfman pointed out also that private Jewish foundations, which now have assets in excess of $25 billion and distribute more than $1 billion annually to Jewish and non-Jewish causes, have surpassed the federation system in their distribution of dollars. Last year, federations in the United States and Canada raised $920 million; its endowment funds total $8 billion.

"These numbers have to tell us that we are living in a very new Jewish philanthropic world," said Bronfman. "Are Jewish foundations a threat to us or can we collaborate with them, now and in the future?"

In an interview, Bronfman said the "big question is how will the federations locally and nationally take advantage of good-hearted people who want to do good. Federations offer an infrastructure and delivery system and most foundations don’t have that."


UJC Taps Tisch for Top Post

The United Jewish Communities (UJC) offered its top volunteer position to the president of UJA-Federation of Greater New York, according to a member of the UJC nominating committee.

The source said James Tisch of New York was asked to replace fellow philanthropist Charles Bronfman as chairman of the board, but has not yet responded.

Other UJC officials declined to confirm the nomination, saying they have been talking to “a whole host of people to see who’s interested.”

Shoah Denier Denied Platform

A student group at Oxford has canceled a debate on freedom of speech that was to feature Holocaust denier David Irving.

The Oxford Union debating society decided to call off the May 10 event at the last minute after intense pressure from a range of groups including the Union of Jewish Students, the Association of University Teachers and Oxford’s own Student Union.

High-Speed Train to Serve Tel Aviv

Israel’s rail authority inaugurated a double-decker passenger train that will serve suburban communities surrounding Tel Aviv. The train can seat 505 people and reach speeds of 87 miles per hour.

Shoah Deniers Meet in Jordan

The Simon Wiesenthal Center condemned a Holocaust deniers conference held Sunday in Jordan.

The meeting, sponsored by the Jordanian Writers Union, was “yet another step in a systematic effort under way in the Arab world to deconstruct Jewish history,” said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, the center’s associate dean.

Last month, Lebanon’s prime minister blocked Holocaust deniers from holding a similar meeting in Beirut.

Israel Nixes Panel Call

Israel rejected a portion of a United States-led commission’s report that called for the end of settlement construction.

Speaking last Friday after U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said he hoped the report could serve as the basis for an Israeli-Palestinian cease-fire, Israeli Cabinet member Danny Naveh said ending construction meant to accommodate a settlement’s natural growth was “impossible.”

On Sunday, Palestinian negotiator Nabil Sha’ath said the Palestinians will not return to the negotiating table unless Israel halts all settlement construction.

In a separate development, Powell said he has not ruled out the idea of appointing someone to replace Dennis Ross, who served as President Clinton’s special envoy to the Middle East.

But Powell said that given the current state of Israeli- Palestinian violence, he does not see a reason to have someone “shuttle back and forth on a constant basis” between Washington and the Middle East.

Briefs courtesy of Jewish Telegraphic Agency.