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Edgar M. Bronfman Sr.

Edgar M. Bronfman Sr.

Edgar M. Bronfman Sr., billionaire businessman and longtime president of the World Jewish Congress, died Saturday at age 84 in his New York home surrounded by family.

Bronfman’s life was a legend in Jewish philanthropy. He first made his fortune with his family’s Seagram’s liquor empire, taking over as chairman and CEO in 1971 and continuing the work of his father, Samuel. Under Bronfman’s leadership, Seagram expanded its offerings and was eventually acquired by French media and telecom group Vivendi Universal in 2000.

Bronfman’s wealth, combined with his role in the World Jewish Congress, which lobbied the Soviets to allow Jews to emigrate and helped spearhead the search for hidden Nazi loot, allowed him to be a tireless advocate for his fellow Jews.

“He was the first of his kind, a titan of industry that dedicated himself fully to advocating, advancing and encouraging the Jewish people,” said Dana Raucher, executive director of The Samuel Bronfman Foundation.

In 1999, President Bill Clinton awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. In the citation, Bronfman was heralded for working “to ensure basic rights for Jews around the world.”

The year before, he had become the first congress president to meet with Soviet officials in Moscow, bringing his case for human rights and taking a little time to promote Seagram’s interests. He visited again in 1988, by which time Jewish emigration from the Soviet Union, a key goal of the congress, had begun to rise under the reforming leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev. During the 1980s and 1990s, the congress also helped lead the effort to gain $11 billion in restitution for heirs of Holocaust victims.

Bronfman also extended his kindness and Zionism to the youth. He helped fund Birthright, a program that gives identified Jews between the ages of 18-26 from all over the world a free trip to Israel, known as “heritage trips.” Additionally, he founded the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel, a program that recruits high schoolers from across North America and Canada for an intensive, transformative exploration of “Jewish text study, pluralism and social responsibility.”

His life was filled with kindness and charity, and he will be dearly missed.