Liquor baron and entrepreneur, president of Canadian Jewish Congress (CJC) during its most critical years, philanthropist and supporter of Israel, Samuel Bronfman (1891–1971) was the most influential Canadian Jew of the mid-twentieth century. Known for his shrewd business acumen and advocacy for Jewish causes, “Mr. Sam” helped create a dynasty of business and Jewish communal leaders in North America.
Born in Bessarabia (now Moldova) and raised in the Canadian Prairies, Samuel Bronfman was the son of Ekiel Bronfman, a Jewish agricultural pioneer from tsarist Russia. Discovering that Manitoba’s climate was not conducive to growing tobacco, Ekiel gravitated to the liquor trade. Samuel dabbled in the hotel business before establishing the Distillers Corporation in the Montreal suburb of LaSalle, specializing in inexpensive liquor. Merging with Joseph E. Seagram & Sons in 1928, Bronfman soon became head of a liquor empire, retaining the Seagram name. He profited from the U.S. Prohibition (1919–33), benefiting from Quebec’s comparatively lax regulations and working around prohibitionist laws by selling mail-order liquor distributions, while simultaneously honing the art of blending whiskies in time for the laws’ revocation. Interestingly, the name Bronfman means “liquor-man” in Yiddish.
The “whisky king of America” was also one of the Jewish community’s most generous philanthropists and leaders, inspiring others to support causes ranging from Israel to the various Jewish General Hospital fundraising campaigns. Bronfman’s commitment to Jewish and Zionist causes originated from the ethical imperative in Judaism to perform tikun olam (repair the world), but was also a reaction to his exclusion from Montreal’s elite clubs due to antisemitism. While he served as president of Canadian Jewish Congress from 1939 to 1961, the organization became the official voice of Canadian Jewry. At the outbreak of World War II, Bronfman, along with Congress executive director Saul Hayes, created the CJC Committee for Refugees as well as the United Jewish Relief Agencies (UJRA). To save Jews trapped in Europe, they challenged Canadian immigration laws, which were some of the most restrictive in the world. They had little success during the war, though in 1947 the Committee persuaded the government to allow the settlement of 1,200 war orphans from Nazi Germany. Bronfman personally employed many Jewish refugees at his LaSalle distillery.
After the war, “Mr. Sam” became deeply involved in supporting the State of Israel. He funded Canadian pilots in Israel’s 1948 War of Independence, helped future Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres procure military equipment in the 1950s, and supported Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War. Bronfman met many of Israel’s leaders, including Golda Meir in 1948 and David Ben-Gurion at the opening of the Israel Museum (which Bronfman helped to fund) in Jerusalem in 1962.
Samuel and his wife Saidye‘s children have continued their parents’ philanthropic work. Edgar Bronfman succeeded Samuel as head of Seagram’s in New York before becoming president of World Jewish Congress in 1994. Charles Bronfman, former owner of the Montreal Expos, created the Birthright youth trips to Israel and became director of Seagram’s Canadian business, while Phyllis Lambert founded both the Canadian Centre for Architecture and Heritage Montreal.
Compiled by Marian Pinsky.
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*Images courtesy of the Jewish Public Library Archives and Canadian Jewish Congress Charities Committee National Archives.