Canada 150: Samuel Bronfman, 1889-1971

Samuel Bronfman was president of Canadian Jewish Congress from 1939 to 1961.

Samuel Bronfman was president of Canadian Jewish Congress from 1939 to 1961.

‘Mr. Sam’ founded a dynasty of business and Jewish communal leaders

Liquor baron and entrepreneur, president of Canadian Jewish Congress for more than two decades, philanthropist and supporter of Israel, Samuel Bronfman was the most influential Canadian Jew of the mid-20th century. Known for his shrewd business acumen and advocacy for Jewish causes, “Mr. Sam” helped create a dynasty of business and Jewish communal leaders.

Born in Bessarabia (now Moldova) and raised in the Canadian Prairies, Samuel Bronfman was one of eight children of Ekiel Bronfman, a Jewish agricultural pioneer from czarist Russia.

Samuel dabbled in the hotel business in Manitoba before establishing Distillers Corporation in Montreal, 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, 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 Montreal’s Jewish General Hospital. Bronfman’s commitment to Jewish and Zionist causes originated from the ethical imperative in Judaism to perform tikkun olam (repair the world), but was also a reaction to his exclusion from Montreal’s elite clubs due to anti-Semitism.

During Bronfman’s tenure as president of Canadian Jewish Congress (CJC) from 1939 to 1961, the organization became the official voice of Canadian Jewry. At the outbreak of the Second World War, Bronfman, along with CJC executive director Saul Hayes, created the CJC Committee for Refugees, as well as the United Jewish Relief Agencies. To save Jews trapped in Europe, they challenged Canadian immigration laws, which were some of the most restrictive in the world. Although they had little success during the war, 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 distillery.

After the war, Bronfman 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 and president 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.

Bronfman was married to the late Saidye Rosner Bronfman and their children continued their parents’ philanthropic work. The late Edgar Bronfman succeeded his father as head of Seagram’s in New York and served as president of World Jewish Congress. Charles Bronfman, former owner of the Montreal Expos, created the Birthright Israel trips and served as director of Seagram’s Canadian business. Daughter Phyllis Lambert founded both the Canadian Centre for Architecture and Heritage Montreal.

Compiled by Marian Pinsky for the Museum of Jewish Montreal.

Throughout 2017, in celebration of Canada’s sesquicentennial, the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin is publishing a series of profiles spotlighting the contributions of historically important Jewish Canadians to our country. This profile of Samuel Bronfman, the second in the series, was published in the February 6, 2017 issue of the Bulletin.

Previously in the series:

Ezekiel Hart, 1767-1843

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