Charles Bronfman warns of ‘rift’ between Diaspora and Israel

From left, Claudine, Stephen, Charles and Rita Bronfman pose for a photo in front of the dedication plaque for the Charles R. Bronfman Peace Garden in Federation CJA’s courtyard in Montreal.

Businessman and philanthropist Charles Bronfman is warning of a widening rift between the Diaspora and Israel that can only be reversed if each recognizes that their strength depends on the other.

“We have to decide if we have a future together, or, God forbid, want to go our own ways. We must be one Jewish people, now and forever,” said Bronfman at the 101st annual general meeting of Federation CJA, which was held on Sept. 17 in Montreal. “United we stand, divided we fall.”

Three actions taken by Israel over the past year have deepened the gulf, Bronfman said, citing the suspension of the egalitarian prayer section at the Western Wall, the rabbinical high court’s invalidation of certain Diaspora rabbis’ conversions and, most recently, the adoption of the so-called nation-state law.

He added that declaring Congregation Shaar Hashomayim’s Rabbi Adam Scheier “not kosher enough is a true shanda.”

“Can a prime minister really claim to be a guardian of the entire Jewish people when he reneges on a carefully crafted agreement, which took over four years to evolve, knowing that he will suffer no political consequences at home?” he asked.

Bronfman does admire Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, who recognizes Diaspora Jews as the “fifth tribe,” on par with the main segments of Israeli society: the secular, modern Orthodox, haredim and Arabs.


Young Jews, Bronfman believes, do not have the same attachment to Israel as earlier generations.

No Jew under 60 has heard the demeaning insults Jews of his generation remember before the State of Israel existed, he said, nor does the younger generation understand “the miracle of Israel’s rebirth,” as well as the sacrifices and tragedies that made it possible.

Bronfman said his generation’s commitment to Israel was rooted in the conviction that the Jewish state was akin to David, standing up to the Arab Goliath.

“Now that Israel is strong militarily and economically, the tables have turn in perception, and perception is reality,” he said.

Bronfman said he created Birthright Israel with Michael Steinhardt 18 years ago, so that young diaspora Jews and their Israeli peers could dispel the stereotypes they might have about each other.

Bronfman thinks the Montreal Jewish community can play a leading role in promoting Jewish unity because its has closer ties to Israel than many American communities do.

We have to decide if we have a future together, or, God forbid, want to go our own ways.
– Charles Bronfman

Bronfman, who was the Federation’s president from 1973-75, described the Montreal Jewish community as remarkable, saying he finds it just as strong as it was when he headed the organization, despite the difficulties it has had to overcome.

Elsewhere at the meeting, Federation president David Amiel stressed that the organization must adapt to “the changing face of the community,” and strive to include all Jews.

He said that the community must also address the fact that some synagogues are “nearly empty,” and the enrolment at certain Jewish schools is in “precarious decline,” while others flourish. Furthermore, the cost of “living Jewishly” is becoming prohibitively expensive for some, he said.

Federation CEO Yair Szlak concurred, saying that that the community is “more diverse than ever,” and millennials “do not relate to the organized community,” as previous generations did.

“There is no longer a traditional way of being Jewish,” he said. “We know there is no longer a typical Montreal Jew.”

One of the ways the Federation is responding to this trend is with a program called Passport to Jewish Life, which was launched this spring with a $30-million endowed fund. The goal is to “create a holistic, lifelong model of engagement for all members of the Montreal Jewish community.”

This money was secured through the Federation’s centennial campaign last year, which generated over $400 million in endowment commitments.

Brenda Urman Gewurz, centre, accepts the Samuel Bronfman Medal at Federation CJA’s 101st annual general meeting. She is joined by, from left, Federation CEO Yair Szlak, president David Amiel as well as Charles and Stephen Bronfman.

Brenda Urman Gewurz, who was presented with the Samuel Bronfman Medal by Stephen Bronfman, echoed the same sentiments.

“This community’s tent has to be opened wide, with multiple points of entry. That is key to our future,” she said.

The medal is the Federation’s most prestigious award for extraordinary service and leadership to the Jewish community.

Among numerous volunteer roles, Gewurz served as president of both the Jewish Community Foundation of Montreal and the Bronfman Jewish Education Centre, and is currently a vice-president of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs.

Jonathan Goodman, the general chair of the 2018 Combined Jewish Appeal campaign, reported that, to date, a total of $25.7 million has been raised. The campaign officially concludes in November.