"That is why it is so important to keep the family stories of the past fresh, and to connect the younger generation to them. It was so meaningful for me to be able, in 2015, together with one of my children, to visit Ataki, the small town in Moldova from where my great grandparents emigrated to Canada in 1889."
Interviewed by Limmud FSU Canada country director, Mila Voihanski, and one of the prominent organisation's activists, Dan Petrenko, Bronfman recalled how, during the visit, which took place within the framework of a Limmud FSU event in Moldova, they found the cemetery where his ancestors were buried. "Seeing the town gave me some of idea of what it was like for my family 150 years ago and helped me understand the courage my great grandparents had to get up and leave. That takes more guts than I think I have."
Founded in 2005 by Chaim Chesler and Sandy Cahn, Limmud FSU generally mounts peer-led, volunteer-based gatherings of Jewish learning that specifically reach out to Russian-speaking Jews around the world, from Moscow to the US West Coast, and from Europe to Israel. Since the corona lockdown has made physical conferences impossible, Limmud FSU International and the volunteer organizing committees in various countries have been providing digital e-learning opportunities on Jewish, general – and coronavirus – topics. These online gatherings are an opportunity for Russian-speaking Jews to learn – and be – together, virtually.
Bronfman, chair of Limmud FSU's International Steering Committee, was one of Limmud FSU's first supporters – he recalled during the online session how he was first approached by Chesler at a World Jewish Congress gathering in Cordoba in 2004 and asked to help launch Limmud FSU, something of which at the time he had never heard, but which perhaps resonated with him because of his father's cardinal role in opening the gates of the then USSR for free emigration for Soviet Jews. "My father, Edgar Bronfman, who was then president of the World Jewish Congress, delivered a letter from Shimon Peres, at the time Israel's prime minister, to Mikhail Gorbachev, leader of the Soviet Union calling on him to allow Soviet Jews to leave."
Bronfman père, recalled his son proudly, was guided by "a great sense, one he instilled in his children, of how fortunate and privileged he was. He had a steely determined view that his mission was to make the world a better place for the Jewish people. When he became president of the World Jewish Congress, he resigned from all his other charitable positions, and focused his energies on bringing Jews together." This commitment is the philanthropic approach that continues to guide Matthew Bronfman: "I believe in a higher power and I give thanks every day for all that I have. I have the resources and inclination to do things for others and I try to give something back."
On the issue of Soviet Jewry, noted Bronfman, his father had two guiding principles. "He was determined that those Jews who chose to stay behind in the USSR would have the freedom to practice their religion and express their identity; and he was insistent that those who chose to leave had the right to decide where they wanted to resettle. He did not believe that all Soviet Jews had to move to Israel."
Perhaps Bronfman's involvement in Limmud FSU is a continuation of that legacy? "What keeps me coming back to Limmud FSU is to see people engaged, in the lectures and in the hallways. The joy, the pride they take from being there. Limmud FSU is a spark to Jewish engagement which we hope will help stop assimilation. To date we have impacted 70,000 Russian-speaking Jews, and I hope in the years to come we can touch another 70,000, and that we can do it together with a new generation of leaders who will emerge to help support our work, so that we can sit back as the leaders emeritus."