Six years ago, I had lunch with Edgar Bronfman, along with the Samuel Bronfman Foundation’s executive director, Dana Raucher, at the Four Seasons in New York. The dining area was quiet and empty, and I was nervous. Dana whispered to me, “There’s Barbara Walters. Don’t look.”
I was there to tell Edgar how much it meant to me to have learned just six months earlier that in the early 1970s, as CEO of Seagram, he had stood up for a gay employee.
As I’d learned, one of his senior executives had approached him back then to recommend that this employee be terminated. When Edgar asked why, the executive replied, “Well, you know, he’s a homosexual.”
Edgar’s response? “You’re fired.”
This happened in the 1970’s when anti-gay sentiments were commonplace. Now, many years later, I did my best to emphasize to Edgar the significance of his refusal to tolerate homophobia in his company then.
With his eyebrows raised over his Arnold Palmer drink of iced tea and lemonade, Edgar looked at me incredulously and said, “How else should I have responded?” He shrugged and returned to his Caesar salad.
To Edgar, human decency was intuitive. It was obvious and unremarkable.
Edgar’s commitment to equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people is one of the lesser-known aspects of his legacy, but it helped shift the discourse in the American Jewish community and beyond. Years after our meeting at the Four Seasons, I understand how Edgar’s integrity, moral conscience, and belief in human dignity have animated a Jewish world I call home.
Idit Klein, a 1989 BYFI fellow, is the executive director and founder of Keshet, a Boston-based organization that works for the full inclusion of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Jews in Jewish life.