Saidye Bronfman, matriarch of Canadian Jewry, dies at 98

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MONTREAL — Saidye Rosner Bronfman, mother of one of North America's best-known Jewish families and matriarch of Canadian Jewry, has died here at the age of 98.

The widow of the late industrialist and philanthropist Samuel Bronfman died in her sleep Friday of last week.

For her funeral ceremony on Sunday, more than 2,000 people crowded the theatrical center that bears her name. Bronfman's children donated the Saidye Bronfman Centre — affectionately called "The Saidye" — to the community in 1968.

Among the mourners was Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien.

Throughout her life, Bronfman was a benefactor and committed supporter of Israel and many other causes.

In her hometown of Plum Coulee, Manitoba, Bronfman's well-to-do parents taught her good manners and Jewish ethics, and she turned these into a fabled existence.

After her marriage on June 20, 1922, she moved with her husband to Montreal. There, Samuel, a former bootlegger, founded the Seagram's empire.

Four children followed, all of whom became prominent and respected players on the Jewish and international scenes. Bronfman's children are Edgar Miles Bronfman, chairman of Seagram Company Ltd. and president of the World Jewish Congress; Charles Rosner Bronfman, co-chairman of Seagram's and founder-president of the Montreal-based CRB Foundation; architect Phyllis Barbara Lambert, founder of the Canadian Centre for Architecture; and the late Aileen Minda de Gunzburg, who married a baron.

At the funeral, mourners filling three halls sat in sadness, awe and respect as Bronfman was eulogized.

The theater, in which her casket rested, was reserved for family and close friends, while two auditoriums seated members of the public, who witnessed the proceedings on large screens.

About 1,000 people gathered outside the building, located next to the YM-YWHA that Bronfman had generously supported.

Eulogies were tendered by two rabbis and daughter Phyllis Lambert, along with three of Bronfman's grandchildren, who were an important part of her life.

She had 11 grandchildren and 18 great-grandchildren.

"She was the unifying figure in the family," said grandson Charles de Gunzburg. "For us here today, it's like a page of history that's turned, an era that's over."

Granddaughter Ellen Bronfman Hauptman flew in from Asia for the funeral. "She was so sweet and caring, yet could be tough as nails," Hauptman said of her grandmother.

"She was the wisest woman I have ever known. Granny wasn't afraid to say what was on her mind.

"She was a true matriarch," Hauptman added. "She knew how important it was for us to stay together as a family."

Hauptman called Bronfman an "old-fashioned woman, yet stylish and progressive."

And grandson Samuel Bronfman II, named after his late grandfather, spoke of the great, legendary love affair between Samuel and Saidye.

"Saidye, Saidye, special lady," he intoned. "Today for us is a celebration of a special life, one that was as [great] as it was long.

"She was so committed to the Jewish people, here, in Israel and the diaspora. It is no coincidence that her four children have done so much for humankind."

Bronfman's efforts and actions on behalf of numerous charities and causes won her worldwide acclaim.

Both Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres sent personal condolence notes to the family.

Also in attendance at the funeral was the new Canadian ambassador to Israel, David Berger.

Recognition of Bronfman's efforts dates back many years. In 1943, after she established a Jewish branch of the Canadian Red Cross Society, Britain's King George VI bestowed upon her the title of officer of the Order of the British Empire — the OBE

In 1968, State of Israel Bonds named her its first-ever Woman of the Year.

In 1974, Israel's then-Prime Minister Golda Meir presented Bronfman with the Prime Minister's Medal for her service in the cause of Israel's development.

And in 1982 the Canadian Jewish Congress granted Bronfman its Samuel Bronfman Medal, presented in the name of her late husband to honor men and women who gave of themselves to improve the community.

Until her death, Bronfman was honorary president of Montreal's Jewish federation, Federation CJA, as well as honorary president of the Samuel and Saidye Bronfman Family Foundation.

She also worked on behalf of the Winnipeg Jewish Orphans' Home, the Women's Division of Montreal's Combined Jewish Appeal, ORT, National Council of Jewish Women, Hadassah-WIZO of Canada, Canada-Israel Cultural Foundation and Save the Children Fund.

Her passing affects community members of all ages and walks of life, including those who never knew her personally.

Retired schoolteacher Abraham Schwartzberg said: "She taught the public that Jewish women have a large role to play and she inspired them to move ahead. She replaced Sam a bit in people's hearts after he died, and [she] became very visible. She was very unique and we will all miss her very much."