Edgar Bronfman
President Clinton awards the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States' highest civilian honor, to Edgar Bronfman. Photo by AP
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Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and President Shimon Peres paid tribute to Edgar Bronfman at a public memorial service Tuesday night.

More than 1,000 people, including top Jewish communal leaders and alumni of the Bronfman Youth Fellowship program, turned out for the service held at Lincoln Center in New York.

Bronfman, who took over the family’s Seagram beverage empire and served as president of the World Jewish Congress, died in December at 84.

Clinton hailed Bronfman as a “champion for justice and human dignity,” recalling among other things his fight to secure restitution from Swiss banks for Holocaust victims and their relatives. She drew laughs as she recounted her personal run-ins with his sharp wit and outspokenness.

In a videotaped message, Peres praised Bronfman for his willingness to defend Jewish rights around the world, while also speaking out against things that troubled him in his own community.

Other speakers included sons Samuel Bronfman II, Edgar Bronfman Jr., and Matthew Bronfman; grandson Jeremy Bronfman; Dana Raucher, the executive director of The Samuel Bronfman Foundation; and Rabbi Andy Bachman, the religious leader of Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn and a participant in Bronfman’s Torah study groups.

Another of Bronfman’s favorite rabbis, Angela Warnick Buchdal, opened and closed the service with a melody associated with the Havdalah ceremony marking the end of Shabbat.

Samuel Bronfman II choked up as he recalled his own kidnapping nearly 40 years ago and his father’s response. In particular, he said, he was moved by his father’s willingness to meet the kidnappers’ demand that he personally deliver the ransom money – despite being advised against it by law enforcement officials.

Matthew Bronfman reflected on his father’s time as president of the WJC, including the battles against the Swiss Banks and his fight to expose the Nazi past of Kurt Waldheim. He recalled his father’s willingness, at a meeting in the Kremlin, to interrupt a long-winded Mikhail Gorbachev in order to move the discussion to the cause of Soviet Jewry.

Echoing several speakers, Edgar Bronfman Jr. described his father as interested in getting things done, with little patience for small talk or idle speculation. To hammer home the point, he recalled his father’s response to a Soviet diplomat who asked how history would have been different had Soviet President Nikita Khrushchev been assassinated instead of President John F. Kennedy.

“Well,” he quoted his father as saying, “Mr. Onassis would not have married Mrs. Khrushchev.”