In honour of Canada’s 150th birthday, The CJN presents 40 profiles of some of the most prominent Jewish Canadians throughout our history.
Canadian billionaire real estate developer, philanthropist and Zionist David J. Azrieli transformed the Tel Aviv skyline with his Azrieli Centre, was the first to erect shopping malls in Israel and gave upward of $100 million to various causes.
Azrieli was the founder and controlling shareholder of the Israeli real estate developer Azrieli Group.
Known also as the “Mall Man from Montreal,” his company owns more than a dozen shopping malls in Israel, including Tel Aviv’s Azrieli Centre, as well as other holdings, including 20 per cent of the credit card company Leumi Card and nearly five per cent of Bank Leumi Le Israel Ltd.
Frederick Lowy, former president of Concordia University, told The CJN in 2014 about his relationship with Azrieli, which began when the Azrieli Institute of Israel Studies was established at Concordia.
“There was a welcome donation of $5 million from the Azrieli Foundation. That, of course, brought me closer to him,” said Lowy, who later served as an Azrieli Foundation board member.
“He was a remarkable man. He was imaginative, but at the same time, he was a hard-headed businessman. What he built in Canada, the United States and … in Israel is quite remarkable. His signature towers in Tel Aviv are quite remarkable.”
He said that Azrieli’s love for Israel and Judaism, as well as his love and gratitude toward Canada, were “unrivalled.”
“He was grateful to Canada for allowing him to be what he became, and, of course, he was extremely grateful to Israel for the fulfilment of a Zionism that he had ever since he was a youngster,” Lowy said.
When Azrieli, who divided his time between Israel and Canada, spoke to The CJN in 1999 about this $400-million Azrieli Centre in Tel Aviv, which he then considered to be his “most significant and important project,” his love for Israel shone through.
“It has been the most fulfilling of all my projects, one in which I have invested all my experience and skills, and one which attests to the confidence I have in the future of Tel Aviv and Israel. It is through the Azrieli Centre that I hope to contribute something of myself to Israel. In short, it is my testimony of the love for and commitment to Israel,” he said.
Adding another outstanding element to Azrieli’s success story, is the fact that he was a Holocaust survivor and a veteran of Israel’s War of Independence.
Born in Poland in 1922 as David Azrylewicz, Azrieli escaped to Russia after the German invasion of Poland in 1939, when he was 17. His parents and two siblings died in the Holocaust, while another brother also managed to survive and find his way to Israel.
He began studying architecture at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, but put his degree on hold when he went to fight in the war in 1948. In 1954, he moved to Montreal, where he met his wife, Stephanie, had four children and launched his career and philanthropic endeavours.
Through the Azrieli Foundation, he contributed funds to promote numerous causes, including Holocaust education, science and medical research, and the arts.
In 2001, after he published his memoirs, titled One Step Ahead: David J. Azrieli (Azrylewicz): Memoirs, 1939-1950, with his co-author and daughter, Danna, he was inspired to help other survivors pen their own testimonies.
The Azrieli Foundation Holocaust Survivor Memoirs Program was founded in 2005 and has since published dozens of books.
David Koschitzky, immediate past chair of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, told The CJN in 2014 that “perhaps his most significant contribution was the creation of the Azrieli Foundation, which has sponsored a wide range of projects for the betterment of Canada, Israel and the Jewish community. He was a leading supporter of the Canadian Zionist Federation and served for many years on the board of the Canada-Israel Committee – one of the predecessors of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs. From the Jewish community’s perspective, we are enormously grateful for his remarkable work in the fields of Holocaust remembrance and building the Canada-Israel relationship.”
Azrieli passed away in July 2014, at the age of 92.