TORONTO — Morgan Freeman came, saw and charmed an audience at the Toronto Centre for the Arts gathered in support of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
The May 6 benefit gala, hosted by the Canadian Friends of Hebrew University (CFHU), raised some $2 million toward the university’s Institute for Medical Research Israel-Canada (IMRIC).
Guests at the event included Dr. Josephine Ojiambo, Kenya’s ambassador to the United Nations and a Hebrew U alumnus, and Dr. Amir Amedi, an IMRIC brain scientist, among others.
IMRIC conducts research into cancer and Alzheimer’s disease and related brain disorders through joint research between Hebrew U and Canadian partner institutions such as McGill University, the Rick Hansen Foundation and the University of Toronto.
Freeman, who was interviewed on stage by longtime friend and collaborator, Canadian director Paul Saltzman – the two worked together on the 2008 documentary Prom Night in Mississippi – thanked the crowd and the university for promoting knowledge and education.
The event was emceed by CBC Radio host Jian Ghomeshi, who added levity to the proceedings by recalling his youthful days growing up Persian-Muslim in Thornhill, Ont., surrounded by Jewish friends and neighbours, and infusing his repartee with the crowd with anecdotes from his upbringing.
Freeman said his decision to appear and receive CFHU’s Jake Eberts Key of Knowledge Award happened only because it wasn’t the usual generic “lifetime achievement” recognition ceremony he’s constantly asked to attend.
Instead, he said he felt that the award recognized the philanthropic work he’s passionate about, namely in the area of education.
Also, the award was recently renamed for Montreal-born Eberts, who produced and financed Driving Miss Daisy, Freeman’s breakout film, and who was another longtime friend of the actor.
Eberts’ son, David, and Hebrew U president Menahem Ben Sasson co-presented the award to Freeman.
Then David and Freeman embraced after an emotional speech during which the Ebert’s son broke down in tears while remembering his father.
“Once [Eberts’ widow] Fiona and Paul came to me to tell me about the award, I started to learn about the university, what it does and what it’s about,” he said.
Speaking to The CJN after the gala, Freeman said he’s yet to visit the university but would like to travel to Israel.
Asked when he plans to visit the Jewish state, Freeman said: “I don’t plan. I’m an opportunist. There is no place I would not like to go that I have not been.”
Asked how he felt when Ghomeshi praised him as a rare actor who is “resonant and relevant” to people of all ages and demographics, Freeman replied amusedly, “Holy s**t!
“Does he really think that? It did seem pretty sincere. I don’t think of myself in those terms, at all. To think that someone else does is a little intimidating. It’s like you’ve got another level to live up to.”
Freeman also spoke about his days growing up in segregated Greenwood, Miss., where he joked that his family couldn’t even be qualified as dirt poor – “because we had no dirt” – and his eventual move to New York, where he started to interact with Jews for the first time.
“Jews are white, so I wouldn’t have known any” in Greenwood, he said.
“I’m a big reader, and I read a lot about Jewish history and seen a lot of movies, of course. So, it’s not like I wasn’t cognizant of Jewish history. Getting to know Jewish families, getting involved… you just learn that people are people. Loving. Kind. Thoughtful. Generous. All the things you think of yourself.”
That Freeman agreed to take time from his packed schedule to be in Toronto for the event is in large part thanks to the tireless efforts of CFHU executive director Elan Divon, whose friendship with Saltzman gave access to the iconic actor.
Divon explained to The CJN that when his organization thought of how to promote Israel and the university and whom to award this year, they decided they wanted someone not Jewish who had massive appeal.
Divon suggested Freeman, both because of his celebrity status and also because of his “tremendous” philanthropic work in the fields of education and anti-racism, and set to work contacting Saltzman and tenaciously pursuing the Academy Award-winning actor.
The ceremony, Divon said, was “a tribute to an extraordinary actor and humanitarian. But it was also a tribute to all the educators, teachers and change makers of this world – people who get up every morning and believe they can make a difference.
“Yes, we raised a significant amount of money towards scientific and medical research at the Hebrew University, but our impact goes well beyond that,” Divon said. “By bringing together a Hollywood icon, a Kenyan ambassador and an Israeli scientist, we were able to demonstrate the universality of education, and what we can achieve when we invest in human capital and young minds.”
Along with proceeds from the event going toward funding the IMRIC, the Morgan Freeman Scholarship Fund will be established by Hebrew U to help international students studying in its public health and community medicine program.