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Wednesday, October 1, 2014

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The genius behind Tel Aviv’s towers

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In Tel Aviv on March 22, hundreds of Israelis gathered at Israel’s Tel Aviv Exhibition-Gardens to honour the great Israeli-Canadian entrepreneur David Azrieli.

At 90 years young, David still dazzles, making his mark in business and philanthropy. The man who brought the indoor mall to Israel – and coined the term for it, kanyon – continues to initiate projects while setting new standards in charitable giving in Canada and Israel.

David is of that extraordinary Holocaust generation that not only survived, not only thrived in the New World, but improved it. Born in Poland in 1922 as David Azrylewicz, he escaped into Russia, survived getting shot, and eventually took the land route into Palestine, aided by another legendary figure, Moshe Dayan. After studying at the Technion, he fought during the War of Independence, travelled abroad and arrived in Canada in 1954. While working as a melamed, a Hebrew-school teacher, he entered the wild world of real estate. One of those successful, hardworking, driven, visionary tycoons who makes it look easy – but outlasted many others who failed – he built an empire in Canada, the United States and Israel.

Along the way, David also built a beautiful family with his amazing wife, Stephanie, and four extraordinary children – my prejudice as a family friend shines through – while giving back as a community leader, heading the Canadian Zionist movement for many years. David has always proudly proclaimed himself a Zionist, embodying the Zionist values of self-reliance, forward-thinking and constructive action. An avid art collector, David is now applying his endless energy and broad vision to the world of charitable giving. News reports when the Azrieli Group in Israel went public estimated that he and his family may contribute one billion dollars to his foundation.

Successful philanthropy requires spending money intelligently, not just giving it generously. Two of the Azrieli Foundation’s signature projects prove that the insight that made David Israel’s Master Builder is now helping him to become the Jewish world’s Great Strategic Giver. In 2001, he published his memoirs, with his co-author and daughter, Danna Azrieli, as One Step Ahead: David J. Azrieli (Azrylewicz): Memoirs, 1939-1950. The experience proved so meaningful for him and his family that he decided to help others produce quality memoirs, too. The Azrieli Foundation Holocaust Survivor Memoirs Program now humanizes the Holocaust victims “one story at a time,” allowing survivors without David’s resources to share their legacy with their heirs.

Similar empathy and creativity is being used to fight the problem of high school dropouts in Israel. When briefed about the challenges of keeping kids in school, David asked the critical question – when do we lose them? He discovered that most high school dropouts are “born,” if you will, in the frustrations of junior high. As a result, the Azrieli Institute for Educational Empowerment has created a network of community centres in Be’er Sheva and elsewhere that assist young, overwhelmingly poor learners early in the educational process, so they can feel good about themselves entering high school.

Beyond the headlines, I have had the pleasure of knowing David as a loving family man, a warm presence, a sophisticated analyst, a probing conversationalist. Sixteen and a half years ago, when I was far more familiar with his reputation as a tough businessman than with his gentle scholarly soul, my wife – who grew up with his daughters – and I introduced him to our oldest daughter, who was about four months old then. David zeroed in on her, engaged her with his delighted smile, whipped out a camera, snapped off a roll of pictures, popped the film out of camera and gave it to us.  I had simply never seen a 74-year-old gush so much over a baby, nor had anyone simply handed me a roll of film like that before – in the pre-digital era, it was simply not done.

Whenever I drive into Tel Aviv, I am entranced by the three tall, sleek towers David built, which have become, surveys tell us, among Israel’s most defining icons. I marvel at their modernity, at the pioneering spirit behind them, at the constructive, entrepreneurial Zionism they epitomize. And I cherish the private moments my family and I have shared with the genius behind the towers, a modern-day David demonstrating the same reach, ambition and joyous abandon for which that great ancient king was known.

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