Canadian billionaire real estate developer, philanthropist and Zionist David Azrieli, who transformed the Tel Aviv skyline with his Azrieli Center, who was the first to erect shopping malls in Israel, and who gave upward of $100 million to various causes, died July 9 in Montreal at the age of 92.
Azrieli, the founder and controlling shareholder of the Israeli real estate developer Azrieli Group, remained in his position until his company announced last week that he had stepped down due to failing health.
Known also as the “Mall Man from Montreal,” his company owns more than a dozen shopping malls in Israel, including Tel Aviv’s Azrieli Center, as well as office building and subsidiaries in the energy, water and environment industries. The company also owns 20 per cent of the credit card company Leumi Card and nearly five per cent holdings in Bank Leumi Le Israel Ltd.
His net worth is estimated at $3 billion.
Frederick Lowy, former president of Concordia University, told The CJN 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 recent years in Israel is quite remarkable. His signature towers in Tel Aviv are quite remarkable.”
He said Azrieli’s love for Israel and Judaism, as well as his love and gratitude toward Canada were “unrivaled.”
“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 Center that I hope to contribute something of myself to Israel. In short, it is my testimony of the love for and commitment to Israel.”
Myer Bick, the president of the Jewish General Hospital Foundation in Montreal, said he first met Azrieli in the 1970s through their mutual involvement in Zionist causes.
“We’ve been friends and colleagues since then. Starting in 1989, I worked with him in his business until 2001,” Bick recalled.
“For me, he was a mentor, one could even say a father figure. He was a tough guy. He was very focused on what he wanted to accomplish.”
Adding another outstanding element to Azrieli’s success story is the fact 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.
The Azrieli Towers in Tel Aviv
Through the Azrieli Foundation, he contributed funds to promote causes including, Holocaust commemoration and education, scientific 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.
Canadian Jewish leaders praised Azrieli's contribution to Jewish life in both Canada and Israel.
David Koschitzky, chair of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, said 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.”
B'nai Brith Canada CEO Frank Dimant said that, “Having known and worked with David personally on many causes important to the Jewish community, I can attest to the fact that he will be remembered not only as a great Canadian and influential Jewish leader, but as a caring and generous father.”
Lowy said that despite his countless accomplishments, Azrieli was never boastful.
“He was a loving man, close to his family and very supportive of them. He is a real loss to Canada, and to Israel and to the Jewish community here, both in Montreal and elsewhere in Canada,” Lowy said.
“I think he educated and mentored his children who I am sure will continue his legacy and fulfil his ultimate vision,” Bick added.
After his July 11 funeral in Montreal, he was to be buried in Israel.
With files from JTA