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Remembering community leader Leo Marcus

1998
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Leo Marcus with David Ben-Gurion

Few Jewish community professionals made as indelible a mark as Leo Marcus.

As the national executive director of United Israel Appeal of Canada and later as director general of UIA Canada in Jerusalem, he played critical roles in raising Israel’s profile in this country and in supporting distressed communities in the Jewish state.

In his posts, he formed a lasting friendship with the late Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin and enjoyed good relations with other Israeli leaders, including Abba Eban, David Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir and Moshe Dayan.

A persuasive speaker and gifted fundraiser, Marcus also knew the value of public relations: a search of his name in a Canadian ethnic and Jewish press database yields more than 350 mentions.

Later in life, he served as the national executive vice-president of Canadian Associates of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, a position he held until he finally retired at the age of 80.

Marcus died in Toronto on June 28. He was 86.

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“Two passions shaped dad’s life,” eulogized his son, Paul Marcus, who has also worked in the Jewish community. “His love of family and his love of Israel.”

Marcus was born in 1933 in Belleville, Ont., the youngest of six children of Max and Rita Marcus. One of just three Jews at his high school, he became president of the Young Judaea youth movement, which connected kids from across Canada and was especially important for those living in small communities, Paul Marcus said.

In 1951, Marcus was one of six Young Judaeans chosen for a year of study in Israel, as part of the group’s inaugural Machon program. In 1953, he married Hilda Silver, a Windsor, Ont., native he met at a Young Judaea convention in Montreal.

Still a young man, he became executive director of the Zionist Organization of Canada and of UIA for British Columbia, Vancouver-based posts he held for 15 years. Following successful fundraising campaigns during the Six-Day War, he was offered the position of national director of UIA Canada and moved his family to Montreal.

Leo Marcus

He played a key role in Project Renewal, a joint program between UIA Canada and the government of Israel that supported Israeli communities beset by poverty and crime. Those included the towns of Yerucham, Kiryat HaYovel and Or Yehuda. He also engaged in another fundraising campaign during the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

In 1979, Marcus and his wife moved to Israel, where he headed the UIA Canada office in Jerusalem. It was his 43rd visit to the country. Almost immediately, he effected change.

UIA Canada delegated the running of its three absorption centres in Ashdod, Ashkelon and Jerusalem to the Jewish Agency for Israel, and paid only maintenance costs. Marcus became hands-on when he convinced the Jewish Agency to buy more washing machines, after he discovered that at one centre, there was only one machine for every 300 newcomers.

“Marcus’ catchphrase of ‘I won’t accept’ means that he is not prepared to subvert human needs to bureaucratic tie-ups,” The CJN noted in a 1980 profile.

While in Israel, he also opened fundraising campaigns on behalf of South Africa and Australia.

But missing their children and grandchildren, the couple returned to Canada, where Marcus took over the Canadian Associates of Ben-Gurion University (CABGU) in 1987.

“He was an ardent Zionist, very committed to the job and devoted to BGU,” said Mark Mendelson, the CEO of CABGU. “He certainly raised the organization to a very respectable position.”

For Marcus, raising money wasn’t complicated. “The appeal,” he confided to The CJN, “is to the Jewish consciousness, no matter where you are.”

His father was “full of contrasts,” Paul Marcus recounted. “He was Zionist but not religious, and never joined a synagogue.… He was not religious, but lived a Jewish life.”

He was predeceased by his wife of 65 years by six weeks. He is survived by sons Dale, Gary and Paul, five grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

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