Visionary builder, businessman, and philanthropist
It is with deep sadness that we announce that David J. Azrieli, C.M., C.Q., M.Arch., visionary builder, developer and businessman, community leader, philanthropist and devoted Zionist, died peacefully today surrounded by his family in his country house in Ivry-sur-le-Lac, Quebec. He was 92.
Born in Maków-Mazowiecki, Poland in 1922, David Azrieli was the second of four children of Sara-Chaya (née Gerwer) and Rafael Hirsch Azrylewicz. In September 1939, he escaped the Nazi occupation of his hometown by moving eastward into Soviet-occupied Poland. When Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, he fled further east always managing to stay just one step ahead of the Nazis. David Azrieli’s travels in the Soviet Union took him to Gomel, Stalingrad, Ulyanovsk, Tashkent and Bukhara. In the fall of 1942, he joined the Polish “Anders” Army in Bukhara and moved with them into Iran and then to Baghdad. There he made contact with two young representatives of the Haganah – Moshe Dayan and Enzo Sereni – and was recruited to work for the Zionist cause. He reached British Mandate Palestine in late 1942. He studied at Technion – Israel Institute of Technology from 1943-1946, and served in the Seventh Brigade during Israel’s 1948 War of Independence, taking part in the Latrun campaign during the siege of Jerusalem. In 1946, David Azrieli learned that, of his family, only one brother had survived the Holocaust.
David Azrieli moved to Montreal in 1954, where he earned his Bachelor of Arts from the Université de Montréal (Thomas More Institute). He launched his career in design, real estate development and property management in 1957 with the modest construction of four duplexes in Montreal. Today, his unparalleled success in building and design can be seen in imaginative office towers, hotels and shopping centres in Canada, the United States and Israel.
David Azrieli founded Canpro Investments Ltd. in Montreal in the early 1960s, at first focusing on developing high-rise residential buildings and, in 1967, building the 250-room Hotel des Artistes that housed the musicians and other artists who performed at Expo ’67. Following his success there, he moved on to bigger commercial projects, designing his first shopping centre in 1969. Taking what one critic called an “agile” architectural approach that combined cleverness and aesthetics, throughout the 1970s he developed commercial centres in southern Ontario and eventually built the largest shopping mall in the National Capital Region, Les Promenades de L’Outaouais in Gatineau. David Azrieli’s business endeavours were underscored by a genuine love for the properties he created. As he once said, “I always loved the particular building I was working on at the time. This may be why I was always very conservative and never extended myself by trying to do many projects at the same time.” Today, Canpro actively manages a portfolio of properties that includes the Dominion Square building and the Sofitel Hotel in downtown Montreal.
In the early 1980s, David Azrieli decided to bring what he had learned about construction, design and development to Israel. In 1985, he opened Israel’s first enclosed shopping centre in Ramat Gan – the Canion Ayalon – setting off a revolution in the finance and retailing industry in the country. From there, David built a shopping mall in Beer Sheva in 1990, in Jerusalem in 1993, and in 1998 he forever changed the Tel Aviv skyline when he opened the Azrieli Center – an iconic and striking landmark that is the largest mixed-use commercial complex in the Middle East. In 2010, David Azrieli completed the largest initial public offering on the Tel Aviv stock exchange. The Azrieli Group now owns and manages over 13 shopping centers and is the largest commercial and office real estate company in Israel.
David Azrieli’s unparalleled professional success in both Canada and Israel mirrored his deep love and devotion to both countries. “I have two homelands,” he once said, “two places I love and where I have been blessed to do what I love best. My opportunity to express myself professionally started in Canada and eventually let me fulfill my dream of making a contribution to my other homeland, Israel. The two have always been entwined.” David Azrieli was National President of the Canadian Zionist Federation in the 1980s and, throughout his life, was an active leader in the Jewish community and in many organizations related to Israeli educational institutions.
David Azrieli has been a strong supporter and believer in education and continuing education. This can be seen not only in his philanthropic pursuits but also in his personal journey. He earned a Master’s degree in Architecture at Carleton University in Ottawa in 1997 at the age of 75.
David Azrieli was a committed and visionary philanthropist. As he once notably said, “I believe that successful people should give back to the community. When I say give back to the community it is not only money, it is also time and involvement. You must give with your heart and in such a way that one believes it is going to make a difference.” Personally and through the Azrieli Foundation (Canada-Israel), he generously supported numerous initiatives, most notably in the fields of education, architecture and design, Holocaust education, developmental disabilities, scientific and medical research and the arts.
Of his many philanthropic initiatives, he was particularly proud of the Azrieli Institute for Educational Empowerment, a program aimed at empowering Israeli youth at risk of dropping out by closing educational gaps, instilling social skills and providing parents with tools for improving family relationships, and the Azrieli Fellows Program, which offers generous fellowships for graduate and post-doctoral studies at Israeli universities. The Azrieli Foundation also publishes the Azrieli Series of Holocaust Survivor Memoirs – an award-winning series of memoirs written by Holocaust survivors who came to Canada after the war. The Program was inspired by his own experiences. The latest initiative of the Foundation is a generous granting program that supports advanced research on neurodevelopmental disorders. David Azrieli’s philanthropic legacy through the Azrieli Foundation will continue in perpetuity. Today, it is one of the largest foundations in Canada and Israel, providing millions of dollars of grants every year.
David Azrieli was a benefactor of many educational institutions, among them Yeshiva University, Concordia University, Tel Aviv University, Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, Carleton University, Shenkar College of Art and Design and the Weizmann Institute of Science. As he said in 2007, “I have been fortunate to be able to take what I have learned, earned and amassed and used it to help others. This is my vision: to be able to use the tangible rewards of my career in building and construction to create a legacy for education and educational institutions in both of my two homelands.” David Azrieli has also been a patron of many art and community organizations, including Yad Vashem, The Jerusalem Foundation, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, the Israel Museum, the Tel Aviv Museum and the Miriam Foundation of Montreal.
Among the many awards and honours David received in recognition of his good works and professional achievements, are: the Order of Canada, l’Ordre Nationale du Québec, Honorary Trustee (“Ne’eman”) of the City of Jerusalem, and honorary doctorates from Concordia University, Yeshiva University, Carleton University, Tel Aviv University and Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, and the Weizmann Institute of Science.
An avid reader of newspapers, lover of classical music, Israeli songs and long walks on cold winter days, David collected Judaica and art throughout his life. His significant collection of Israeli paintings has been displayed at the Tel Aviv and Haifa Museums.
Beloved husband of Stephanie Lefcort for 57 years, loving father, father-in-law and grandfather of Rafi Azrieli; Sharon Azrieli Perez, Avi Perez, Matthew and Solomon Azrieli; Naomi Azrieli, François Blanc, Joseph, Gabriel and Madeleine; Danna Azrieli, Danny Hakim, Galia and Ella. David will be truly missed by all of us who loved him so dearly.
David Azrieli’s deepest belief was that “Genuine freedom is being able to do what you love to do. If you have to spend your life doing things you don’t love to do, you are no better than a slave. This then, is my message: do what you love to do.”
A touching tribute by our good friend Gil Troy can be found in today’s Times of Israel.