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David Azrieli’s foundation donated an estimated $100-million since its founding in 1989, underwriting initiatives in education, architecture and design, scientific and medical research, and the arts. (ISRAEL HADARI)
David Azrieli’s foundation donated an estimated $100-million since its founding in 1989, underwriting initiatives in education, architecture and design, scientific and medical research, and the arts. (ISRAEL HADARI)

obituary

Mall Man from Montreal David Azrieli brought American-style shopping to Israel Add to ...

It took an adroit grasp of Hebrew to come up with a term for what David Azrieli was building in Israel. Like earlier pioneers of the revived tongue who had to create words for “airplane” and “automobile” for use in the modern Jewish state, Mr. Azrieli pondered a name for his gleaming creation, the country’s first enclosed, American-style shopping mall. Israelis were more used to shopping at small, stand-alone stores or chains; a sprawling, air-conditioned mall complete with cinemas, banks, restaurants and piped-in Muzak was a foreign concept. So when it opened in the city of Ramat Gan in 1985, Mr. Azrieli, a one-time Hebrew teacher, dubbed his 25,000-square-metre edifice “Canion Ayalon.” Ayalon was the name of a nearby valley, and canion was a word he coined by clumping together two Hebrew words: koneh, to buy, and chanayah, to park.

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“I felt strongly that we should have a Hebrew word,” Mr. Azrieli explained in a biography prepared by his family for his 85th birthday. “Perhaps this is part of my attention to detail.” He compared his insistence on using the vernacular with Quebec’s zeal to protect French, though he felt that campaign had been “carried to extremes.”

The mall was a roaring success and transformed retailing in Israel (for the worse, charged those who rued the shift to Western consumerism). Mr. Azrieli went on to build 12 more enclosed malls in the country in the ensuing years, with yet more to come. To this day, Israeli teens hang out at the kenyon (a version of Mr. Azrieli’s canion).

A hard-charging, soft-spoken real-estate tycoon who fought for the fledging Jewish state and gave away millions in philanthropic endeavours, Mr. Azrieli died at his country home in Quebec’s Laurentians on July 9 at the age of 92. After building office towers, high-rise residences, hotels and shopping centres in Canada, the United States and Israel, he remained chairman of Tel Aviv-based Azrieli Group Ltd., one of the largest commercial and office real-estate companies in Israel, until a week before his death, when he stepped down.

“I have always wanted to be a builder,” he said in a 1988 magazine profile. “I was always drawing and sketching. Of all the arts, architecture influences people every day. It’s very humanistic.”

The self-made billionaire was a “Donald Trump-type developer with Trump’s splash and vision tempered by Jewish values and Zionist altruism,” blogged his friend, McGill University professor Gil Troy. “His story is Israel’s story, a redemptive tale of building an old-new land as sleek and modern as many but uniquely soulful and traditional.”

Among those is Azrieli Center in Tel Aviv, which was the largest shopping centre and business complex in Tel Aviv when it opened in 1988. Its three sleek office towers dominate the city’s skyline but retain a whimsical, almost childlike character, as one structure is a cylinder, one is triangular and one square.

Known widely in Israel as the Mall Man from Montreal, Mr. Azrieli also held interests in the energy, water, banking and environment sectors, through his company. With a net worth of $3.1-billion, he was ranked the 12th-wealthiest Canadian by Forbes this year.

“David was very sharp. He always loved to talk business,” Mitch Goldhar, owner of Toronto-based shopping-centre developer SmartCentres, told The Globe’s Bertrand Marotte. “He had good radar, predicting where things were going. He stepped up on many investments where others were going the other way.”

On May 10, 1922, he was born David Joshua Azrylewicz in the Polish town of Makow-Mazowiecki, the second of four children. His father was a prosperous clothing designer and manufacturer, and both parents were ardent Zionists. Three days after the Nazis invaded Poland in September, 1939, Mr. Azrieli and a younger brother fled eastward, hoping to escape the fate of an older brother who had been forced to join a work brigade. The train Mr. Azrieli was riding was strafed by German planes four times; a bullet travelled through his arm and killed the man huddled next to him.

At just 17, Mr. Azrieli settled for a while in the Soviet-occupied city of Bialystok, where he completed high school. Further flights took him to the Uzbek republic where, in Bukhara in late 1942, he joined the Polish Armed Forces in the East, known as the Anders Army, whose plans were to move from Iran through Iraq and on to the teen’s longed-for destination, Palestine.

But in the fog of war, the plans went awry, and Mr. Azrieli decided to make a dash for the Holy Land himself. From Iran, he reached Iraq with his brother Adam, who had travel orders for Baghdad. Disguised as an Arab villager, Mr. Azrieli bribed an official and rode the train to the Iraqi capital. Lacking a passport, he dodged guards by disembarking at stops then scampering back aboard into another car.

Once in Baghdad, he hooked up with two members of the Haganah, the Jewish paramilitary group (one was the future eye-patched general, Moshe Dayan). “'Suddenly, Dayan burst through the door, muddy and exhausted,” Mr. Azrieli later wrote in his memoirs, fittingly titled One Step Ahead. “He gave specific instructions on when and where to meet, and we left the hotel.'”

They arranged for the young man to be smuggled into British Mandate Palestine amid a shipment of arms hidden in coffins. After a five-day bus ride on bone-rattling roads, Mr. Azrieli finally arrived in late 1942. Years later, he discovered that of his family, only he and one brother had survived the Holocaust.

He also conceded how recklessly he had behaved, driven by his desire to reach Palestine and get away from the Nazis. “Desertion, in the middle of a war, would surely have led to my execution,” he would write. “I was foolish and young.”

He studied architecture at the Israel Institute of Technology but quit to fight in Israel’s War of Independence, serving in the storied Seventh Armored Brigade during the Battle for Jerusalem. After the war, he decamped for South Africa, where he taught Hebrew, then to England, New York and finally, Montreal, where he arrived in 1954 alone to work as an architect’s assistant. He would earn a bachelor’s degree from the University of Montreal while teaching Hebrew.

Pooling $3,000 in savings by 1957, he bought 10 lots of land to build four modest duplexes in a suburb, then sold all 10 lots. He never looked back. Mr. Azrieli founded Canpro Investments Ltd. in the early 1960s, focusing on developing high-rise residential buildings and building the Hotel des Artistes, which housed musicians and other artists who performed at Expo 67, according to the family charitable foundation’s online tribute.

But what still rankles many Montrealers was Mr. Azrieli’s role in the demolition of a landmark on Sherbrooke Street. In 1973, he purchased the historic Van Horne Mansion from the descendants of 19th-century railway magnate William Cornelius Van Horne, and planned to demolish it. There was public outcry, protests and even a credible offer from another developer to buy the century-old greystone.

Emboldened by the seeming indifference of government officials to the fate of the anglophone landmark, Mr. Azrieli went ahead and bulldozed the building, in the dead of night to avert protests. Montrealers awoke to a pile of rubble that eventually became the site of a concrete office tower and later a Sofitel hotel.

The episode sparked the creation of the heritage preservation group Save Montreal (now Héritage Montréal).

Though the mansion was razed more than 40 years ago, memories are long; a recent letter to the editor in the Montreal Gazette recalled two sardonic words hand-painted over the cornerstone plaque on the building that replaced the proud mansion: “Thanks, Dave.”

In an interview, Mr. Azrieli defended his actions, saying the mansion had not been classified as a heritage property and that the application to demolish it had been approved by the appropriate authorities.

“Everybody knows that I only purchased the land and not the building,” he said. “The heirs of Van Horne actually demolished it. The condition that I bought the land was the building should be torn down.”

The bad press continued when a 1994 Gazette article accused him of calling himself an architect when he wasn’t. “I never did call myself a licensed architect,” he retorted. “I never did sign plans officially.”

Three years later, he was granted a master’s degree in architecture at Carleton University at the age of 75. In 2008, the university renamed its architecture school the Azrieli School of Architecture in recognition of a $5.5-million gift from him. At least one professor publicly groused that Mr. Azrieli was unworthy of the honour, citing the Van Horne Mansion episode, while others grumbled that money had done the talking.

Mr. Azrieli was resigned to the blowback. “If you do things,” he told the Ottawa Citizen, “then you’re subject to criticism.”

His better-known Canadian projects included the largest shopping mall in the National Capital Region, Les promenades Gatineau (originally called Les promenades de l’Outaouais). He was inducted into the Order of Canada in 1984 and the Ordre National du Québec in 1999.

“He combined a number of things that resulted in his success,” said Myer Bick, president of the Jewish General Hospital Foundation in Montreal, who knew Mr. Azrieli for 30 years. “He had complete, enormous confidence in himself, in his judgment. He also was a risk-taker, ready to shoot the dice, which he did many times in his career and came out smelling like roses.”

Mr. Azrieli’s namesake foundation has doled out an estimated $100-million since its founding in 1989, underwriting initiatives in education, architecture and design, scientific and medical research, and the arts. Among the projects it supported was the Institute for Educational Empowerment, a program aimed at Israeli youth at risk, and the Holocaust Survivor Memoirs Program, established in 2005. To date, it has published 48 volumes of survivors’ recollections – 28 in English and 20 in French. An additional nine titles are scheduled for release this autumn.

“In telling these stories, the writers have liberated themselves,” Mr. Azrieli felt. “For so many years we did not speak about it, even when we became free people living in a free society. Now, when at last we are writing about what happened to us in this dark period of history, knowing that our stories will be read and live on, it is possible for us to feel truly free.”

In 2011, the foundation donated $5-million to Concordia University, in Montreal, to establish the Azrieli Institute of Israel Studies. “He was a formidable person, very strong-minded,” noted the institute’s associate director, Norma Joseph. “And he used his mind for a wonderful vision of community and building.”

Later in life, he divided his time between Canada and Israel. “I have two homelands,” he once said, “two places I love and where I have been blessed to do what I love best.”

Loving what one does is “genuine freedom,” he said. “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.”

He is survived by his wife of 57 years, Stephanie (née Lefcourt), children Rafael, Sharon, Naomi and Danna, and seven grandchildren. He was buried on July 14 in a cemetery on Jerusalem’s Mount of Olives.

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