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Naomi Azrieli runs her family’s charitable foundation, which recently gave $7-million to the Weizmann Institute of Science.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail/Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

The Donors: The Azrieli family

The Gift: $7-million

The Cause: The Weizmann Institute of Science

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The Reason: To finance systems biology research

A few years ago, billionaire developer David Azrieli set up a private foundation in Montreal and then asked his family a simple question: What do we want to do with it?

Mr. Azrieli was into his 80s at the time and he had spent decades building office towers, condominiums and shopping malls in Canada and Israel. Born in Poland, he lost most of his family during the Second World War and escaped the Holocaust by fleeing to Palestine in 1942. He eventually made his way to Montreal where he launched his career in the 1950s.

"He made a decision in 2001 that what he really wanted to do was philanthropy," said Mr. Azrieli's daughter, Naomi Azrieli, who runs the foundation out of Toronto. "We got together as a family in 2002. He said, 'Let's write a mission statement, let's decide what it is we want to do with this.'"

The family – Mr. Azrieli, his wife, Stephanie, and children Naomi, Rafael, Sharon and Danna – decided to focus on education and publishing the memoirs of Canadian Holocaust survivors.

"It's a fairly broad mission," said Ms. Azrieli, noting that the foundation has supported everything from literacy programs and efforts to stop school dropouts to high-tech scientific research.

The foundation recently made its largest donation to date, a $7-million gift to the Weizmann Institute of Science, an organization based in Israel with a Canadian branch. The Azrielis became intrigued with Weizmann's work on systems biology, a new form of research that combines the work of biologists, chemists, physicists, engineers, mathematicians and computer scientists.

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"When we learned that they wanted to really expand some of their work in this area, it really fit for us," Ms. Azrieli said.

The donation is just the start for the foundation. Mr. Azrieli, now 89 and still developing projects in Israel, recently turned it into a public foundation, meaning that the family gave up control (private foundations are typically controlled by an individual or family, whereas public foundations are governed by outsiders).

"His main goal was that this work continue," said Ms. Azrieli. "And that this will be a foundation in perpetuity."



pwaldie@globeandmail.com

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