Eighteen years ago, in 1997, the Asper Jewish Community Campus opened its doors, changing the landscape of Winnipeg's Jewish community. On this "Chai Anniversary" of the Asper Jewish community Campus, the Winnipeg Jewish Review is going to take a trip down memory lane to review how it was that the campus on 123 Doncaster came to life.
Marjorie Blankstein who was president of the Winnipeg Jewish community Council [WJCC] in 1986-1987 remembers the late 1980's and the challenges the Jewish community was facing, including "decrease in enrollment in Jewish schools and at the YMHA, and decrease in population, with physical facilities deteriorating." (Editor’s note: In fact, Winnipeg's Jewish population had declined by 18% between 1971-1991.)
Bob Freedman, who became WJCC's executive director in 1986 says that he took the job "on the understanding that I would be given the flexibility to do what was needed to move the community forward," and reverse these downward trends.
One of the first things Freedman did was fly to New York at his own expense to meet with the Council of Jewish Federations. "They suggested that I contact a social demographer then working at Brandeis University, Gary Tobin who was an expert on planning for Jewish communities in North America," Freedman says. Freedman followed this advice and the result was that Tobin came to Winnipeg, learned about the community, examined the organizational structures and convened a meeting with community leadership.
Blankstein remembers the meeting of prominent leaders with Tobin in attendance. "He [Tobin] said you have two choices. One is to do nothing and things will continue downwards, or you can do something and work for positive change. We decided to do something."
As Allan Levine wrote in Coming of Age: A History of the Jewish People of Manitoba "That "something" was the construction of the Asper Jewish Community Campus-a pipe dream in 1987, but a reality a decade later."
Bob Freedman says "'Our first goal was to instill pride back in the community." Freedman remembers Marjorie Blankstein at that meeting with Tobin. He describes her "as wide eyed" and very attentive. He later approached her to become Chair of the WJCC's Long Range planning committee. "Accepting this Chair was just the next step, hopefully a positive one," Blankstein recalls.
Next, Touche Ross Management (now Deloitte) conducted a feasibility study which cost $115,000 and in the spring of 1988 it prepared a report which recommended the development of a central Jewish "campus--which was to house a Jewish school, a fitness and cultural centre, and office space for most other Jewish organization.
The WJCC board approved the proposal for a campus and Morley Blankstien volunteered Marjorie to become chair of the fundraising committee.
As Chair, the best thing I did was recruit Sheldon Berney. He had just sold his business [Reliance Products]---talk about timing!!" Blankstein says. As Levine wrote in Coming of Age,
"Initially, Berney sought counsel from his friends to ensure the project was viable, because he had no intention of failing. 'I had the time to do it, the enthusiasm and the commercial background,' Berney says, 'But if it wasn't me, someone else would have done it.' "
Berney, who now resides in Florida, was asked by the Winnipeg Jewish Review in a telephone interview how many hours of time he estimated he poured into the campus project. “It went on for over three years. It was thousands of hours. It was a commitment and a job,” he replied.
Freedman, Blankstein, Berney and several other WJCC members visited Jewish community centres in the Unites States, one of which was in Kansas City. "The Kansas City Centre had a day school attached to it, which was a feature we liked, and we went back a second time to look at the Kansas City Centre, and ended up following their model in terms of campus governance," Freedman notes. Other places that were visited were Miami, Boca Raton, West Palm Beach and Jacksonville, as well as Minneapolis.
Freedman also recalls that Milton Shorr, of Development Consultants Inc. in New York, who came highly recommended, was hired to give an assessment regarding the potential success of a capital campaign to raise money to build the Doncaster campus . "Shorr asked us to line up potential donors, and said he would ask them each a few questions, not asking them for money. Based on this interview, he said he would give us a realistic assessment of whether or not we'd have a successful campaign. Thirty nine out of the forty potential donors who were contacted to meet with him said yes," Freedman notes. Freedman recalls that there was one donor who kept on telling Shorr the maximum amount he would give, and revised his figure upwards several times. "Shorr told him that he was not asking for money... I am asking you questions only." The website of Development Consultants now on the internet refers to the company's fundamental philosophy. "People give to people, and to a good cause too." The Winnipeg Jewish Review reached Shorr in New York and he said that he visited Wininpeg 50 times throughout the process. When asked what he remembers most is "eating steaks with Izzy [Asper] at his favourite steakhouse in Winnipeg , and eating steaks with him at a favourite restaurant in New York when he was here."
The sum needed to be raised was $28 million, a significant challenge given the economic climate of the 1990's. (Some would come from the sale of properties such as the old YMHA on Hargrave Street, but the vast majority of it would have to be raised.)
As Blankstein recalls, "I remember the community meeting we had at Glendale Golf and Country Club in July. It was not the best time for such a meeting. We had an EXCELLENT attendance! I think there was only one person who did not agree with our plans moving forward. What was so important was our community & its commitment. I still remember the calls I made for contributions. I was warmly received & treated so well!"
As Levine recounts in Coming of Age, "Indeed within a relatively short period, the major donors (with gifts ranging from a quarter of a million to a million ), whose names now grace the campus came forward. Among them were members of the following families: Asper, Berney, Gray, Blankstein (Rady), Simkin, Kives, Kroft, Kaufman (and Silverberg), Vickar and Frieman.”
Freedman also notes the contribution of the Shenkarow and Rich families and others. Many members of the community contributed towards the project and by the time the campus opened, more than 20 million had been donated.
Much credit for this is to be given to the commitment of the fundraising committee. As Berney, who was deeply involved in the fundraising effort, says. “We had an enormous amount of support from a lot of individuals,” and the result was a “great one.”
As Freedman recalls, "Marjorie and I put together a dog and pony show, and spoke to every Jewish organization and group about the project."
Freedman also recalls how he and Blankstein even flew to Montreal to meet with Charles Bronfman, to receive a generous a contribution from him.
When asked how it was that his family came to choose to donate to the building of the theatre on the Doncaster Campus, (now called the “Berney Theatre "), Berney responded in jest, “I always had a desire to be on the stage and thought if my name was associated with a theatre, this would help !.” On a more serious note he said "We knew we were going to make a significant contribution...If it hadn't been the theatre, it would have been something else."
John Petersmeyer, an architecht who was the principal in charge of design of the Asper Campus (as part of the GBR group at the time) remembers Berney as the Chair of the Building Committee for the Campus. Petersmeyer told the Winnipeg Jewish Review that "He [Berney] was the best client chair I have ever worked under."He headed up the commmittee with the utmost grace, humour and leadership. He was a mensch."
HOW THE CAMPUS CAME TO BEAR THE ASPER NAME
The Campus Board set $2 million as the price required for a donor to receive naming rights to the complete institution. When first approached Izzy Asper indicated he would give a half a million. Sheldon Berney, Bob Freedman, and Harold Buchwald had further discussions with him and he agreed to increase his donation to 2 million. Levine in his book quotes Harold Buchwald as saying,
"When I told Izzy that other major donors, such as Marjorie and Morley Blankstein were making a donation of one million in honour of her parents, Max and Rose Rady, a light bulb went off in his head. And he decided to make his donation in the name of his and Bab's parents-as well as all of the Jewish pioneers of Manitoba."
Asper's lawyer, Richard Leipsic prepared a legal document. Asper wanted two seats on the campus board and he didn't want the campus to have a debt. Asper got the two board seats and the $2.5 million mortgage was quickly paid off. As Berney says in Coming of Age, "I was involved in working out with Asper every agonizing paragraph and comma, remembers Berney."And who do you think won most of those arguments?"
Several months after Israel Asper died on October 9th 2003, a group of his close friends-Dee and Harold Buchwald, Hester and Guy Kroft, Beverly and Mel Manishen, Roxy and Martin Freedman, Hillaine and Richard Kroft, and Phyllis and Ruby Polinsky-commissioned a gold lettered plaque with a relief of Asper at the piano which hangs near the campus entrance.
HOW LLOYD AXWORTHY WAS AN INSTRUMENTAL FIGURE INVOLVED IN BRINGING THE ASPER JEWISH COMMUNITY CAMPUS TO LIFE, AND THE NEED FOR A JEWISH MUSEUM
Lloyd Axworthy's instrumental involvement in bringing the building of the Asper Jewish Community Campus to life is a particularly interesting aspect of Jewish community history. Since 2015 is the Chai Anniversary of the Asper Campus, it is time to retell the story.
Looking back, Bob Freedman, former CEO of the Jewish Federation of Winnipeg (and this year's Negev Gala Honouree) explains that "We wanted to try to get 4 million dollars from the Federal government" for the building of the campus, and there were some who thought that goal was way too ambitious."
Freedman recalls that " We even hired a lobbyist, Jon Johnson, [who was the brother off Senator Janice Johnson from Gimli] to help drum up support for the project in the Federal government [which was a Conservative government at the time].”
Freedman recalls that as the process was underway, there was going to be a federal election.
"Three days before the election the Tory government at the time [ which was the short-lived government of Kim Campbell] committed to providing $300 thousand dollars.
Freedman also recalls meeting prior to the election with Lloyd Axworthy who was running for the Liberals and "promised if elected, the Liberals would support the campus project," but the commitment was of a general nature with no specific amount confirmed.
The Jean Chretian's Liberals were elected and Axworthy became a senior minister in the government, and Freedman recalls what followed:
"It was the night that B’nai Brith was honouring Izzy Asper at the Westin Hotel [now the Fairmont], and Axworthy would be there. Myself ,Marjorie Blankstein, Sheldon Berney, and Senator Richard Kroft were told that Lloyd would meet with us." They went up the elevator to Lloyd Axworthy's room, and as Freedman recalls, "Lloyd is literally getting ready for the function, and buttoning up his shirt as we are there conducting business." In the course of the conversation in Axworthy's hotel room, Axworthy asked whether the plans for the campus included plans for a Jewish heritage museum.
"Axworthy told us he needed a hook to be able to access Federal government funding, and building a space for a museum was that hook." Sheldon Berney had spoken with the Jewish Heritage Centre and thought that about a small display. But Freedman says. "It was not enough to have some artifacts in the building, but there needed to be a dedicated space for a Museum."
Axworthy was responsible for the Western Economic Diversification Fund, a body that Freedman indicates they had approached for money for the Campus project before, with no success.
"In the end with Axworthy's assistance, the Federal liberal government through the Western Economic Diversification Project gave us $3.6 million dollars. We also received the $300,000 that the Conservative government had promised us before the election, such that we came very close to our ambitious four million goal," Freedman recalls. As part of the deal, a $100.000 dollar feasibility study for a museum had to be done, "but the government agreed to cover the cost."
As a result of the need for a feasibility study, Freedman, Berney and the architect of the Campus, John Petersmeyer, and Harry Gutkin, then president of the Jewish Historical Society visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington and the Jewish Museum of New York.
This is the origins of what became the Jewish Museum of Western Canada, which shortly thereafter became the Marion and Ed Vickar Museum of Western Canada. When the campus opened, The Jewish Heritage Centre was allocated 5000 square feet of it, made up of the Museum as well as space for the Holocaust Education Centre.
But there was controversy surrounding the museum, and tensions that manifest themselves between the Jewish Federation and the Jewish Historical Society[JHC] over the Museum. The JHC complained that they only received $250,000 to create the Museum.
Gerry Posner, who was Harry Gutkin's successor as President of the JHC is quoted in Allan Levine's book, Coming of Age, A History of the Jewish People of Manitoba as saying:
" ..we [the JHC] never saw much of that $ 3.9 million. We were a funnel for that money. We did not get the sustaining funds to operate it [the museum] properly."
But Freedman says that at the end of the day, as per the agreement that was signed with the Federal government , the funding that was received from the Federal Government was not in fact allocated to go directly to the Museum, but to the campus in general. As Freedman says in Levine's book, pursuant to the agreement signed with the Feds, "Ninety percent of the money was non-specified for space within the campus. It was obvious that Lloyd [Axworthy] wanted to channel the money to the community in this way."
Over the years, the Campus required more and more space for daycare, and in 2006, as a result of this growing need for daycare, the original museum closed. In 2007,the space it had occupied became transformed into the Kaufman Child Care Centre. Three years after the original museum had closed, it was reincarnated as a hallway museum, which exists today.