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Asper Jewish Community Campus. photo courtesy of Akman construction. Businesses that played instrumental roles in the construction of the Asper Campus:Akman construction,Alpha Masonry,Commercial Pool and Recreational Products,Derksen Plumbing, Accurate Dorwin, KSleva Contracting, Rakowski Cartage

Marjorie and Morley Blankstein. taken June 2002, 50th Wedding Anniversary

Sheldon Berney

Bob Freedman


by Rhonda Spivak, March 2, 2015





This year, 2015, is the 18th "Chai" anniversary of the Asper Jewish community Campus which opened its doors in 1997 forever changing the landscape of Winnipeg's Jewish community. 




The story behind the building of the Asper Jewish Community Campus is one that has a lot of interesting details. In a future article which will be posted shortly, the Winnipeg Jewish Review will write an overview of the history that led our community, under the visionary leadership of volunteers Marjorie Blankstein and Sheldon Berney and then CEO of the Jewish Federation Bob Freedman and others to decide to go forward, raise the required capital and have the Campus built on Doncaster Street in Tuxedo.




In this article the Winnipeg Jewish Review is going to examine two issues.

1. Why it was that it was decided at the time not to include a synagogue on the Campus site, and



2. What was the other possible choice that was considered as a potential site for building  the Campus, which was ultimately rejected: a 20 acre spot near Waverley Street and Wilkes Avenue.






It is interesting to note that in Allan Levine's Book ‘Coming of Age: A History of the Jewish People of Manitoba’ which examines the history involved in the creation of the Asper Jewish Community Campus there is no mention of any discussion one way or another about the decision not to include a synagogue on the site. 



It was under the remarkable leadership of volunteer Marjorie Blankstein that the Campus project came to life. Her passion,dedication  and committment to the project was unwavering. Blankstein chaired the Long Range Planning Committee of the Winnipeg Jewish Community Council [WJCC] that led to the Campus's creation. As Blankstein recalls, “As Chair of the Long Range Planning Committee [of the WJCC], the  best thing I did was recruit Sheldon Berney .He had just sold his business---talk about timing!!"


The Winnipeg Jewish Review asked Blankstien how it was decided at the time not to include a synagogue on the Campus site.



As Blankstein recalls, "We decided that we did not want to compete with the synagogues, so [we] only had a chapel for the [Gray Academy] school."



In a telephone interview with  Berney, who is now a resident of Florida, Berney added that they were aware at the time that there were campuses in other cities that had synagogues, but "We felt there were enough synagogues in the city." As he continued, "Our objective was to provide facilities that were inadequate or didn't exist [otherwise]. The YMHA community centre [on Hargrave] was in the wrong neighborhood and was a terribly inadequate facility so this became a priority [as opposed to a synagogue." 


Bob Freedman, former CEO of the Jewish Federation who was also a visionary behind the campus project and who took much initiative and toiled long hours in seeing the campus project to fruition, told the WJR, "There wasn't any active discussion regarding the synagogues at the time, so we never pursued it."  



As he elaborates, back then, synagogue membership was not declining, and "At the time, we didn't think that the major synagogues were  interested [in moving to the campus site]. They were well situated and had nice buildings. Additionally, even if we had wanted to [potentially have a synagogue on the site], who were we going to approach? How would we choose one synagogue over the other?"




Freedman notes that in fact there was one decision they made in regard to the operation of the campus "that positively impacted on the synagogues." In this regard, Freedman recalls that he, Blankstein and Berney went to Kansas City to see that Jewish community's campus.



The reason they went to Kansas City (and also several places in Florida) is that "We wanted to learn from other communities" to see "what they had done and how it was working", Blankstein says.



Freedman relates that "In Kansas City's Jewish community campus, they had a kitchen with a real banquet operation, and you could have bar-mitzvahs and life cycle events there. We decided not to follow that model and have a banquet operation on our campus as we didn't want to undercut the revenue of the synagogues that way."






How was it that the campus ended up on Doncaster?



Although at the time, there were many "North enders" who would have wished that the old YMHA on Hargrave Street would be renovated, they did not convince the leadership that this was in fact the best route to take. As Allan Levine wrote in his book, Coming of Age: A History of the Jewish People of Manitoba, “Demographics and economic realities dictated that the campus be built in the south end of the city. By 1991, close to 50% of all Winnipeg Jews – approximately 7,500 of a total of 15,000 – resided in River Heights and Tuxedo (compared to 35% in the North end, mainly in garden City and West Kildonan) and the numbers in the South end were predicted to climb. Moreover the YMHA on Hargrave St. could not be properly renovated, nor were Winnipeg Jews about the start flocking to the deteriorating downtown. This last point remains contentious, with many current or former North enders still refusing to concede that improving the downtown YMHA would not have succeeded.)"



Berney became key in trying to secure a suitable location for the desired campus. 



The preferred site for the campus was the old Manitoba Agricultural College and later the Fort Osborne Barracks on Doncaster Street, a block north of Tuxedo Avenue (where it was eventually became located). But at first, it did not appear as if this site would be available for purchase.



 As Levine wrote "The Manitoba government had offered the property for sale in the early 1990’s. Sheldon Berney and developer Arni Thorsteinson had submitted a bid for a condominium and Jewish campus concept. But the government had sold the property to another group, which included Frank Johnson and Sidney Spivak, which also intended to build condominiums. As the contract was being finalized, the real estate market dropped and the deal was never closed. The government decided to take the property off the market."



Since the Doncaster site was now off the market, the Winnipeg Jewish Community Council (WJCC) considered an alternate site: a 20 acre spot near Waverley Street and Wilkes Avenue. The WJCC and City of Winnipeg came to an agreement on this Waverley and Wilkes site, (which is a bit before Lindenwoods).




Almost immediately, a North end group circulated a petition that opposed that choice.




As Levine writes, "Sheldon Berney admits that he was surprised by the hostility he encountered from the Jewish residents of the North end. “We were accused of being the ‘fat cats’ from the South end who didn’t care about regular folks,” he recalls. “It was disconcerting. But we had to stand our ground. The analogy I used was that if we were building a Safeway store, we would build it where the majority of the people lived.”




As Bob Freedman recalled, "At the time the City of Winnipeg owned this land near Waverley and Wilkes and the City was willing to gift it to us. This sounded like a good deal. But the hydro power transmission lines near the site became an issue." 




Berney and Freedman thought the location was a good one," and as Freedman told the WJR, "At first we weren't overly concerned about the power lines. The proposed campus building would have been some distance away from the hydro lines."




However, as Freedman explained, "Sheldon Berney hired a technician to walk the site with a Geiger counter to check for hydro -magnetic fields. The technician gave us the readings and we learned that there was no more radiation given off by these power lines than you'd find in your own kitchen if your appliances were turned on and in use."




But the issue didn't go away, and became emotional. As Freedman told the WJR, "I remember that there was one meeting at which someone said to Berney, Look, Sheldon let’s say we build the school and one kid becomes ill with leukemia. Then we'd be dead in the water. The people who opposed us, will say, See it’s your fault."


Berney told the WJR that if the Wilkes site had been chosen,  "We'd have had to relocate the hydro-lines", but notwithstanding "people didn't want it, so we took the position htat this was a fight that we didn't need." 


There was also the 'carpool factor'. The traffic congestion around Waverley and Wilkes due to its proximity to the rail line could have made the location very problematic for parents taking their children to school and back. This problem was, compounded by the absence of a subway.



Berney and Freedman agreed that the Waverley and Wilkes location would not be suitable.




As Freedman recalled, "Around the same time that we accepted that the Waverley and Wilkes location would not be suitable, lo and behold, we got lucky and the Manitoba government again offered the Doncaster site for sale." 




As Levine wrote, "This time the Campus Corporation submitted a detailed proposal that incorporated maintaining the site’s historical buildings. After nearly a year of extensive negotiations, it was announced on January 24, 1994, that the Province of Manitoba was selling the 14 acre area to the Jewish community for $2.2 million." 


John Petersmeyer, the  principal in charge of the design of the Asper Campus told the Wininpeg Jewish Reivew that there wasn't much time to put in the Campus Corporation's submission in response to the Provincial government's Request for Proposal. " We made it just in time,"  noting that "It was a complicated project," and "a prime site."


Freedman told the WJR that although the Province did in fact sell the land to the Campus Corporation, "the Manitoba government did give most of the money back to the Jewish community in a separate transaction. That's the way they wanted to do it."





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Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.

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