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Rady Jewish Community Centre pool at the Asper Jewish Community Campus. photo courtesy of Akman Construction

Israel Asper
photo by Gideon Lewin

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

Sheldon Berney

Bob Freedman

Lloyd Axworthy, who proved to be instrumental in helpin the community obtain $3.6 millon in Federal government funding for the Asper Jewish Community Campus to be built.


By Rhonda Spivak, March 15, 2015


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 member

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Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.

Opinions expressed in letters to the editor or articles by contributing writers are not necessarily endorsed by Winnipeg Jewish Review.