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Interview with Anita Wortzman on the 40th Anniversary of the Asper Foundation

by Rhonda Spivak, October 1, 2023

[Editor's note: Below is my interview with Anita Wortzman, President of the Asper Foundation, marking the 40th Anniversary of the Asper Foundation. This interview was conducted before Oct 7, the date of Hamas's barbaric attacks on Israel and the outbreak of war.] 


1. Can you tell me how the Asper Foundation came into existence, when and why it was founded, and what the vision Izzy and Babs Asper had in founding the Asper Foundation.

  • As Izzy and Babs Asper strongly believed that philanthropy is a driving force behind positive change in people’s quality of life, they established The Asper Foundation in 1983 to build on their and the Asper family’s philanthropic objectives.
  • For forty years, The Asper Foundation has developed major projects and provides general support to the Jewish communities in Manitoba, Canada and Israel while also supporting the broader Winnipeg and Canadian communities in the areas of culture, education, the environment, health, sports, community development and human rights.
  • The Asper Foundation partners with countless passionate people who deliver the programs and initiatives that the Foundation supports.

2. A  major value on which the Asper Foundation was founded is Tikkun Olam -can you elaborate on that?

The original impetus for Izzy and Babs to found The Asper Foundation was the Jewish concept of Tikkun Olam, meaning to repair and improve the world, and it continues to drive the Foundation’s vision.  The Foundation appreciates it has the capacity and responsibility to play a significant role to repair the world and improve the quality of people’s lives, while bringing joy to them.

There is no question that the philanthropic passion of Izzy and Babs has been passed on to David, Gail, Leonard and their eight children.  They embrace the responsibility of carrying out Tikkun Olam for the Jewish and general communities in Canada and Israel through the many initiatives supported by The Asper Foundation and their own individual philanthropic work.

3. The CMHR is a truly significant accomplishment of  the Asper Foundation—how would you describe the impact it has had on Winnipeg and Canada, and internationally?

The CMHR was the inspiration of Izzy and came to life through the tireless work of Gail Asper and Moe Levy.  The Asper Foundation donated over $28M towards this institution and was instrumental in completing the required fundraising from government and private funders. It was the fifth national museum to be established in Canada and the first to be developed outside of the National Capital Region.  Its mandate is to explore the subject of human rights, enhance the public’s understanding of human rights, promote respect for others, and encourage reflection, dialogue and action.

Since it opened in 2014, hundreds of thousands of people from around the world visit the Museum annually. It is one of only a few museums in the world dedicated to the subject of human rights. The feedback that the CMHR receives from visitors has consistently shown that it impacts them deeply to stand up for human rights. We’re very proud that the Museum has received over 50 national and international recognition awards.

4. The Asper Foundation is known for its strong Zionist spirit. Can you tell me about some of the Asper Foundation’s ongoing initiatives in Israel and the positive impact these initiatives are having? (You can touch on highlights)

Izzy and Babs were, and their children David, Gail and Leonard are staunch Zionists.  This is reflected in the mission of The Asper Foundation.  The vision of Izzy and Babs continues to help make Israel a more compassionate country that is a light unto others.

In Israel, the Foundation’s programs are focused on:

?   Survival, enhancement and enrichment of the country including Zionist education

?   Entrepreneurship

?   Enhancement of the country’s relationships globally (Hasbara)

Significant cultural, human rights, sports, community and educational programs in Israel are supported in collaboration with many institutions.  Some of the projects and initiatives that have had a profound impact on hundreds of thousands of people in Israel and beyond include:

Asper-Hebrew University of Jerusalem (HUJI) Innovate - The Center for Innovation & Entrepreneurship (2021)
ASPER- HUJI Innovate promotes the Hebrew University as a supportive environment for innovation. Over one-quarter of the student body participates in HUJI Innovate’s events and courses.

The Asper International Holocaust Studies Program, Yad Vashem (2002)
This Program provides effective training to educators to promote understanding and compassionate education of and for the Holocaust and human rights. 

Community Action Centers (2002)
The Asper Foundation established unique Centers in Ramot, Ofakim, Migdal HaEmek and Be’er Sheva with a focus on Zionism, leadership, computer literacy, values training and aiding disadvantaged youth. Over 50,000 people have been supported by the Centers.

The Asper Center for Zionist Education, Shalem College (2022)
The Center is designed to respond to both need and opportunity by providing a platform for meaningful engagement with Zionist thought and history. 

Green Learning Program (2010)
Moe Levy, inspired by the success of the Edible Schoolyard program in the U.S., brought this impactful program to Israel. Supported by the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), the Green Learning Program serves as an educational aid to help connect youngsters in an outdoor setting. The program’s success led to its adoption by the Israeli Ministry of Education. Now in 30 schools, it has impacted over 23,000 students and teachers.

Asper Maccabi House, Maccabi World Union (2022)
This houses the world’s first Jewish sports museum.  Maccabi World Union supports world-class Jewish athletes and their connection to Israel.  Donation of $2.5 M US.

5. Can you tell me about the Asper Foundation’s support of Canadian Friends of Hebrew University,  Jerusalem Foundation, Ben-Gurion Canada, Birthright Canada, and any others you wish to include?

Over the decades, The Asper Foundation has supported the following institutions related to various initiatives:

  • Birthright – Ongoing support for Canadian Jewish adults aged 18 to 32 to participate in Birthright’s free educational 10-day trips to Israel.
  • Canadian Friends of the Hebrew University and Hebrew University
    • The Asper Foundation first established the I.H. Asper Hebrew University of Jerusalem Travel Scholarship Fund to give Manitobans and Canadians of all ages and backgrounds the opportunity to broaden their post-secondary education by studying in Israel.
    • The Asper International Program on Israeli Law and Society (Mishpatim). See more details below.
    • Asper Center for Entrepreneurship (ACE) at the Hebrew University.
    • Asper-Hebrew University of Jerusalem (HUJI) Innovate - The Center for Innovation & Entrepreneurship. See more details above.
  • Jerusalem Foundation – The Asper Foundation has partnered with the Jerusalem Foundation on a number of projects including the Jerusalem Business Development Center, the Ramot Alon Community Action Center and the Canada Community and Culture Fund and Pathway Project in Jerusalem which supports two critical areas for the wellbeing of Jerusalem: ongoing needs for vulnerable populations of Jerusalem of all ages and the recovery of the cultural sector which has been decimated by COVID.

The Asper Foundation’s major initiatives in Winnipeg:

Jewish and general communities

Support for many of the major arts organizations.

Selected Jewish initiatives

In 2000, The Asper Foundation donated $10M to the Jewish Foundation of Manitoba to permanently provide support for the Jewish community in Canada.

The Asper Helping Hand Initiative (2003)

Established by The Asper Foundation and administered by the Jewish & Child Family Service. The Asper Helping Hand Initiative is available to members of the Jewish community in Manitoba who are experiencing temporary hardship and are in need of financial assistance.  To-date, The Asper Helping Hand Initiative has advanced 204 loans valued at $800K.

Jewish Federation of Winnipeg/Combined Jewish Appeal

The Asper Foundation is the single largest annual donor to the Jewish Federation of Winnipeg/Combined Jewish Appeal. A substantial portion of this annual support is applied to Combined Jewish Appeal and The Asper Foundation programs in Israel.

The Asper Jewish Community Campus (1997)

The Asper Foundation donated over $2 million toward the $28 million cost to build the Asper Jewish Community Campus.

The Asper Foundation Performances: Cultural Arts Series (2001) /Babs Asper Centre for Cultural Arts (2012) through the Rady Jewish Community Centre

Since 2012, The Asper Foundation provides annual support to Rady JCC for the creation of the Babs Asper Centre for Cultural Arts in memory of Babs Asper. The Babs Asper Centre for Cultural Arts features top-quality cultural arts programming for the Jewish and wider communities. All of the following cultural programs come under this overarching name - Tarbut: Festival of Jewish Culture, Izzy Asper Jazz Performances, Winnipeg International Jewish Film Festival, Yom Ha'atzmaut, Folklorama, Mamaloshen Festival of Yiddish Entertainment and Culture and Music and Mavens.  These programs consist of the following:

  • Izzy Asper Jazz Performances (started in 1999):  Internationally-recognized jazz artists from around the world have thrilled over 80,000 people in 400 performances and 140 acts earning consistently excellent reviews from audiences and critics.
  • Winnipeg International Jewish Film Festival:  The festival is very popular and much-loved by the community. Since its inception, almost 60,000 people have enjoyed compelling, innovative and award-winning feature films and documentaries from a global perspective but with a Jewish lens.
  • Yom Ha’atzmaut - Israeli independence day
  • Folklorama – Sholom Square Pavilion at the Asper Campus

Judaic Studies Program at the University of Manitoba

The Asper Foundation has supported this program for a number of years to cover the cost of courses such as Introduction to Yiddish, Hebrew, Selected Topics: Movies, Music and Laughter: Yiddish Culture in North America and Selected Topics: Jews and Destruction to the Holocaust.  50-60 students participate annually.

Selected General Community Initiatives

In 2000, The Asper Foundation donated $10M to the Winnipeg Foundation.

The I.H. Asper School of Business

Through a $10M gift by The Asper Foundation, in 2000, the University of Manitoba announced the naming of the Faculty of Management as the I.H. Asper School of Business to recognize and honour the achievements of Izzy Asper. The I.H. Asper School of Business is known for its innovative and practical approach to business education, with a strong emphasis on real-world experience and a commitment to ethics and social responsibility. The I.H. Asper School of Business is dedicated to preparing its students for successful careers in the business world and contributing to the development of strong and sustainable communities.

The Asper Centre for Entrepreneurship/Stu Clark Centre for Entrepreneurship – U of M Faculty of Management (1997)

The Asper Foundation contributed $1M to the U of M’s I.H. Asper School of Business to establish the Asper Centre for Entrepreneurship. This original support was enhanced in 2008 by a gift by U of M alum Stu Clark. The executive director’s position was named the I.H. Asper Executive Director for Entrepreneurship.  The centre’s goal is to encourage and support the growth of Manitoba’s next generation of community leaders.

The Asper Chair in International Business and Trade Law (1999)

(at University of Manitoba’s Faculty of Law)

The Asper Chair in International Business and Trade Law at the University of Manitoba’s Faculty of Law in partnership with the Faculty of Management was established through a $2M gift from The Asper Foundation. The donation allowed for the addition of new courses and created opportunities to bring guest speakers and to attend conferences.

The Asper International Program on Israeli Law and Society (Mishpatim) – 2010 - This program is delivered in close partnership with Hebrew University and is the largest overseas summer program with approx. 40-50 Canadian law students each year. 

I.H. Asper Clinical Research Institute (2002)

The St. Boniface General Hospital and Mayo Clinic Partnership (2002)

The Asper Foundation donated $5M to the St. Boniface General Hospital & Research Foundation’s HeartCare Campaign which created the I.H. Asper Clinical Research Institute and the Mayo Clinic Partnership. I.H. Asper Clinical Research Institute is home to Manitoba’s Cardiac Sciences Program. The Mayo Clinic Partnership consists of an exchange of knowledge and information through a variety of sources.

The Asper Foundation Human Rights and Holocaust Studies Program (1997).  Across Canada

This award-winning program educates students to take personal responsibility to combat antisemitism and racism. Over 14,000 students across Canada have participated in this program.  The Asper Foundation has invested approximately $9M in this program.

7. What do you like most about your role as President of the Asper Foundation?

In my new role as President of The Asper Foundation, I have the joy of thinking creatively everyday of ways to enhance the Winnipeg community and key areas in Israel.

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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.