TORONTO — As someone who doesn’t give up easily, Canadian philanthropist Gail Asper takes on projects most people would shy away from.
The 57-year-old former corporate lawyer attributes her predilection for big challenges to her late father, self-made media magnate Izzy Asper.
Asper, who lives in Winnipeg, the western Canadian city where she was born, is now at a critical stage in her mission to create a $400 million museum in Tel Aviv devoted to Jewish achievement throughout the ages.
It’s intended as a gift to Israelis on their country’s 75th birthday in 2023.
In the face of what’s clearly a tall order, she draws strength from what she learned from her father and from having defied skeptics in bringing to fruition a $350 million human rights museum in Winnipeg which opened to great acclaim in 2014.
“The training my dad gave my brothers and me about persistence, keeping focused and not letting bureaucracy drag you down, has served us well,” says Asper, during a recent visit to Toronto. “He often said, ‘I don’t care if you fail a million times, I just want you to try.’ For him, not trying was the real failure.”
Her father knew all about trying — and usually succeeded. Izzy Asper was a hard-driving, outspoken entrepreneur whose considerable wealth came from newspapers, radio and TV stations in Canada and abroad controlled by his CanWest Global Communications. A prominent member of Canada’s Jewish community, he was a strong supporter of Israel and a generous philanthropist.
In 2000, following a suggestion by Gail, he began thinking about creating Canada’s first national museum not situated in the country’s capital region. He dreamed of a landmark building that would teach the importance of defending human rights and commemorate victims of abuse.
To honor her father’s legacy after he died suddenly in 2003, Gail took on the project which many then predicted would never see the light of day. Since its opening, the groundbreaking Canadian Museum of Human Rights (CMHR) has attracted large crowds, received high approval ratings and earned more than 40 Canadian and international awards.
“Maybe the CMHR was really our dress rehearsal for the World’s Jewish Museum,” says Asper, referring to her current all-consuming endeavor. “It was incredible training and it would be a shame not to use all the things we learned, including perseverance, resilience and withstanding rejection.”
While the world may not lack for Jewish museums, Asper wants the WJM to be the first major showcase of Jewish accomplishment in all fields, spotlighting the many contributions of Jews to human civilization. She sees it as a place where the story of world Jewry will be one of celebration, not tragedy, and where the spotlight will be on Jewish innovation, not suffering.
“Most Jewish museums focus on the Holocaust and the theme of survival and we realize that can’t be our only narrative,” says Asper. “Columnist Charles Krauthammer said it well: ‘Memory is sacred but victimhood can’t be the foundation stone of Jewish identity.’ We’re such a joyous people but we don’t celebrate the joys of being Jewish as much as we explore the ‘oys.’”
A most professional ‘volunteer’
If getting a formidable project like the WJM off the ground isn’t for the faint of heart, Asper feels her irrepressible drive and extensive fundraising experience augur well.
In addition to attracting the necessary funds for the CMHR over an 11-year period, she previously led the charge for financial support for Winnipeg’s Jewish Appeal Campaign; the city’s United Way Campaign and the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre Endowment Campaign.
In 2006, the Association of Fundraising Professionals crowned her Outstanding Volunteer Fundraiser of the Year.
The recipient of numerous awards and honorary doctorates for her extensive Jewish and non-Jewish community service, Asper is also a generous supporter of not-for-profit arts and cultural organizations in Canada. The Asper Foundation, of which she and her two brothers are trustees, contributes greatly to philanthropic initiatives in Canada and Israel.
For all her progress so far with the WJM, Asper still has a long way to go to turn her bold vision into reality. She says she has $100 million in commitments and another $50 million in soft pledges, totaling less than 40% of what’s required.
To her credit, Asper has put her money where her mouth is, personally committing $5 million to the project. For its part, the Asper Foundation is contributing $25 million. She’s already spent about $100,000 for initial development costs.
“Part of what keeps me going on this project is that I’d just love to take my kids for an introduction to the Jewish people told from the perspective of our values and our remarkable impact on civilization,” says Asper, who has two sons, ages 27 and 25.
“I think it would be an enormously enlightening, uplifting, entertaining experience that I too would like to go to. It’s still mind-boggling to me this hasn’t already been done and it should be done,” Asper says.
To that end, since 2015, she’s been crisscrossing the globe for major donors in her quest to bring the WJM concept to life and convince people this won’t be just another Jewish museum.
“The original idea came to me in 2002 after getting one too many emails about the latest Jewish Nobel Prize winners,” explains Asper. “These emails would invariably say how Jews make up such a tiny percentage of the world, yet win so many Nobel prizes. I began wondering where the positive stories of Jews and their impact on the world, and not just Nobel Prize winners, were being told.”
While in New York, she went to the Museum of Jewish Heritage but couldn’t find such stories except on the top floor where there was a small section on Jewish comedians.
“It was amazing to me that there was a huge crowd at a video screen showing a clip from a Seinfeld episode, but far fewer people in other areas of the museum,” says Asper, who has a passion for classical signing and has performed in several operas and musical theatrical productions.
“It reinforced what I was feeling – that people are yearning for positive stories and role models about Jewish life and our contributions to society – but we weren’t getting much of that there,” she says.
A few months later, when she was in Israel, Asper went to the Israel Museum, which she thought was excellent but didn’t cover the angle she sought.
Next, she went to the Diaspora Museum, which Asper said was more what she called “the anthropological story of Jews around the world,” but again not as individuals, and not relating to values or honoring achievement. All this convinced her there was a void.
At the time, Asper was too busy with other projects, including the CMHR, to pursue her idea for a different kind of Jewish museum. Three years ago, after the CMHR had opened, she seriously turned her attention to the WJM. Since then, it has occupied most of her waking hours.
Tel Aviv — and Frank Gehry — are on board
For its physical appearance and content, Asper commissioned one of the world’s most lauded architects — Frank Gehry — to design the main building, and a globally renowned museum exhibition planner — Ralph Appelbaum — to create the subject matter inside.
For its location, she has secured a well-situated 22-dunam (5.4 acre) site near Tel Aviv’s Hayarkon Park, which the municipality donated in 2015 in a show of confidence in the WJM concept.
“One of the complaints you’ll often hear about a project like this is, ‘Why do you have to spend so much money on it?’” says Asper. “’Why do you need a fancy building? Why don’t you just put this in a big box for $10 million because there are more worthy causes, or just do a virtual museum online? Do you really need a physical space?’”
Her previous experience leaves her no doubt.
“Before doing the CMHR, I didn’t fully understand just how important architecture is and that the physical space in which you house something really matters,” says Asper.
“It makes people feel great if you build a beautiful building. It makes the citizens of that community feel really proud, that they’re worthy of something beautiful. But if you give them something pedestrian and simply utilitarian, then they won’t have the same sense of pride and self-worth,” she says.
This helps explain her choice of Gehry as the project’s chief architect. His buildings command attention and often have a transformative impact referred to as the “Bilbao effect.” His design of the iconic Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain reinvigorated the city after it opened in 1997, attracting major tourism, investment and cultural activity that continue to this day.
In March, Asper was in Israel to meet prospective donors and influencers at the 2018 Jewish Funders Network international conference in Tel Aviv which bills itself as the premiere annual event in Jewish philanthropy.
She first visited Israel at age 14 when her parents took her and her brothers there in 1974. Since then, she’s been back around 50 times and now goes several times a year for WJM-related meetings and for her involvement supporting Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
Who needs yet another Jewish museum?
Asper refers to her WJM undertaking as an “odyssey,” one which has taken her far and wide in making more than 200 in-person presentations to Israeli politicians, Tel Aviv officials, members of the WJM Advisory Council and prospective donors.
In the process, she’s faced all kinds of naysayers against which her thick skin, positive energy, keen sense of humor and the strong support of her husband have proved vital.
“There are days when you’re on your own in a pitch session in a foreign city and it might be raining and cold and you’ve spent a lot of time and money to get there and you give it your all and you’re not sure you connected,” says Asper. “And then I’ll be walking down the street thinking how lonely and challenging it can be to get people to understand a new thing.”
A less fervent, less motivated person would have likely given up by now.
“There’ve been many nights I’ve wept in my kitchen at two in the morning, thinking how awful it would be if we don’t make this happen,” she says. “But invariably positive things happen to keep me on track and upbeat.”
Part of her work involves dispelling misconceptions. “A lot of people see our project as simply a hall of fame,” says Asper. “Some of them are uncomfortable with that because they feel boasting isn’t something Jews usually do.
“I explain the museum won’t be just a hall of fame but also an introduction to the values at the core of our Jewish culture and religion and how those values have impacted civilization, which is an incredibly interesting story,” Asper says.
Other hurdles Asper is wrestling with include people jaded by previous unsuccessful capital projects in Israel, alleged efforts by Tel Aviv’s Diaspora Museum to undermine the WJM for fear of competition, and the travails of dealing with Israeli bureaucracy.
While steadfast in her commitment, she’s mindful of reality.
“In the next year, we should have a pretty good idea of what’s going to happen with the WJM,” says Asper. “If you go forward with your best proposal and it’s still a no from key people, then you’ve got to say, ‘This was a great idea, it doesn’t resonate, we’re going to have find a different way to do this.’”
Despite the challenges, Asper remains hopeful. “Right now, it’s absolutely full steam ahead,” she says.
“We’ve got lots of work to do. It’s frustrating when people don’t get it, but I can’t get mad. I just have to keep looking for people who do get this and want to see this happen,” Asper says. “Many of these people are potential donors. The challenge is making sure we find them in time so we can make this happen while we’re still alive and willing to do this.”