“Hope and optimism, the ability to adapt and transform ourselves, and the commitment to sustain our dreams, are the real keys to survival . . . but throughout it all, we must also have a Jewish homeland to keep us safe.” These are the values, penned by daughter Danna, that buoyed David Azrieli during the Holocaust and became a focal point of his legendary career in which he became one of the wealthiest and most philanthropic people in the world.
Who was David Azrieli?
David Azrieli was born in 1922 in Makow, Poland. Immediately after the Nazis bombarded the capital Warsaw in September 1939, Azrieli fled the country on a 3-year journey to Mandatory Palestine. Every step of Azrieli’s voyage from Poland, through war-torn Russia and finally to the holy land, was fraught with danger.
Azrieli’s adventurous spirit throughout his perilous journey helped him appreciate fortuitous circumstances and seize opportunities to connect with people, which saved his life on multiple occasions. In addition, Azrieli’s commitment to Israel as a haven for the Jews imbued him with meaning and purpose – especially when he was struggling as one of the few Jewish soldiers in the overtly antisemitic Polish Anders Army – and sustained him throughout the long trek home.
After finally arriving in Mandatory Palestine, Azrieli studied at the Technion in Haifa and then worked as a teacher before serving as an IDF officer in Israel’s 1948 War of Independence. He then traveled the world to reconnect with relatives who had been spared death, spending time in South Africa, England and the United States, before finally settling down in Montreal, Canada. There, he completed his college degree, met his wife Stephanie and raised a family, and launched a wildly successful career in real estate development and management, which elevated him to the upper strata of wealth and social standing.
In the early 1980s, after having spent over two decades designing and building architecturally creative buildings in Canada and the United States, David Azrieli decided to apply his innovative development expertise to build up his beloved Israel. Azrieli revolutionized Israel’s retail industry when he built the first enclosed shopping center in 1985, which he coined a “canion” by combining the Hebrew words “shopping” and “parking.” Jerusalem’s Malcha Mall is but one of his company’s famous shopping centers across the country.
Azrieli’s crowning architectural achievement is his iconic Azrieli Center’s Square, Triangular, and Round towers that define Tel Aviv’s skyline. Over the past four decades, the Azrieli Group has grown dramatically, and is one of Israel’s largest and most respected real estate companies.
The values of hope and optimism helped David Azrieli survive during the long, dark period of the Holocaust. These selfsame principles informed his philanthropic focus, as he endowed countless initiatives related to education and empowerment, including Tel Aviv University’s Azrieli School of Architecture; Yeshiva University’s Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration; and a Chair in Architecture and Town Planning at the Technion, to name just a few. In addition, Azrieli established programs supporting hospitals and research institutes, education to fight addiction, teacher training, vocational training, women’s empowerment, and assistance to Holocaust survivors.
Azrieli’s lessons of hope and the importance of having a Jewish homeland are particularly poignant today, when so many emotionally adrift and ethically rudderless people question our over 3,000 year connection to Eretz Yisrael. David Azrieli was known as a tough businessman with a large heart. May we learn from him to toughen up and stand proud of our principles and values.
This article is based primarily on David Azrieli’s remarkable biography "One Step Ahead," written by David's daughter Danna Azrieli.
Gedaliah Borvick is the founder of My Israel Home (www.myisraelhome.com), a real estate agency focused on helping people from abroad buy and sell homes in Israel. To sign up for his monthly market updates, contact him at email@example.com.