“My father was a very curious and engaged person,” says Naomi Azrieli, Chair and CEO of the Azrieli Foundation. She is, of course, speaking of David J Azrieli z”l, the renowned Canadian real estate developer and philanthropist. “He really liked to talk to people and hear about what motivated them.”
Naomi will be the featured guest in the latest episode of ‘The Philanthropists,’ a video series hosted by Canadian television and radio personality Ralph Benmergui. Presented by the Canadian Friends of Hebrew University, the episode will air on the Jerusalem Post’s website on May 10.
Speaking with us ahead of the broadcast from her Toronto office, Naomi says curiosity and a sense of engagement with others are integral parts of the philanthropic process.
“All philanthropy begins from the heart,” she says. “You have to give from the heart, and with engaged purpose – aiming for impact. It begins with curiosity and connectivity, and then it continues, because you care and want to learn how you can make a difference.”
The Azrieli Foundation, founded in 1989 by David J. Azrieli, is the largest non-corporate philanthropic foundation in Canada. With a considerable focus on causes and initiatives in Israel, the Foundation has been making a difference here for more than 30 years. Its significant philanthropic investments in Hebrew University, for instance, total more than $21 million.
Naomi says joining the Foundation was not part of her original plan. She pursued two career tracks – in business and academia. She completed Masters’ degrees from Columbia University, and worked in banking, finance and real estate in Paris and New York, before earning a Doctorate in history from the University of Oxford.
“My intention was to teach and write,” she notes. “I did a lot of writing and editing and taught at two universities in Canada.”
Yet as Naomi began working with the Foundation, particularly in the areas of long-term strategy and direction, she found the work to be both fulfilling and important.
“Working to set up the Foundation, anticipating its growth, and thinking about what we could do was different from anything I had done before. It was really wonderful and very meaningful.”
Articulating a Mission
Early in the development of the Foundation, David and his family sat together to articulate a mission. He outlined three key areas – higher education, creating educational opportunities for vulnerable youth, and Holocaust memoirs and commemoration – that all resonated deeply with his daughters Sharon, Naomi and Danna.
David identified three projects that still remain at the core of the Foundation’s mission. The first is the Empowerment Program that works with youth in Israel’s socio-economic and geographic periphery, providing them with educational opportunities for success. (The Foundation supports several programs in Canada that also aim to empower at-risk youth).
The second project is the Holocaust Survivor Memoirs Program, which collects, archives and publishes the first-person accounts of Holocaust survivors who came to Canada after the war. It remains a signature program of the Foundation, and more than 120 stories have been published in Canada since 2005. The Foundation’s publications and pedagogical resources are used to educate students about Holocaust in schools and universities throughout the country.
The third program is known as the Azrieli Fellows Program. It is Israel’s largest and most generous fellowship program for graduate students, postdoctoral students and early career faculty, funding young researchers at Israel’s leading academic institutions. Hebrew University has the largest number of Fellows supported by the Foundation.
Over the years, the Foundation has expanded its mission areas. “And yet, for us, it is still mainly about education,” says Naomi. “That thread of education runs through everything we do.”
The sisters are all actively involved with the family’s philanthropy. Danna, in addition to being the Chair of the family business, Azrieli Group Ltd., is co-chair of the Azrieli Foundation Israel (the registered Amutah that implements local initiatives). Sharon, a renowned soprano, stewards the arts and music initiatives. She is the visionary behind the Foundation’s Azrieli Music Prizes, one of the world’s most prestigious music composition prizes.
The Azrieli Foundation is also very active as a funder of brain and neurodevelopment research.
“We aim to enable an understanding of the brain in both health and disease,” says Naomi. “It seems to me to be one of the most important human endeavors, and yet we’re at the very beginning of understanding what the brain is about.”
The Foundation’s interest in the field stems partly from her family’s own experience.
“My brother and two other members of the family have neurodevelopmental disabilities,” she says. “This got us interested in what we could do to support scientific research and services, and support for families and people with developmental disabilities. Our mission is to catalyze change along the whole spectrum of needs in this area, from basic lab research to innovative school interventions to caregiving.”
To that end, the Foundation has been proactive in seeking partners to fund neurodevelopment research and to support people with developmental disabilities such as Fragile X syndrome, autism and Down syndrome. One of the Azrieli Foundation’s leading scientific partners in this area is Hebrew University, which is home to the Azrieli Center for Stem Cells and Genetic Research. The Center is led by Dr. Nissim Benvenisty, one of the world’s leading stem cell experts.
As the pandemic affected us all, it also led to some changes at the Azrieli Foundation – in terms of funding and operations. Naomi notes that when the pandemic struck in March 2020, there was an unprecedented increase in food insecurity.
“We realized this was a huge need, and we quickly deployed funds in the area of food security in Canada and Israel at a level that we had never done before.”
In addition, the Foundation supported early-career scientists and researchers whose labs had shut down and required funds to relaunch their research. The Foundation, which operates with a great deal of due diligence in all of their funding, also allowed many grantees to redeploy grant funds for their highest priority needs in the early months of the pandemic.
And while the Foundation has always assisted the most vulnerable people and communities, the pandemic brought these needs into sharper focus.
“Terrible things can happen to people,” says Naomi. “If we have the capacity and the blessing – which we do – to be able to step up and help, then it is the most natural thing to do so.”
The Azrieli family has a long history of opening doors to opportunities for those in need and those with great potential. But when asked how those who do not have such resources can help with their own form of philanthropy, Naomi says there are several ways.
“There’s an old saying that helping takes time, talent and treasure – it’s in all of those ways,” she says. “You can speak up. You can use your talents. You can give your time and volunteer. Sometimes just focusing attention on a particular issue is as important as making the funds available to address it.”
Naomi notes that giving is a way of being. “It’s a value, a way of living your life. Living generously is much more than philanthropy, than the act of giving itself. It’s a value around which to organize yourself and the things you want to do in your life.”
And that is exactly what the Azrieli Foundation does: organize itself around helping others and effect positive change.