From Romanian poverty and the Holocaust: Marcel Adams Rose to Billionaire Real Estate Developer in Century-Long Life

By JANICE ARNOLD

MONTREAL—Born in a Carpathian mountain village to a peddler of animal hides, Marcel Adams became a billionaire through shrewd investment in the burgeoning postwar real estate boom in Canada and an extraordinary single-minded determination.

That iron will no doubt contributed to his longevity. Adams died on Aug. 11, nine days after his 100th birthday.

Marcel Adams
Marcel Adams

For years, Adams was listed among the richest Canadians by Canadian Business magazine and, in 2017, his wealth was calculated at US $1.5 billion, with assets in mostly commercial properties across the country and in the United States.

Adams immigrated to Canada in 1951 from Israel with virtually nothing and, following in his father’s trade, worked in a tannery in Quebec City. While still an employee, he took the advice of a lawyer he met at his synagogue and invested in the development of a modest residential building. Soon he had several apartments and, fortuitously, switched to commercial real estate, most profitably, shopping centres – a new phenomenon. He completed the first mall in the provincial capital in 1959.

Despite his success, Adams never fit the image of the moneyed class. Physically unprepossessing and a man of few words outside his intimates, Adams preferred to blend into the crowd and avoided honours. His philanthropy grew with the years, but he remained low-key personally, while still seen frequently at Jewish community events well into his 90s.

Writing in the Jerusalem Post, his son-in-law, McGill University history professor Gil Troy, observed: “’With his thick peasant hands…and thicker accent, Marcel loved being underestimated by elegant Canadians.” He remained famously frugal, always pleased at finding a way to save money even on the most mundane of daily expenditures, and planned each day’s agenda with a pencil and paper.

Adams knew the importance of paying attention to details and the small gains that led to broader outcomes.

Born Meir Abramovici in Piatra Neamt, Romania, the young Adams toiled in Nazi slave labour camps between 1941 and 1944, when he escaped and fled to Palestine via Turkey. There, he raised cattle and joined the army, fighting in the 1948 War of Independence.

Thanks to his proficiency in French, Adams was tapped by the Jewish Agency to serve in Algiers and Marseilles, helping to get North African Jewish refugees to Israel.

Adams founded Iberville Developments Ltd. In 1958, moving the business to Montreal in the mid-1960s. The privately-held company became one of the largest commercial real estate enterprises in Canada.

After his father left its day-to-day operations, Sylvan Adams ran Iberville. Since he made aliyah five years ago, Iberville has been headed by Sylvan’s son, Josh.

“He was a great man, a Holocaust survivor, who never complained, never looked back, only forward, as he worked hard to build a better life for himself and his family,” stated Sylvan upon his father’s passing.

Adams and his late wife Annie, also a Romanian immigrant, were particularly supportive of Tel Aviv University. Among the projects they initiated there are the Adams Institute for Business Management Information Systems and the Adams Centre for Brain Research. Annie Adams died in 1997.

In 2005, Adams established, with the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities a fellowship program providing US $1 million annually to promising PhD students. To date, 142 students have benefited, many going on to promising careers in Israel.

Although his formal education was curtailed, Adams had a keen intellect and a lifelong hunger for learning. He had a genius for mathematics and read widely, at least, anything he felt would further his practical knowledge.

“As the historian son-in-law, my ‘job’ was to feed him serious works of history, biography, current events,” Troy related. “Whenever I threw in a novel, he scoffed, meiselach (trivialities).”

Those who knew Adams remember a warm, engaging and eternally optimistic man, a great storyteller who drew on his own incredible life.

In a condolence on the Paperman funeral home website, Rabbi Allan Nadler, formerly of Congregation Shaar Hashomayim, said the Adams he knew was “’down to earth, warm and a haymisher Rumaynisher Yid who was often the anonymous donor when an urgent situation arose that required discreet charity.”

Besides Sylvan, who devotes himself to promoting Israel to the world through such spectacular events as bringing the Giro Italia cycling race to Israel for the first time, Adams is survived by his son Julian, a biochemist known for his key role in developing the drug Velcade for the treatment of myeloma; Troy’s wife Linda, a lawyer; Leora, a nurse; and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Canadians Help Fund Education, Cancer Research in Israel

Aug. 12, 2020 – By STEVE ARNOLD

Canadian philanthropists are giving more than $3 million to Israeli universities to fight cancer and clear hurdles to higher education for Ethiopian Israelis and Israel Defense Forces veterans.

For Sylvia Soyka of Markham, Ont., the money her family’s foundation is giving to Canadian and Israeli pancreatic cancer researchers is a personal commitment to overcome the disease that killed her father.

Sylvia Soyka
Sylvia Soyka

“This is very personal for me, and that’s why the project is named for my father,” Sylvia Soyka said in an interview. “The one thing I’ve come to understand about this disease is that nobody understands much about it, other than it’s very bad.

“There is an urgent need to shine a light on this disease now,” she added.

The Soyka Foundation’s grant will finance the second phase of research projects in the two countries looking for treatments and early diagnosis techniques.

Alex Soyka
Alex Soyka

Early diagnosis of the disease is especially important, Soyka said, because while her father was 90 when he was stricken, its victims are usually much younger.

“This is a young person’s disease,” she said. “Its victims go very quickly and often leave young families. It’s a horrible disease.

While progress is being made – when the first stage of the research started in 2014, the five-year survival rate for pancreatic cancer was less than five percent – today it is nine percent.

“We’re making huge progress, but even doubling the survival rate still leaves you in a pretty scary place,” she said.

Soyka would not discuss the specific amount of the donation, other than to say there’s still a huge need for support.

“To a large degree it doesn’t matter because no matter how much it is it’s still just a drop in the bucket,” she said. “There is a huge need because there is still such a knowledge gap in this field.”

The Soyka Foundation’s support will finance researchers from Hebrew University’s Institute for Medical Research Israel-Canada (IMRIC), the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research, and Israel’s Sheba Medical Center.

Ethiopian students hoping education will be their ladder up in Israeli society will get a boost from the Morris and Rosalind Goodman Family Foundation grant.

Morris and Rosalind Goodman
Morris and Rosalind Goodman

Morris Goodman, now 89, co-founded Pharmascience Inc., now the second largest privately-owned pharmaceutical company in Canada. The Goodman Foundation was endowed in 2008 and focuses on scientific research to improves public health, experiential and informal education and community capacity building.

The Montreal-based foundation is partnering with Hebrew University and Tel Aviv University to provide scholarships for needy Ethiopian Israeli students who are engaged in social, community or academic leadership activities.

Divided equally between the universities, the gift will support students pursuing graduate studies while highlighting the importance of higher education in this demographic and promoting community engagement.

Foundation president Maxyne Finkelstein said Ethiopian Israelis are held back in life because they’re denied the chance at higher education.

“In Canada people go for a second and third degree because they want to achieve the most they can,” she said in an interview. “In this case, you have a population where very few of them are able to access these opportunities.”

Israel is home to about 150,000 Ethiopian immigrants who started arriving in the country 35 years ago. According to a news release from Canadian Friends of Hebrew University, about half live below the poverty line, they are sharply under-represented in the country’s universities, and often face financial hardship in pursuing education.

Finkelstein noted that in a country where up to 45 percent of the general population has 16 years of education, only about 10 percent of Ethiopians get through to a bachelors degree.

“We looked at a gap in society and asked if there was something we could do to create greater social mobility and a real step forward toward greater financial independence and family stability for the future,” she said.

The scholarships will cover tuition and living expenses and are not targeted at any particular field of study. The only condition on the support is that applicants must do some form of community volunteer work.

“We want to advance Ethiopians in fields where they want to advance and where they feel they can make a contribution to society,” Finkelstein said. “We feel these people can be role models to other young Ethiopians, and this is an area where we can create a real social change.”

Finkelstein would not disclose the value of the gift. Applicants for the next university semester are already being recruited.

Lenny and Faigel Shapiro of Calgary are investing $625,000 in a five-year program of scholarships for young Israelis who have completed their mandatory military service but who lack money for further education.

Lenny and Faigel Shapiro
Lenny and Faigel Shapiro

“I have always been attracted to the IDF soldiers, these young people who come out of the army at age 22 and have no money to go to school,” Lenny Shapiro said in an interview.

“I want them to be able to have an education and get a degree,” he said. “When I was a young man in Montreal, I didn’t have that chance until I could go to night school.”

Shapiro made his money as head of Allied Resources Management in western Canada’s oil business. The scholarship program is currently supporting 60 students and he hopes to expand that to 100.

The value of each award is being increased. In addition of portion of the Shapiro gift will be matched by Canadian Friends of Hebrew University and Hebrew University.

The Shapiro scholarships cover tuition costs only.