The failure of prohibitively expensive Jewish education in North America plays a critical part in assimilation in the Diaspora that is leading to a lost generation disconnected from their history and their nationhood, according to a prominent Israeli-Canadian entrepreneur and philanthropist.
“We cannot afford to lose a whole generation of young people,” said Sylvan Adams on Sunday, in an interview with JNS ahead of Independence Day. “We lost enough in the Holocaust.”
“We need more Birthrights,” he said, referring to the free trips to Israel for young Jewish adults. “We need more ways of reaching our youth. We cannot love what we do not know.”
Adams, 64, who made aliyah from Canada in 2015, was chosen to light one of the 12 torches, on behalf of Diaspora communities, at the national ceremony on Tuesday evening marking the start of Israel’s 75th Independence Day.
“This is the greatest honor of my life,” he said of his part in the ceremony at Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl. “It tells me that the work I have been doing has been noticed and appreciated, and is a validation of everything I do.”
Adams said that it was incumbent to instill the future generations with a sense of pride over Jewish history, “the most interesting story of any people on Earth,” by means of a strong and affordable Jewish education.
“If we don’t pay attention to our Jewish kids, their grandchildren will not be part of the Jewish people,” he said.
His comments come at a time when many young Jews in the Diaspora increasingly focus on progressive issues of the day and are becoming disconnected from an Israel that they view as often at odds with their left-wing worldview.
“Jews have always been at the forefront of progressive issues like civil rights, abortion and environmentalism, but they knew who they were—Jews,” said Adams. “We can still be all these while being Jews.”
‘We are one people’
The billionaire has worked to change Israel’s image among non-Jews through high-profile sports and cultural activities. He said he has been frustrated by the image of Israel abroad, exacerbated most recently by the debate over the government’s judicial overhaul program, a debate that he said lacked nuance.
“We may have intra-family squabbles, but at the end of the day, we are one people,” said Adams. “Yes, we are having an argument but maybe this celebration of our country can show our leaders a more cooperative path going forward.”
“Hopefully, our politicians will get their act together and their patriotism will trump their partisanship,” he added.
Changing the image of Israel
Since coming to Israel, Adams has been focused on multiple projects aimed at reaching the silent majority of non-Jews abroad who, he said, have a negative view of Israel due to a mix of the disproportionate and unbalanced media coverage and the BDS haters.
Adams famously brought Lionel Messi and the Argentine national soccer team for an exhibition game, Madonna to the Eurovision Song Contest finals, and the French Super Cup, all in Tel Aviv. He was also responsible for organizing Israel’s hosting of the first three stages of the largest sporting event to ever touch down on Israel’s shores, the 2018 Giro d’Italia Grand Tour road cycling race.
These events brought a vastly different picture of Israel into the homes of hundreds of millions of television viewers around the world.
“I think it is very valuable to show a different face of Israel to very large audiences,” Adams said.
He has also been involved in philanthropic projects in Israel in the field of sports, education, medicine and science.
Closing a circle
Born and raised in Quebec City, Canada, to Holocaust survivors who were Zionists dating back to their years in the newly declared State of Israel, Adams served for close to 25 years as president and CEO of Iberville Developments, one of Canada’s largest real-estate development companies, founded by his father, Marcel.
Marcel Abramovich (later Adams) escaped a slave labor camp in Romania where he had to scavenge for food to avoid starving to death, and managed to get to pre-state Israel via Turkey on false papers in 1944. After fighting in Israel’s War of Independence, he became an emissary for the fledgling state in North Africa since he knew French. In 1951, he moved to Canada.
Sylvan’s mother, Annie, spent the entire war hidden in Bucharest. She set sail for Israel in 1947 only to be turned away by the British and held in an internment camp in Cyprus for six months. Her family subsequently immigrated to Canada.
Adams himself came to Israel as a youngster, where nearly four decades ago he met his British wife, Margaret, at Kibbutz Hatzor, near Ashdod, before returning to Canada.
Nearly a decade ago, on a cold Montreal winter night, Adams told her that they should immigrate to Israel.
“Let’s do it; it’ll be an adventure,” he said. “I always thought we’d end up there,” responded Margaret.
They travel back and forth as two of their four children live in the United States and two remain in Canada.
Adams said that he feels a closing of a circle being honored on Israel’s Independence Day after having made his home in the Jewish state.
“My parents are looking down on Mount Herzl and beaming with pride,” he said. “I will be thinking of them and feeling the wind at my back that they create.”