Remembering Sam Belzberg
Businessman and philanthropist Samuel Belzberg died on March 30 in Vancouver, after suffering a stroke several days earlier.
Belzberg, 89, was the chair and chief executive officer of Gibralt Capital Corp., which is based in Vancouver.
After moving here in 1968, Belzberg formed Western Realty with his brothers, which they sold in 1973, according to the Vancouver Sun. In 1970, he formed First City Financial, which adapted through the years, operating until 1991.
In his 60s, Belzberg reinvented himself as a private equity investor, quickly amassing significant successes. He bought out and revived the Keg restaurant chain. He also financed a Quebec-based vaccine manufacturer called ID Biomedical and took on real estate projects in Nova Scotia, California, Oregon and elsewhere.
In his later years, he became more known for his generous philanthropy. Belzberg’s parents had immigrated to Alberta from Poland just before many of their friends and family were sent to Nazi concentration camps, and it was the immigrant experience that inspired him to help others.
“Mom and Dad lost so many of their brothers and sisters, yet Canada took them in,” he told the Sun in 2003. “This country takes people in, so why shouldn’t we help people? It’s our responsibility to help. I think about it every day.”
Belzberg headed the initial $13.5 million campaign to build Simon Fraser University’s (SFU’s) Downtown Vancouver campus, a space that has since become an integral part of the city’s urban life.
SFU president Andrew Petter told the Vancouver Sun that Belzberg will have a lasting legacy at SFU. “Sam was a larger-than-life figure,” said Petter. “He was one of the builders of SFU.”
Both Belzberg and his wife, Frances, have been honoured by SFU for their leadership and contributions.
Belzberg also donated the initial $500,000 to start the Simon Wiesenthal Centre in Los Angeles in 1977 and served as its founding chairman. “Sam was both a visionary and proud Jew,” Rabbi Marvin Hier, who founded the centre, said in a statement.
On top of that, Belzberg helped found Yeshiva University High School of Los Angeles and was an active supporter of the Jewish community in Vancouver.
“Countless organizations in our community benefited from his vision and his philanthropy, including ours,” said Ezra Shanken, chief executive officer of the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver. “He had such a youthful energy about him and, every time we met, he was always open to new ideas and new ways to help Jewish life flourish. He truly cared about this community and he appreciated others who valued tikkun olam and tzedakah as he did. He and [his wife] Fran were a team and they have instilled those values in their family from one generation to the next.”
In 2001, Belzberg created Action Canada, which, in partnership with the federal government, endows 20 fellowships each year to Canadians “who want to make a difference in the world.” He also founded the Dystonia Medical Research Foundation– a cause that was very personal to him. In the 1970s, his daughter, Cheri Belzberg, was diagnosed with the rare neurological condition, which impacted her mobility and speech. “Nobody knew the first thing about it in those days,” Belzberg told the Jewish Independent in 2014.
Belzberg received the Governor General of Canada Award in 1992 and, in 2002, was promoted to Officer of the Order of Canada. In 2009, he was awarded the Order of British Columbia for his extraordinary philanthropy and community leadership.
Belzberg is survived by Frances, his wife of 68 years, his four children, 16 grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren.
Matthew Gindin is a freelance journalist, writer and lecturer. He is Pacific correspondent for the CJN, writes regularly for the Forward, Tricycle and the Wisdom Daily, and has been published in Sojourners, Religion Dispatches and elsewhere. He can be found on Medium and Twitter. A version of this article was originally published by CJN.