Tag Archives: Philanthropists

Jews of the Week: The Ghermezians

Jacob Ghermezian

Jacob Ghermezian (1902-2000) was born to a religious Jewish family in Azerbaijan, and grew up in Iran. He started a business selling Persian rugs when he was just 17 years old. Within two decades, Ghermezian became one of Iran’s wealthiest businessmen. In 1943, he hosted Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin in his apartment during the critical “Tehran Conference” where the three world leaders discussed the final stages of World War II and planned their path to victory. Unfortunately, the religious, and political situation in Iran worsened in the 1950s, so the Ghermezian family emigrated to America. After a short stay in New York, they settled in Montreal. Soon after, Ghermezian and his four sons (Eskandar, Nader, Raphael, and Bahman) discovered the inexpensive, pre-oil boom Edmonton real estate market, and heavily invested in it. The family fortune soared, and the Ghermezians soon took on their biggest project: the $1.1 billion West Edmonton Mall, which remains North America’s largest to this day (and was the world’s largest from 1985 to 2004). The 5 million square foot complex boasts a theme park (with roller coaster), indoor shooting range, an NHL-sized hockey rink (where Wayne Gretzky’s Oilers used to practice), the world’s largest indoor lake, over 800 stores, a hotel, theatre, bungee jump, and the world’s largest parking lot. The Mall was once called the “eighth wonder of the world”, and draws 32 million visitors a year. The Ghermezians also built the Mall of America in Minnesota, the largest in the United States, and are currently building the extravagant American Dream Mall in New Jersey, which will have America’s only indoor ski hill. Despite the fame and fortune, Jacob Ghermezian never abandoned his Jewish faith, nor did he ever conduct business on the Sabbath. He instilled the same values in his sons, all of whom, like their father, were tremendous philanthropists, funding schools and scholarships, synagogues, charity organizations, and other institutions in Alberta and around the world.

The Incredible Story of the Jewish Prince of Persia

An Arab Muslim in the Israeli Army

75-Year Harvard Study: Love is the Key to Health and Happiness

How to Change the World

The Faces of the Jews Left Behind

2700-Year Old Jerusalem Seal Confirms Existence of Biblical Governor

The Kabbalah of Moses’ Miracle-Working Staff

Words of the Week

To the Jews we owe the idea of equality before the law, both divine and human; of the sanctity of life and the dignity of the human person; of the individual conscience and so of personal redemption; of the collective conscience and so of social responsibility; of peace as an abstract ideal and love as the foundation of justice, and many other items which constitute the basic moral furniture of the human mind.
– Paul Johnson

Jacob and Miriam Ghermezian with their four sons in the 1990s.

Jew of the Week: Natalie Portman

Natalie Portman plays Orthodox girl Rifka in ‘New York, I Love You’

Netalee Hershlag (b. 1981) was born in Jerusalem to a Jewish-American mother and Israeli father with a mix of Russian, Austrian, Romanian, and Polish heritage. The family moved to the US when she was three years old, and young Natalie went to a Jewish day school. She spent most of her teenage years in New York, where she studied dance and ballet. When she was 11, an agent spotted her at a pizza parlour. Shortly after, she was cast alongside Britney Spears in a small role on a Broadway play. The following year, she was cast as twelve-year old orphan Mathilda Lando in the popular film Leon: the Professional. It was then that Natalie decided to use her grandmother’s maiden name, “Portman”. Her incredible performance launched her into stardom. Nonetheless, she made sure to reject all the highly sexualized roles she was being offered, later saying that “there’s a surprising preponderance of that kind of role for young girls. Sort of being fantasy objects for men, and especially this idealized purity combined with the fertility of youth… so I definitely shied away from it.” Indeed, she initially rejected a role in 1999’s Anywhere but Here because of a sex scene, and only accepted it when the script was rewritten without it. For this role, she would win a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress. Meanwhile, Portman wanted to get a proper education, even if it meant “ruining my career”. She skipped the premiere of Star Wars: Episode I (where she played beloved Queen Amidala, young mother of Luke and Leia Skywalker) to study for her high school exams, then enrolled in psychology studies at Harvard. Throughout her time there, she was a noted pro-Israel activist, and also served as Alan Dershowitz’s research assistant. Portman continued graduate studies at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, and has co-authored two scientific papers. (Even in high school she was a scientist, coming up with, and writing a paper titled, “A Simple Method to Demonstrate the Enzymatic Production of Hydrogen from Sugar”.) Portman was later a guest lecturer at Columbia University, and once said, “I’d rather be smart than a movie star.” Thankfully, she is both, with many of her films receiving rave reviews. 2006’s V for Vendetta inspired a whole movement, while 2010’s eye-opening Black Swan won her an Oscar for Best Actress. For the former film she had to shave her head, while the latter required 5 to 8 hours of dance training every day for 6 months. All in all, Portman has acted in, directed, or produced 42 films thus far. Meanwhile, the vegan Portman is an animal rights activist, and has produced an acclaimed film on cruel factory farming. She produced another to depict the plight of gorillas. She has also worked to combat poverty, and served as an Ambassador of Hope for a microlending fund, and an ambassador for Free the Children. She is a member of OneVoice, which strives to build bridges between Israelis and Palestinians. For her tireless work, last month Portman was awarded the $1 million Genesis Prize (“the Jewish Nobel Prize”), which she said would be donated primarily to support women’s causes. Portman has two children, and though she now lives in LA, has said that “my heart’s in Jerusalem. That’s where I feel at home.”

Words of the Week

Fighting evil is a very noble activity when it must be done. But it is not our mission in life. Our job is to bring in more light.
– Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe