Leonard Asper

My Story...

We are all part of many communities: our neighbourhood, our city, our province, our country and, indeed, our world. And, of course, many of us are deeply connected to our ethnic community.

It is this sense of belonging and connection to Winnipeg, to Manitoba, to Canada and to my Jewish community that has driven me throughout my life. I am deeply passionate about my communities, and I hope to be remembered as someone who lived by the words of the great sage, Rabbi Hillel: "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am not for others, what am I? And if not now, when?"

The imperative to make our world a better place is something I learned from my parents, Israel and Babs (née Bernstein). I am proud of my parents' leadership, their philanthropy and their many community involvements.

My father was born in 1932 in Minnedosa, Manitoba, and passed away in 2003 in Winnipeg. He was the son of Leon and Cecelia Asper who came to Canada in about 1918 from Ukraine and Russia, fleeing what had become a hostile environment for Jews. I never knew my grandfather Leon, but still have vivid memories of my grandmother playing Yerushalayim Shel Zahav (Jerusalem of Gold) on the piano and teaching us Russian, including some epithets I could hurl at opposing Russian hockey players playing against my beloved Winnipeg Jets (take that, Fedorov!).

My father was a lawyer and a politician, and spent much of his career in business. He was very active with the Canadian Friends of the Hebrew University, the Canada-Israel Committee and his creation, our family's Asper Foundation, among others. I have many warm and fun memories of him from my childhood, including driving to Falcon Lake with him in his convertible, playing football in the back yard, listening to him tell people to sit down so he could see better at the Blue Bomber games, and his willingness and ability to explain the genesis and relevance of just about every jazz note ever composed (sometimes more than the audience necessarily wanted to know!).

My mother was born in 1933 in Winnipeg to Maurice and Sarah Bernstein. They came to Canada around 1915 from Poland and Ukraine. Like my paternal grandparents, they were looking for a world more kind to Jews. They were both active in Zionist organizations and I have fond memories of golfing with them at Glendale and breaking the Yom Kippur fast at their home.

My mother worked hard to support my father through law school. She was a very active and hands-on community volunteer with the National Council of Jewish Women, Hadassah, the Winnipeg Board of Jewish Education, the Jewish Federation, the Age and Opportunity Centre and remains active with the family's Asper Foundation. When I was a kid, she made the best school lunches around, and she always supported my father's career while being a wonderful and involved parent, attending piano recitals, hockey games and all of our activities.

I was born in Winnipeg in 1964 and grew up with my siblings, David and Gail. I attended Robert H. Smith, River Heights, Kelvin High School and University of Winnipeg Collegiate. I went to B.B. Camp, was active in B'nai B'rith Youth Organization and served a term as president of my chapter, Nagid.

I earned a Bachelor of Arts degree (cum laude) in politics from Brandeis University. I later graduated from law school at the University of Toronto and became a member of the Ontario Bar in 1991, after articling with Cassels, Brock & Blackwell in Toronto. I have spent my career in business and am proud to have been named one of Canada's "Top 40 Under 40" and CEO of the year by Playback Magazine.

In 1994 I moved back to Winnipeg and in 1995 I married Susan Higgins. We met in Toronto where we live today, after living in Winnipeg until 2006. When we married, Sue was a sales representative with a clothing company. When we decided to have children, she dedicated her time to parenting and volunteering for numerous community initiatives. Today, among other things, she is an active volunteer with Ronald McDonald House. Susan converted to Judaism and has enthusiastically embraced our people and our heritage. I am so happy and grateful that together we are raising our three children — Sarah, Olivia and Matthew — to be immersed in Jewish life with energy and pride. Our daughters will soon celebrate their B'not Mitzvah together, and we are looking forward to this special moment in their lives.

I hope that the spirit of community and volunteerism that drives Susan and me will inspire our children to make their communities better places to live.

As a volunteer, I have been involved with the Jewish Federation, the Business Council of Manitoba, the Asper Jewish Community Campus, the Young Presidents' Organization, the Canadian Council of Chief Executives, the University of Winnipeg Foundation and Brandeis University.

I am perhaps most proud of my involvement with The Saul and Claribel Simkin Centre (The Sharon Home), chairing two capital campaigns. My volunteer colleagues and I were able to raise a remarkable amount of money, develop the new campus from scratch, and ensure that the elders who built this community will have a comfortable, dignified Jewish place to complete their days. The community's enthusiasm for the project was inspiring and working with so many leading lights was an honour.

I am also extremely proud of my work with the Joshua Foundation, a foundation that Susan and I have developed to provide general support for Winnipeg and the Jewish community. We have a special focus on domestic abuse, aboriginal children, adult education, immigrant assistance and youth poverty in Winnipeg's inner-city. The experience has been eye-opening and truly gratifying.

I am an active volunteer and donor because I believe that life is a circle. If you work hard and are successful, you have a responsibility to give back. If you have had some luck along the way, you must recognize that someone else out there is not quite as lucky as you.

It's my hope that my Endowment Book of Life gift will help strengthen my community and perpetuate the ideals that are important to me. I hope that my gift will help the Jewish Foundation support institutions in the Jewish and general community, and help Winnipeg remain a dynamic and safe place.

I look forward to a future where our Jewish community grows even stronger and contributes even more to life in Winnipeg. Success as a community depends on our population, our passion and our presence, both spiritual and physical. We need to participate even more in the growth and development of Manitoba, and we need our own institutions to be active, visible, robust and meaningful. We can simultaneously celebrate and advance our Jewish heritage and our Canadian identity. This is what I have learned from my parents, and this is what Susan and I teach our children. And to me, this is what the Jewish Foundation of Manitoba Endowment Book of Life is all about.