David Azrieli (Eyal Toueg)
David Azrieli, introducer of the mall to Israel. Photo by Eyal Toueg
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Tomer Appelbaum
Azrieli towers in Tel Aviv. Photo by Tomer Appelbaum

David Azrieli, the Canadian-Israeli billionaire who brought indoor shopping malls to Israel, died Tuesday, at the age of 92.

A Holocaust survivor who made his way to Israel during World War II and later moved to Canada, in 1985 Azrieli opened the Ayalon Mall in Ramat Gan, kicking off a new era in Israel consumerism. He has even been credited with coining the Hebrew word for mall, kanyon, a portmanteau of the Hebrew words for buying and parking.

“I wanted to do something for Israel because I am a Zionist and I love the country,” he told Canada’s Financial Post in a 2010 interview. “I went to a conference in 1983 and was introduced to an available location, near a dump, and I decided to build the country’s first closed mall there. If everything had gone wrong, I could have lost $20 million there, which I could afford to lose at the time, but it turned out to be a great property.”

Today, his publicly traded Azrieli Group owns some of Israel’s best known and most profitable shopping centers, including Jerusalem’s Malha Mall and the Azrieli Center in Tel Aviv. He served as chairman of the Azrieli Group until last Thursday, when he was replaced by his daughter Danna due to his deteriorating health.

Azrieli and his family were ranked by Forbes as 613 on its list of the world’s billionaires, with an estimated net worth of $2.9 billion.

But Azrieli was also known for his philanthropic activities, conducted mainly through the Azrieli Foundation he established in 1989. An architect by training, his name appears on schools and other buildings in Canada and Israel.

David Joshua Azrylewicz was born on May 10, 1922 in Poland. He later Hebraicized his last name, to Azrieli. He aspired to be a clothes designer, but with the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939 he fled to the Soviet Union.

Two years later, he was forced to flee the Nazis again when they invaded the USSR. Hidden in a hay wagon, he reached Uzbekistan and enlisted in the remnants of Poland’s pre-war army, which sent him to Iran. From there, Azrieli reached Iraq disguised as deaf-mute Arab peasant. With the help of agents from the Haganah, the underground, pre-independence army of Palestine’s Jews, including Moshe Dayan, he arrived in the Land of Israel.

Azrieli studied architecture at the Technion from 1943 to 1946 but did not complete his studies. He eventually earned a bachelor’s from the the University of Montreal, more than 10  years later. At the age of 75 he was awarded a master’s in architecture from Carleton University in Ottawa.

Azrieli fought with the Haganah and later the Israel Defense Forces in Israel’s War of Independence. He  was wounded in the Battle of Latrun.

After the war, he moved to South Africa, where he worked as a Hebrew teacher, before immigrating to Montreal in 1954. Three years later, he married Stephanie Lefcourt.

Azrieli began his real-estate career in 1956, building four homes in a Montreal suburb. The business evolved as Azrieli began building office buildings, shopping malls and high-rise apartment buildings, to become Canpro Investments.

A huge success, the Azrieli Group went public on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange four years ago. But outside of its core real estate business the group was less successful. Two years ago its holding company, Granite Hacarmel Investments, was delisted as its market value dropped.

Granite was in the process of selling its Sonol energy unit to the Israeli businessman Shlomo Shmeltzer when Azrieli died. Shmeltzer himself died suddenly on Tuesday, aged 67. Azrieli announced on Wednesday that the sale had been cancelled.

Azrieli donated generously to higher education, including to Tel Aviv University’s Azrieli School of Architecture, the Technion’s Azrieli Library for Architecture and the Azrieli Faculty of Design at Shenkar College of Engineering and Design. 

In addition to his wife Stephanie and his daughter Danna, Azrieli is survived by children Rafael, Sharon and Naomi and Danna and several grandchildren.