The Anne Tanenbaum Center for Jewish Studies mourns the passing of Joseph (“Joe”) Lebovic, our supporter, friend, and visionary. Thanks to his generosity, the Center created the “Joseph Lebovic Summer Experience in Jewish Studies;” which offered students the opportunity to participate in interdisciplinary and innovative courses, such as: “Tales of Violence: Life and Death of European Jewry,” “Holocaust in Literature,” and “Mizrahim in Israel: History, Politics, and Culture.” Over the years, hundreds of undergraduate students have benefitted from the Lebovic Summer Program and went on to pursue Jewish Studies, in part, due to the rich and diverse learning experiences that they gained through these courses.
Born in Czhechoslovakia, Joe was in Budapest when the Nazis invaded Hungary. He spent some time in the Budapest ghetto, but was able to escape. In 1945, he and his father were able to escape Hungary altogether and ended up in London, where he attended Yeshiva and University of London. When in London, Joe studied economics and Jewish thought. In 1949, Joe, his brother Wolf, and their father immigrated to Canada. Eventually, the Lebovic family became one of the most significant players in Canada’s economy – building affordable housing in Scarborough, developing other areas of real estate, transforming the Toronto community, and, of course, setting an example in philanthropy.
Every year, for the past 7 years, Joe came to meet students enrolled in our classes on history of the Holocaust. He generously shared with them his life story, answered their questions about how not to lose faith, how to start from nothing, how to keep an eye on the big picture, and even how to “see a good deal” when trying to build a career in real estate. He spent hours talking to students, both in groups and one on one – with no question off limits. Later, many wrote that they were not just inspired by Joe’s resilience and his sense of humor, but above all, his kindness to them. Many of our students are first generation Canadians, and it was transformative for them to hear Joe’s story and his encouragement to try new things, to develop expertise, and to excel at things that they do best. One student wrote that it was the first time he got to learn from a businessman of Joe’s calibre, and also the first time he was able to take a photo with someone whose name is written on top of Mount Sinai Hospital Emergency wing, which he visited many times as a child.
Significantly, Joseph Lebovic served as an outspoken advocate for the academic study of Jewish history, culture, politics, and languages at the University of Toronto. His support of humanities in general, and Jewish studies in particular, in the era when universities and students increasingly lose faith in the field was crucial. The Centre, our students, and our community has been forever bettered by Joe’s incredible vision and generosity.
We will miss Joe, and we send our deepest condolences to his family. May his memory be a blessing.