Sylvan Adams thinks big.
Instead of joining a bike club, the 60-year-old philanthropist and cycling expert co-founded Israel’s cycling academy and not only hosted but competed last year in the largest global cycling competition, the Giro d’Italia.
Instead of admiring countries with space programs, he became a partner in Israel’s first attempt to land a rocket on the moon – the Beresheet project – and traveled to Cape Canaveral in February to witness the launch.
And instead of sitting with friends on May 18 and watching the Eurovision finals on TV in his Tel Aviv penthouse, he’s paying a hefty sum to Madonna to come to Israel and perform live at the competition.
“I got involved with all of these projects for the same reasons,” said Adams last week, sitting in his sunlit living room with the Mediterranean and Tel Aviv’s skyline in the backdrop. “They all demonstrate Israel’s capabilities and best aspects to the world, and at the same time engender national pride.”
Wiry and fit, of course, with a natural curiosity and boyish enthusiasm, Adams made his fortune in real estate in his native Quebec as president and CEO of Iberville Developments, one of Canada’s largest real-estate development companies, founded by his father, Marcel, one of Canada’s most successful real estate developers.
A relatively recent immigrant to Israel after making aliyah with his wife, Margaret, in 2015, the “self-appointed Ambassador at large, for Israel” – as his business cards proclaim – is adamant that his “big” approach to putting the spotlight on his adopted country is the most effective way to win it new friends.
“When we made aliyah, I decided that I’m going to devote the next chapter of my life to promoting Israel. And I believe that doing these types of events is speaking to a massive majority out there in the world who don’t have a dog in the fight. They’re not political, but they generally have a negative impression of this country, due to the steady drumbeat of negative news coming from here,” said Adams, who also funds some 25 educational, cultural and health projects throughout the country.
“What the Giro did was to have a helicopter filming, six hours a day, the entire country. This is publicity you can’t buy – we were reaching regular people, a billion first-time visitors to Israel via their TV sets experiencing the country unfiltered, unvarnished, no hasbara or lecturing or two sides being balanced.”
Eurovision and its special guest, Madonna, are part of the same strategy, according to Adams.
“Eurovision is the largest singing competition in the world, but it’s barely known about in North America. My idea in bringing Madonna is to achieve a couple of goals. I want this to be the most viewed Eurovision ever. Tel Aviv and Israel are going to be in the spotlight, and it’s important to me that people tune in,” he said.
“The other goal is to engage other parts of the world – specifically North America – that might not know about Eurovision, and bringing Madonna will add that visibility.
“Eurovision has such a high profile, and it’s going to show such beautiful footage of Tel Aviv and the rest of the country. My experience with people who are exposed to Israel for the first time is that they are blown away, they can’t believe what they’re seeing.”
Approaching Madonna as the star attraction was a no-brainer for Adams.
She’s performed in Israel twice, has visited on numerous other occasions, and has expressed an affinity with the country and with Judaism via her Hebrew name Esther and her interest in Kabbalah.
“She’s a genuine friend of Israel, and she knows firsthand what our detractors – the lunatics from the BDS world – say is not true. She’s well aware about Eurovision and was keen to give it a boost,” he said, adding that the singer, who has a new album coming out, was also a “good businesswoman.”
Demurring at revealing his favorite song by the Material Girl, Adams said that he was also unable to divulge which songs Madonna would be performing at the contest next week, but said that she was bringing dozens of dancers and backup musicians with her, and added without irony that her performance at the swanky extravaganza would “add some glitz and glamour.”
ADAMS’S LIFE has had no shortage of glamour, but has been grounded by a solid upbringing based on Zionism and Jewish values that found him deeply entwined with the Jewish homeland.
His parents were both Holocaust survivors from Romania. His father escaped from a forced labor camp in Bucharest in 1942, made his way to Palestine and ended up fighting in the War of Independence before becoming an emissary for the fledgling state in North Africa.
He eventually made his way to Canada, where he met his future wife who had spent World War II in hiding in Bucharest. She and her family arrived in Palestine in 1947, but were turned away by the British and spent six months in an internment camp in Cyprus.
“It was just like the story from Exodus,” said Adams. “After Israel was declared, they came back, and my mother went to high school just down the road from here in Jaffa. But my grandfather didn’t like the weather here, and they ended up immigrating to Canada.”
Growing up, Adams and his three siblings heard stories about his parents’ adventures and became staunch Zionists. He visited Israel for the first time in 1972 when he was 14, and returned two years later to spend the summer at a Hashomer Hatzair kibbutz.
“It was the best summer of my life by far – freedom, fun, mixing with the kibbutz kids, and, of course, there were girls. What could be better?”
A fateful visit took place during a post-MBA yearlong European jaunt in the early 1980s.
“I worked my way south and took a ferry from Cyprus to Israel when it started to get cooler in the fall. I went to the kibbutz office in Tel Aviv and asked them to send me to a kibbutz that was fairly in the South, and they sent me to Hatzor near Ashdod. There I met a lovely British volunteer, with whom I just celebrated my 35th wedding anniversary. I was struck by lightning,” said Adams.
He returned to Montreal from his year abroad married.
For two people who met and bonded in Israel, it still took decades for the Adamses – who raised four children – to decide to move here, a moment he recalled vividly.
“We always spoke in a general way about how nice it would be if we ended up in Israel. But one day, about five years ago, I came home on a dark Montreal afternoon in the winter where it gets dark around 3:30 p.m. and I said, ‘Margaret, what do you think about moving to Israel?’
“She said two things – ‘I always thought we’d end up there’ and ‘Let’s do it, it will be an adventure.’
“And she was right on both counts. It’s been absolutely great. Listen, I joke with people, when I take them out on the balcony overlooking the sea and Tel Aviv, that it’s not too hard to make aliyah when you have this view.”
Assessing the country after three years as an Israeli, Adams is able to take off his rose-tinted glasses and see some blemishes, but finds that the benefits far outweigh the obstacles.
“Israel faces many of the same problems as all Western societies, which are expensive housing, economic inequality. They’re not problems unique to Israel, nor will the likely solutions found be unique to Israel. But Israel has become a modern country in the last 25 years. We’re a Western country with a Middle East approach to driving,” said Adams.
But despite the thrust into Western modernity, Israel is still retaining its unique Jewishness, he added.
“We recently celebrated Passover – it’s something the whole country marks, whether they’re religious or not, because we live according to the Jewish calendar. It’s something quite wonderful, especially for a new immigrant,” said Adams, who describes himself as secular but traditional.
“If I have anything to say to Diaspora Jews, it’s that there’s something exceptionally special about living a Jewish life without needing to practice religion. I’ve never experienced that before.
“When I got my Israeli citizenship, I felt very proud, and I haven’t felt less proud for one solitary moment since we’ve been here. Nobody celebrates Yom Ha’atzma’ut more than we do.”
Adams’s only real disappointment since moving to Israel has been the failure of Beresheet to land safely on the moon’s surface. At the SpaceIL Yehud headquarters with his partner philanthropist Morris Kahn, the technical team and all the dignitaries including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Adams couldn’t hide his dismay when it became clear that the craft had fallen short of achieving its goal.
“I knew instantly it had crash-landed. We landed on the moon but in a million pieces. I can’t say that it was triumphant in any way, shape or form,” said Adams, who admitted that he was naturally a very competitive person.
“If I have to look at the whole project, I would say that it’s a little bittersweet. Of course, we got to the moon. If you saw any of the description of how complicated it was to get within the moon’s orbit, it was like a bullet hitting a bullet. So the technological know-how and the computational models were all fantastic. Everything worked like clockwork, except for the landing aspect. It was a very big disappointment for me, and when I woke up the next day, I have to say, I was depressed at how this wonderful mission ended up.”
Still, Adams is already in talks about helping to finance Bersheet II, and is optimistic that it can be done with much less money and time.
“All we need is the hardware and a correction of the mistake that was made in the landing phase.”
SHOOTING FOR the moon might be the metaphor that describes better than anything Adams’s attitude toward life. He sees a problem and tries to fix it, whether its funding a children’s hospital at the Wolfson Medical Center, a new emergency room at Ichilov Hospital, a new state-of-the-art fitness center at Jerusalem’s YMCA, or a sports institute to train Olympic hopefuls at Tel Aviv University, where he is about to receive an honorary doctorate.
“It’s about providing the best support possible to enable Israel to win medals,” he said. “It’s very important for the pride of the country.”
Pride is what Adams hopes will also shine down on Israelis through Eurovision, and he expects millions of people around the world to have the same emotion.
“That experience of first-time visitors that I achieved on a massive scale with the Giro, we will achieve again with Eurovision. There will be 188 million viewers. We can tell our story to a few politicians or businesspeople or tourists who come to Israel. But this is a way to reach the massive silent majority that is being brainwashed by a false narrative about Israel... my job is to do that.”
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