Shades of Indigo

Canadian book mogul Heather Reisman says the world needs more Israel.

By LISA GREEN
May 18, 2006 09:04
reisman 88 298

reisman 88 298. (photo credit: Courtesy Photo)

 
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The head office of Heather Reisman's Toronto-based Indigo Books & Music - Canada's largest book and music chain - intentionally evokes the Canadian flag. A striking red wall provides contrast with the otherwise white lobby, while big, bold white type across the wall proclaims, "The World Needs More Canada." While Reisman makes patriotic use of the Canadian flag at home in Toronto, close friends know the Israeli flag is just as dear to her. When you hear Reisman talk about Israel, you cannot help but think that if the world needs more Canada, it also needs more Canadians like Reisman spreading its values across the world stage. As the other half of Canada's power couple - her husband, Gerry Schwartz, is chairman of Toronto-based buyout powerhouse Onex Corp. - Reisman is carefully and deliberately building a network of friends and political and business interests that could help secure Israel's future. It's a tall order, but Reisman is no stranger to diplomacy. Simon Reisman, her uncle, struck a free trade deal with the US in the late 1980s amidst a storm controversy, ultimately knocking down centuries of protectionist politics separating the two countries. Throughout his career, Reisman fought stubbornly for the freedom to compete, because he felt it was best for the next generation. Canada has not looked back. A chat with Heather Reisman at the Indigo offices two weeks ago reveals she shares his dedication to cultivating the next generation - though in her case, the focus of her efforts is on Israelis. She likens Israel to a diamond created from tremendously intense pressures; in Israel's case, she says, the pressures originate from hostile neighbours and the insatiable scrutiny of the world press. "I think what people have to understand and appreciate about Israel is just how tiny it is," said Reisman, "… and also how unbelievably demanding it is to be this tiny country, the only democratic country in the midst of such hostility. All around [Israel] there is intense hostility. I think that's important, because if you're not there and you don't actually look at it and get into a helicopter and realize that you can traverse the country from one end to the other in just under twenty minutes and see just how proximate those borders are. Then if you hear about Israel in the news, and someone was to read about Israel from another planet and not know, you would think that Israel occupied half the earth. That's one of the burdens that Israel operates under... and yet it is so small relative to the vast Arab world around it." She is sitting comfortably in her office on a dark brown leather armchair, sipping a cup of Starbucks in front of the impressive wall of books adorning the room. On the adjacent wall are photographs showing her with her husband and former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon, and with generals and dignitaries on Israeli military bases and airfields. They are a roadmap of her travels to Israel over the past two years. Reisman was born in Montreal in 1948 and says she's always had a strong attachment to Israel. She proudly raised money to plant fir trees in Israel as a Hebrew school student, hanging a picture of David Ben-Gurion on her bedroom wall as a teenager. "I always felt proud of being Jewish. I was always interested in Israel. Israel was just a part of who I was, and who I am, all my life," she says. When Reisman and Schwartz first visited Israel with their four pre-teen children, both vowed they would return "and find some way to be more engaged in Israel." But doing so took longer than planned, with both husband and wife spending the following years building careers that left them controlling huge companies. After graduating from Montreal's McGill University, Reisman co-founded Toronto-based Paradigm Consulting, a "change management firm," in 1979. She left in 1992 to run Cott Beverages. A clash with the chairman eventually led to her departure, with most analysts later saying Cott had been the loser. In 1996, she founded what became a 14-store book chain called Indigo, and five years later bought out rival company Chapters, Inc., the dominant Canadian bookseller. Sales are now at record levels, up significantly from the $788 million reported for the last fiscal year. As Reisman rose in professional stature, she and Schwartz lent their support to countless Jewish and Israeli charities. The couple also began to entertain Israeli dignitaries, many of whom are now good personal friends, in their sumptuous home in Toronto's tony Rosedale district. But Reisman credits Moshe Ronen, vice president of the World Jewish Congress, and a former president of the Canadian Jewish Congress, for ramping up their commitment to Israel when he brought them into the country on a first-class whirlwind tour. "We had already made some very good friends and we extended those relationships, spent more time, and then met more and more people who were in politics, in business and academics, in the military, helping to shape what is happening in Israel and helping to further engage us in what was happening. We found it irresistibly compelling," says Reisman. "Every time we were in Israel, we just became more and more and more attached to being there and to the people as we were building relationships." For the past several years, Ronen has quietly brought Canada's power elite to Israel, believing that the best way to understand Israel is to see the country itself. Schwartz participated in one such mission in June 2004, and was followed by Reisman six months later. Since then, boosting Ronen's organized trips has become a major focus for Schwartz and Reisman. Ronen has become the managing director of the couple's burgeoning Israeli affairs office in Toronto, while Aviv Bushinsky, a former chief of staff in the office of Binyamin Netanyahu, manages their offices in Tel Aviv. So far, the couple's involvement has revolved mostly around charitable activities, but Schwartz's Onex Corp. has reportedly looked at acquiring or investing in several Israeli businesses, including most recently Israel Discount Bank. Reisman says the couple is also talking about buying "our own little apartment in Israel," now that the pair are making between four and six trips to Israel each year. Reisman and Schwartz are currently in Israel until May 21. Schwartz is here to receive an honorary doctorate from Tel Aviv University, while Reisman will be visiting her offices at HESEG, a foundation the couple established a little over a year ago. HESEG gives full university scholarships and financial support to "lone soldiers" - soldiers who have no family in Israel - after they leave the army. She and Schwartz first heard about Israeli lone soldiers two years ago, when the couple attended the Olympic Games in Athens. Two ex-Shin Bet agents were protecting their group of 14 friends on a private yacht. A conversation with one of them, Matan, during a morning run along the beach, revealed the plight of lone soldiers in the IDF. At any one time, there might be 5,000 of them in the IDF; Matan had been one of them. Lone soldiers are young people who come from countries outside Israel and leave their families and comforts of home to join the Israeli army. Their army buddies serve as quasi-family during their stay in the IDF, but after demobilization, when ex-Israeli soldiers move on to university, many lone soldiers must pack up and go home or are unemployed, because they lack the financial resources to postpone work for education. After hearing this story, Reisman and Schwartz decided to help. Six months later in Israel, they set up the HESEG Foundation, endowed it with several million dollars and assembled an impressive board of directors that reads like Israel's Who's Who. They are now planning to give HESEG permanent visibility in Israel by building HESEG House, a soon-to-be constructed drop-in center that will act like a campus for HESEG scholars. The building they are hoping to buy will also serve as the hub for their other Israeli philanthropic activities and ventures. The meaning of heseg in English is "achievement." Reisman's big ambition is to attach to the name of the HESEG scholarship the same level of high character standards associated with Rhodes scholars to Oxford or Fulbright scholars to academic institutions worldwide. Among the criteria for Rhodes scholars are displays of truth, courage and devotion to duty and above all, a moral force of character and instincts to lead. HESEG scholars must also have a deep commitment to the wellbeing of fellow Israelis and a criterion is engaging in community projects, Reisman says. Her dream is to build this network of HESEG scholars into an intelligentsia capable of forming the next generation of Israeli leaders. It's also her opportunity, as well as Schwartz's to give back to the "volunteers of the volunteers," she says. "Because what we're looking for are people who have demonstrated leadership, commitment and above average intelligence, really the cr me de la cr me of the IDF. Of the people who apply, we're looking for the absolute best because what we're hoping is that these people who make such a brave decision to come to Israel at such a young age - that we will in fact be creating a young network of leadership that will then go into Israeli society and have an impact... in whatever field they choose and in the very fabric of Israeli society," Reisman says. In the beginning, it was complicated for Bushinsky and Ronen to find the lone soldiers, "because we had to trace the lone soldiers who had already been in the army and left, because we had to give them the option to apply," Bushinsky says. But now candidates apply easily on the Internet at www.heseg.com. A fairly intimidating selection committee of Reisman's powerful HESEG board members then grills final candidates after they are vetted by their base and unit commanders. Initially, HESEG selected more than 100 former lone soldiers, but the number of new scholars accepted will grow annually. The circulating HESEG scholars will become "family" to each other with Reisman and Schwartz serving as surrogate parents. The definition of a lone soldier is also being relaxed so Israeli-born soldiers without connections or resources can also apply, Bushinsky says. "There is a small percentage from broken homes or from religious homes and their parents essentially sit shiva for them when they enter the army … but once the army classifies them as a lone soldier, then the foundation does not discriminate." The 15-person Advisory Board itself represents the top echelon of Israeli leadership today and would-be HESEG scholars themselves had they been awarded in their day. It is chaired by Professor Itamar Rabinovitch, the president of Tel Aviv University and formerly Israel's ambassador to Washington. It also includes Shabtai Shavit, the former head of Mossad, and other former decorated generals and leading Israeli businesspeople. Active soldiers like Lt. Colonel Mike Hartman, who is a lone soldier himself and who leads the IDF's sharpshooting school, sit on the board. As does Ofra Strauss, a well-respected Israeli businesswoman, who runs Strauss-Elite Group, her family's dairy, chocolate and coffee business, whom Reisman describes as "a dynamo and a leader and inspiring." She is also Reisman's personal friend. At the ceremony launching HESEG a few months ago in Tel Aviv, Vice-Premier Shimon Peres said of Schwartz and Reisman, "You are helping today, some of the best young Jewish people, to escape their loneliness, so they will be able to help us escape our loneliness." The short-term goal, says Reisman, is that "we're helping HESEG scholars get an education." But the long-term is, "We are helping create a rich group of leaders to take Israel well into the 21st century." Reisman and Schwartz view HESEG as their single most important contribution to Israel. When they sponsored basketball for the 17th World Maccabiah Games last summer, the HESEG logo decorated center court of the Stadium floor. Among other initiatives, they also recently made a multi-million-dollar commitment to Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids) which will see Israeli pediatric fellows taking sabbaticals at SickKids and pediatric specialists from Toronto coming to Israel. The couple supports another exchange initiative between business students at the University of Manitoba and Tel Aviv University. Another crowning achievement is Reisman's donation of the Peace Library to the Shimon Peres Peace Center, which is wholly dedicated to the promotion of peace in the Middle East and throughout the world. When the Center's construction is finally completed, a chief librarian Reisman has hired in Israel will select with Peres materials on peace, conflict, conflict resolution and political leadership styles; it will also house all of Peres' personal papers. Located along the beach in a magnificent setting right between mostly Jewish Tel Aviv and mostly-Arab Jaffa, the center's ideals and design by the world-renowned architect Massimiliano Fuksas are aimed at bridging gaps. Reisman aims at doing the same. While she admits she won't stop talking from time to time with the new owners of the 150-store Steimatzky bookstore chain (taken over last October by strategic buyout fund Markstone Capital Partners Fund), she is also interested in "effecting creative dialogue," believing "that Canadians are in a wonderful position to do that," she says. WHENEVER REISMAN and Schwartz travel to Israel, they bring along with them an impressive coterie of Jewish and non-Jewish friends. Reisman says it enriches her own perspective to hear other people's perspectives about Israel; she also hopes guests will walk away with a better sense of Israel's vulnerability, the democratic and moral principles it upholds - and its opportunities. They are joined now along with Ronen by an eclectic cast of about 20 stars - that includes Hollywood actor and Canadian-born comedian Dan Aykroyd and his wife Donna Dixon, Canadian Auto Workers' president Buzz Hargrove and his wife Denise Small and Jonathan Deitcher, a senior executive of RBC Dominion Securities. Michael Budman, co-founder of the Canadian athletic clothing retailer Roots (who outfitted the 2006 USA Winter Olympic team and the Canadian Maccabiah basketball team) and his architect wife Diane Bald are with them. As is Rob Prichard, president and chief executive officer of Torstar, Canada's leading national daily newspaper, who has been in Israel with them on more than one occasion. Perhaps most intriguing to the business elite is the arrival of 44-year-old corporate heavyweight, Mitchell Goldhar, president and CEO of Toronto-based SmartCentres, who owns and manages 160 large-format shopping centers across Canada that are occupied by such flagship tenants as The Home Depot, Best Buy/Future Shop and the stores of his joint venture partner Wal-Mart Inc. Goldhar last year took an even bigger interest also in Toronto-based Calloway REIT, Canada's largest shopping center real estate income trust, by transferring more of his SmartCentre assets into Calloway coffers in a $1.2 billion transaction (taking his interest from almost 18% to 27% with an option to take it as high as 40%). Reisman's own activities have already caused ripples in Canada. On her first mission with Ronen two years ago, she brought along Tony Comper, the president and CEO and former chairman of Bank of Montreal, and his wife Liz. They immediately went home and launched FAST, Friends Against Anti-Semitism Together. FAST, along with the help of the Canadian Jewish Congress, has since developed a curriculum program for Canadian public schools addressing bigotry and anti-Semitism called "Choose Your Voice." The DVD and learning guides - which feature personal stories of Holocaust survivors - were endorsed by an impressive list of signatories from the non-Jewish heads of almost every major Canadian financial institution, the likes of BCE Inc. and major Canadian oil and steel companies. Back home at Indigo, "Heather's Top Picks" are as coveted as Oprah Winfrey's and an author's circulation skyrockets when Reisman gives the nod. Not surprisingly books on the Middle East top her list - particularly since her involvement with the Peres Library has accelerated her reading on the topic - provoking more Canadians to read them. While she is optimistic about Israel's future and its chances for peace, she also acknowledges that as the shadow of World War II and the "veneer of guilt for the Holocaust wanes," the rationale for the international community to strongly support the Israeli state could be forgotten. Reisman will do her part in re-telling the story whenever she can while she culls a new generation of HESEG leaders to spread it by word and deed. "What's really going on is a clash between western values and the more extreme pockets of the Muslim community," says Reisman. "Israel is just a sideshow and a useful way to deflect attention by those who don't want to deal with the real problems at home."

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