Canadian-Israeli philanthropist Sylvan Adams builds cohesion through sport

Adams completed the center after construction of the complex was halted by a lack of funding for nearly a decade.

Israel Cycling Academy co-owner Sylvan Adams (right, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu) (photo credit: SHAHAR TZARFATI)
Israel Cycling Academy co-owner Sylvan Adams (right, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu)
(photo credit: SHAHAR TZARFATI)
Canadian-Israeli philanthropist Sylvan Adams celebrated the opening last week of the Sylvan Adams Sports Center at the Jerusalem YMCA, the largest facility of its kind in the Middle East, made possible by the Montreal-born philanthropist who moved to Tel Aviv in 2016.
The Jerusalem Post sat down with Adams to discuss his passion for the creation of this complex, his role in bringing the Jr. NBA to Israel, and his further philanthropic involvement.
“I am extremely proud and frankly a little humbled to be involved in this 140-year-old iconic institution. For me, this is the most important YMCA in the world,” said Adams of Jerusalem’s historic YMCA, located on King David Street, which is one of the few neutral places in the capital where Jews, Christians and Muslims can socialize and engage in sporting and social events.
“It’s a very special place given that Jerusalem, our beautiful city of Jerusalem, is home to the three Abrahamic religions and people come from all walks of life here. They come from all religions, all levels of religious observance, and here everyone works out and plays together.”
Adams believes that having a state-of-the-art facility where everyone feels welcome contributes to social cohesion.
“It’s a unifier for the city, a city which has such a diverse population, and is frankly a symbol for the country,” said Adams. “We actually can get along if we focus our energies into positive things.”
Adams, himself a competitive cyclist, became interested in the Jr. NBA program through his friend Larry Tannenbaum, who owns the Toronto Raptors. Tanenbaum and a group of NBA franchise owners visited Israel in 2017, and decided to launch the Jr. NBA basketball clinic as a way to promote understanding among Jewish and Arab Israeli youth.
“It was a natural partnership with the NBA, that is doing this kind of outreach,” Adams said. “This is great to develop the sport, and maybe it will inspire some kids to come out here [to the Jerusalem YMCA] and bring their [game] to the highest level in the sport and have another Omri Casspi or another Israeli playing at the highest level some day.
“It’s great to give them the NBA jerseys, which is inspirational for them, but I look at it more as building from the grassroots level. Sports is a language unto itself. The Jr. NBA kids are all playing the same thing. They all know what the objective of the game is and they [begin] to care less about the things that divide them. And you know, maybe they will make friendships here that will last a lifetime,” said Adams.
“Sports in general are great unifiers of people.” he continued. “If you live in isolation of one another, the chance of you having benevolent thoughts about your neighbor are much lessened. If you’re playing sports together, seeing each other [regularly] and have common ground, the chances of you developing those friendships that could last a lifetime are significantly higher.”
Construction began on the YMCA’s sports complex nearly a decade ago. Running out of funding, the facility remained stalled for many years until the YMCA met with Adams and asked the philanthropist to  assist in finishing the center.
“It took me about five minutes to decide that this was the project for me,” Adams said. “This is the place where we have the most diversity. At this kind of a facility (one that holds no religious affiliations), under the auspices of the YMCA which [holds] neutral ground for everybody, this is the place to be.”
Adams’s pride in being Israeli and his all-encompassing perspective is the result of his childhood.
“I grew up in Quebec City and there were very, very few Jews. You would hear antisemitic remarks from ignorant kids who were repeating things that they heard. I had a few [altercations] in school to defend my honor,” he said.
The child of two Holocaust survivors, Adams is horrified that bias against Jews is again socially acceptable.
“Antisemitism is a scourge and a disease that we thought was eradicated after the horrors of the Holocaust. My parents are Holocaust survivors, and we thought the words ‘Never again’ really meant never again. It is quite shocking today... that people can actually voice antisemitic opinions. That it is coming from both the extreme right and the extreme left is even more disheartening.”
Adams settled in Tel Aviv after making aliyah in 2016. “Israel is a beacon, and is home to the world Jewish community,” he said, “My wife always thought that her and I would end up here. She said, ‘Let’s do it. It will be an adventure,’ and she was right on both accounts. We really found our home here.”
Since settling here, Adams has dedicated his time to several notable projects in Israel. Last year he brought the launch of the Giro d’Italia bicycle race to Israel, marking the first time since the annual multiple-stage bicycle race was founded in 1909 that it began outside Europe. More recently, he contributed $5 million to the SpaceIL project planning to send an unmanned Israeli space probe to the Moon. Now with the opening of the Sylvan Adams Sports Center at the Jerusalem YMCA, along with the Israeli Jr. NBA headquartered there, Adams is continuing to shape Israel in his vision of sports, culture and science.