Sylvan Adams - The ‘self-appointed envoy for Israel’

Meet the man who brought the Giro d’Italia bicycle race, Madonna and Lionel Messi to Israel and entered his Israel Start-Up Nation (ISN) cycling team in the Tour de France.

Sylvan Adams at his home in Tel Aviv (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Sylvan Adams at his home in Tel Aviv
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
 I admit that I was a bit nervous before my meeting with Canadian-born businessman and philanthropist Sylvan Adams, one of Israel’s great philanthropists. It’s not every day that I get to meet the man who brought the Giro d’Italia bicycle race, Madonna and Lionel Messi to Israel and entered his Israel Start-Up Nation (ISN) cycling team in the Tour de France. 
Yet once Adams stepped off his scooter and entered the velodrome that bears his name, waving to the children who had just completed their workout and beaming as he showed me the medals he had won in amateur cycling competitions, I realized that this was a special man. “There are even more exciting projects on the way,” he promises. “As soon as the coronavirus crisis is over, I will continue promoting Israel to the world.
“It is not ‘hasbara.’ It is telling the truth. It’s about showing the silent majority abroad who don’t know Israel – the country in which I live and love. I want to show them a different narrative from what they are constantly fed by conventional media – the real Israel.”
How does it feel to see your name on the building?
“It actually makes me feel a tiny bit taller, but it’s not just my pride – it makes us all feel a few inches taller to have a world-class facility dedicated to the youth of Israel. Every time I come here, I have to pinch myself. It’s exciting.”
IT IS difficult to define Sylvan Adams. He is the son of real estate developer Marcel Adams, who passed away in 2020 at the age of 100. The senior Adams was a Holocaust survivor who fought in the War of Independence and served as an emissary of the Jewish Agency during the early years of the state before settling in Canada. Sylvan, who is 62, absorbed the message of Zionism growing up, and when five years ago, he decided to make aliyah with his wife, he resolved that he would dedicate the next chapter of his life to Israel and the Jewish people, working to strengthen Israel’s position in the world and create a strong and positive branding through cultural events, sports, and innovation. “The first week after I arrived, I had business cards printed with a title for me that reads, ‘self-appointed ambassador-at-large for the State of Israel.’
That is what I do, and that is who I am,” he says. “I love this country and our people.” 
Regarding aliyah, he adds, “The fact that the Jews have a place in this world is the miracle of Zionism. I was truly moved to become an Israeli citizen.”
Adams’ contributions are not limited to sports and music but extend to health care and education. He is the lead donor in the creation of a new, state-of-the-art emergency ward at Ichilov Hospital (Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center), and in the construction of the Sylvan Adams Children’s Hospital at Wolfson Medical Center in Holon. This children’s hospital is the home of the “Save a Child’s Heart,” a program that offers life-saving heart surgery to Israeli and Palestinian children at Wolfson, as well as field hospitals in underprivileged countries around the world. He also donated the funds for the creation of a cellular research lab at Assaf Harofeh Hospital. 
He is a major supporter of Ben-Gurion and Tel Aviv universities. In addition, he gave the donation that permitted the creation of a brand new, state-of-the-art gymnasium at the iconic Jerusalem International YMCA, a place that unites Jerusalemites from every background, secular and religious, from all communities. 
It also houses NBA junior leagues for boys and girls, where youth from both east and west Jerusalem compete on mixed basketball teams, and, according to Adams, “get to meet and compete with each other, helping to demystify and erase community barriers. I’m very proud of this.” 
Adams adds, “I am more than just a donor. These projects excite me personally, and it’s important for me to give of myself and not just write a cheque. I care about them, and I belong to them.”
Adams, who served as honorary president of Giro d’Italia’s Big Start Israel, at the unveiling of Israel’s first velodrome in Tel Aviv on May 1, 2018 (Nir Elias/Reuters)Adams, who served as honorary president of Giro d’Italia’s Big Start Israel, at the unveiling of Israel’s first velodrome in Tel Aviv on May 1, 2018 (Nir Elias/Reuters)
 Many of your philanthropic activities are related to changing the perception of Israel in the world. As a result, we have seen the promotion of tourism to Israel. What is happening to these initiatives during the pandemic?
“We are in a difficult period because the epidemic has killed tourism. But I’m convinced it’ll be easy to revitalize it quickly. I have proof of concept, as my projects achieved impressive results in the past. For example, between 2018 and 2019, after the Giro came to Israel, we had a 38% growth in tourism – the highest increase of any country in the world. Here’s a scoop. I have a list of amazing projects. If you think that Giro, Messi, and Madonna were special, I have even more exciting projects on the way. As soon as corona ends – and I hope that we won’t need to wait much longer – I am going to continue to promote the Israeli brand around the world. The Judo Grand Prix, recently held in Tel Aviv of which I was the honorary chairman, was the first event since the COVID crisis, ands showed a small step forward towards things returning to normal.”
You speak a great deal about the importance of international events to promote Israel. How did you get the idea?
“I learned this from my experiences with people who visited here for the first time. These first-time visitors were surprised by what they saw, which was completely different from their preconceptions of Israel based on what they heard and saw in the foreign media coverage of our country. Someone once told me that he was surprised to learn there were no soldiers with guns guarding the streets. International media coverage of Israel is generally not positive. There is always a negative article about Israel. I said to myself, ‘How is it possible that such a small country can provoke so much antagonism? Most people are apolitical, love sports and music, and don’t care about politics. When you can reach them through the things they like and show them another side of Israel, it’s not propaganda. It is showing them the truth. It’s showing the silent majority who don’t know Israel, the country where I live, and the country I love.” I want to show them the other narrative – the real Israel, what I call ‘normal’ Israel.”
Adams says he felt at home from the first day he landed in Israel and arrived in Tel Aviv – “the most pluralistic, diverse, tolerant city in the world.” When I ask him if he is involved in politics, he answers simply: “I’ve been asked if I’m for the left or the right. My answer is I’m a Zionist. I work with everyone, I love everyone, and I believe there is far more that unites us than divides us.”
It’s surprising. Most people in your position are burned out. Yet, from the last half hour I have spent with you, you seem to be the most optimistic person in the State of Israel. What’s your secret? “I believe that most people are good. In Israel, I have met some of the best people. I prefer to be optimistic and happy rather than pessimistic and miserable. I think that this approach allows me to see things that people here sometimes take for granted. All in all, we have a country we can be proud of.”
Adams cycling with Chris Froome (Brian Hodes/Velo Images)Adams cycling with Chris Froome (Brian Hodes/Velo Images)
Israel is now in the midst of the worst crises it has ever known. How can we recover?
“With a few successful initiatives, it will be possible to restore national pride and unity and get people out of the depressing situation in which we find ourselves. We are one people, and we need to restore our unity through every initiative that can strengthen us both internally and externally.” 
ADAMS HEADED the company his father founded for more than 25 years and multiplied its value. He is currently the only Israeli (and one of only five Canadians) who is a member of the Giving Pledge, founded by Bill and Melinda Gates together with Warren Buffett. Pledge signatories promise to donate the majority of their wealth to charity. 
Adams expected that the Giro d’Italia bicycle race in Israel would be a great success. Yet, even he was surprised by the vast number of Israelis (close to a million people) who took to the streets to cheer on the riders – despite their lack of familiarity with the race. “It was a three-day national group hug. And, everyone came out: ultra-Orthodox and secular, Arabs, women, men, children – but as one people – proud and happy, knowing that we were on the world stage, with hundreds of millions of people seeing our entire country from north to south and with a full day focused on our national capital of Jerusalem.” 
Strengthening Israel through culture, sports, science, education, and other fields are a part of Adams’ vision, which led him to establish an investment fund promoting Israel through events: cultural, sports, and innovation, inviting Jewish businesspeople and philanthropists around the world to join him. 
After signing legendary cyclist Chris Froome to the Israel Start-Up Nation team last year, he says, “Everyone notices and follows winners, and Chris Froome is the most decorated Tour de France rider of this generation. He is the LeBron James or Leo Messi of cycling, and he rides for Israel. Imagine that!” 
Adams’ next goal is Olympic glory for Israel. “Israel has won nine Olympic medals in its history,” he says. “I have a plan for Israel to win nine medals at EACH Olympic Games. This will again bring great pride to the nation and bring our citizens closer together.”
How are you going to do that?
“The problem is that we’re not well-organized and lack financial support. But I have come up with a wonderful solution. I want to appeal to supporters around the Jewish world, both in Israel and in the Diaspora, and create a healthy competition between us. Suppose I decide to take full responsibility for the sport of cycling, as I have, and I can get another prominent individual to adopt our national swimming program. And, another to take on table tennis. And so on, for all 36 summer Olympic sports. Each supporter will bear the responsibility to bring the best structure, coaching, the best methods, and of course, the necessary funding. Through our friendly internal competition – and I tell you that I intend to win and bring home plenty of medals,” he chuckles– “we will be benefiting Israeli athletes and winning many, many more medals, which is the goal.”
Adams adds, “To give you a concrete example of how this works, in this velodrome, we are recruiting high school kids, who are learning cycling skills (there are no brakes on track bikes), and developing talents to compete abroad, on the track and on the road. The velodrome, the first such facility in the Middle East, has been open for just over a year, and we already have two internationally ranked track riders. Next year, the Tel Aviv Velodrome will host the World Junior track championships, which is a first for our country. Israelis are winners in just about anything we attempt. Our athletes can be the very best.” 
 ‘A Jewish heart is the heart of giving’
Adams was one of a very small number of Israelis invited by the US government to participate in the signing of normalization agreements with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. “Someone in the American delegation thought that the work I am doing is contributing to the advancement of peace in the region,” he says. “I was very humbled and proud to be included.”
Adams congratulates Israeli racing driver Roy Nissany after signing with British Formula One motor racing team Williams on January 15, 2020 (Corinna Kern/Reuters)Adams congratulates Israeli racing driver Roy Nissany after signing with British Formula One motor racing team Williams on January 15, 2020 (Corinna Kern/Reuters)
In fact, you and the cycling team were the first to normalize the relationship, when exactly a year ago, you rode in Dubai wearing blue and white shirts and carrying an Israeli flag. 
“I think there were several building blocks, including the Judo Grand Prix held in Dubai in the Fall of 2019 (I also support our national judo team), wherein our Israeli athlete won gold, our flag was raised, and Hatikvah was played. Several months later, my Israel Start-up Nation cycling team earned an invitation to the Tour of the UAE. Our riders rode through the streets dressed in our blue and white uniforms with the name Israel Startup-Nation – has there ever been a better name for an Israeli sports team – on our chests, and local Emiratis took pictures with us and asked for autographs. I believe that Arab leaders saw how well we Israelis were received by their people, perhaps helping to give them the confidence to engage in a formal peace with our country.”
Adams devotes his life not only to the people of Israel but to Diaspora Jewry as well. “I am saddened that the younger generation of secular Jews is losing its connection to Zionism, and even to their Jewishness. The key to engaging them is education. How can one be proud of something if one doesn’t know it – if one is not aware of the glorious and ancient story of our People?” As part of this initiative and with the belief in the importance of education, Adams helped build a new private Jewish high school in Montreal. The school is named Herzliya after the historic Hebrew Gymnasium high school in Tel Aviv that was established in 1905. Adams also contributed to an endowment fund that provides tuition subsidies that make Jewish education more affordable, as this is the biggest obstacle for parents in choosing a Jewish education for their children. 
We are hoping that this model can be exported to every major city in North America so that we raise Jewish kids and will ensure Jewish grandchildren.” 
Adams’ eyes sparkle when he speaks of his family, especially his British-born wife Margaret, whom he met while volunteering at Kibbutz Hazor in his early twenties. “I was struck by lightning when I met her. We fell in love, and are still very much in love.” Margaret underwent an Orthodox conversion, but says Adams, “I always knew she had a Jewish heart.”
How do you define a Jewish heart?
“Giving. Loving freely and helping others.” 
What’s your biggest dream?
“I don’t like to use that word because it seems to me that a dream is something unachievable. I don’t dream. I live life and try to do useful things. This country needs symbols to unite it. That’s why Olympic medals are so important to me because they engender universal national pride. We forget our differences when we share experiences. It doesn’t matter if it’s science (Adams was a partner in the SpaceIL project), health, sport, or other cultural activities. We need symbols, ancient and modern, to unite us. All my activities focus on this theme, and I am dedicated to promoting this country and Jewish identity in the Diaspora.”