Moses (Moe) Levy might not be a household name in Winnipeg, but he has quietly been one of the leaders behind the Canadian Museum for Human Rights and the Stu Clark Centre for Entrepreneurship at the University of Manitoba. After 14 years of planning the museum and receiving a mix of backlash and praise, it's finally set to open on Sept. 20. To give you a sense of how eager he is for it to open, Levy was beaming when talking about the museum.
Levy has been the executive director of the Asper Foundation for nearly 15 years and has made philanthropy a priority. Because of his dedication to human rights and fostering entrepreneurship, he's receiving the 2014 Scopus Award, which is the Hebrew University's highest honour, at a gala on May 13. Previous recipients of this award include the likes of Israel (Izzy) Asper, Frank Sinatra and Gerald Ford. The gala is being held at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.
Levy spoke to Free Press intern Danelle Cloutier this week.
FP: What does it feel like to have the museum opening in only a few months?
Levy: It's been 14 years and four months and two or six days or something that we've been working on this. Gail Asper and I worked together hand in glove, day and night, travelling here, there, everywhere and feeling dejected right after getting the news that no one wants to do this. I think the bottom line of this project is perseverance and dedication to really getting something done. It's an enormous sense of accomplishment. It's exhilarating. You put all of the challenges behind you.
FP: Who in your life has impacted you the most?
Levy: I was very fortunate to have worked with Izzy Asper. It was definitely the four most exhilarating years of my life. He challenged you and he made you think differently and he really made you reach for the stars. I know that's cliché but he really did that for me. He really became a mentor to me and almost like a father figure.
The other person who impacted me the most was my mother who was extraordinarily community-oriented. She was probably the first feminist that I knew of. She was a strong woman who really didn't think of herself as a woman, just as an equal and she did a lot for a lot of people. She shaped me into what I am today. When I grew up in Bombay there were a lot of Jews that were very poor who wanted to get to Israel but didn't have the means to get there. She single-handedly with her own resources and fundraising, literally took hundreds and hundreds of these people from the depths of poverty to change their lives. Even today when I'm in Israel and particularly in London where some of these people have done extraordinarily well, they all remember her and they just say, "If it wasn't for her, we wouldn't be who we are today."
FP: Where did your devotion to philanthropy come from?
Levy: Even when I was a really young person, I always cared for others. When some of my friends were doing things that I didn't think were appropriate, I would not participate or I would speak up against it. It has always been in my nature to do that. This is the first time I've actually ever talked about all of this to be honest. It's just part of who I am. I've always seen that -- having gone through business school -- that education and entrepreneurship, though they're not the only things, are great tools to raise people out of poverty and to give them the sense of self-worth.
FP You've worked with the Asper family for almost 15 years. Do you feel like a part of the family?
Levy: The funniest thing is that about two years after I started with the Aspers, I was introduced many times as Moe Asper. I went to Izzy one day and I said, "You know Izzy, everyone is calling me Moe Asper. I want to be one of your kids. Make sure I'm in your will (laughs)." Often because Gail and I travel so much together, she's either Gail Levy or I'm Moe Asper.
FP: Many people leave Winnipeg because they don't think there are any opportunities here for them. What made you stay here for all these years?
Levy: To be honest, at literally the same time that I got the job with Izzy, a headhunter contacted me and I got a job as the vice president of St. Clair College in Windsor, Ont. But my family was a young family at that time and they didn't want to leave. They love Winnipeg, they love the lifestyle. And if you're coming home from work and you want to pick up a pizza to bring home, it's not a four-hour affair, it's a five-minute affair. It makes your life easier and you can do other things. I was literally on the verge of maybe taking that job and Izzy offered me the job here. I'm so glad I stayed.
FP: What does the Scopus Award represent to you?
Levy: The Scopus Award is the highest honour of the Hebrew University and when you look at who the founders were of the university, like (Albert) Einstein, (philosopher Martin) Buber and some of the greatest minds that have ever walked this planet, you feel a sense of history, of being recognized by an organization that for me truly means a lot. You look at all of the people who received the Scopus Award and again, some of the greatest people in the world, and I'm not saying I'm one of them, but it makes me feel that whatever I've done is recognized. Most importantly, I have a very passionate connection to Hebrew University and it came about only because of Gail Asper and Izzy Asper because this job allowed me to go to Israel so often. Now I'm on the board of the Hebrew University. When I wasn't on the board, I attended every board meeting so I guess they said, "OK, let's let this guy in already. He's coming here all the time!" They had no choice but to let me in (laughs).
All the proceeds from the gala are going toward the Institute for Medical Research Israel Canada and they're doing some really important research. So if people haven't bought their tickets, please buy a ticket. Come, we're going to have a lot of fun.
This interview has been condensed for space.